Waking Up Your Teen
Mike Stilwell, a stay-at-home father in Alexandria, Va., felt like a "snooze alarm." His 17-year-old son, Patrick, often had trouble rolling out of bed in the morning and making it to school on time. On a typical day, Stilwell told Patrick it was time to get up, and then he went about his own morning routine. Five minutes later, Stilwell called for Patrick again, but Patrick was still in a deep slumber.
"It got to the point where he was using us like a snooze alarm, and he would know we were going to come back in five minutes so he would fall back asleep," Stilwell says. As a result, this father would actually go into his teen's room and stand there until the boy actually got out of bed and put his feet on the floor.
Experts say sleep deprivation is a common problem for teenagers who often have social events until late at night and are expected to be at school in the early morning. Unbeknownst to many parents, teenagers may become moody or have increased appetites due to sleep deprivation, and teens actually need more sleep than the average child or adult.
Stilwell, a self-proclaimed "morning person," says it took about a month before Patrick began to get up on his own without nagging and prodding. This year, Patrick has only missed the school bus once.
To achieve this positive outcome, the Stilwells made some fundamental changes in Patrick's evening routing. They encouraged Patrick to get his backpack and school supplies ready in the evening. "The only thing he had to do was get up and take care of his personal items," says Stilwell.
Dr. Richard D. Simon, Jr. specializes in sleep medicine at Kathryn Severyns Dement Sleep Disorders Center at St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash. He says people have a group of cells in their brains that account for their biological clocks.
"These cells are programmed to turn on for about 16 hours a day, and they turn off for about eight hours at night usually," Dr. Simon says. "Those cells stimulate us to stay awake. The longer we are awake, the more the brain develops a need to sleep. So the longer I am awake, the sleepier, if you will, my brain gets."
Dr. Simon says many teens build up a significant sleep debt by staying up late. He recommends parents allow their teenagers to participate in evening football games and social events but to keep the morning routine consistent.
"The emphasis on sleep should be on when you wake up – not when you go to sleep," he says. "It should be getting up at approximately the same time every day and getting as much bright light as possible."
According to Dr. Simon, the average human requires eight and a half hours of sleep on a consistent basis, and a teenager needs one half-hour to an hour more. One of the reasons teens need more sleep is that most of the growth hormone secretions occur during stages three and four of sleep.
Dr. Simon speculates that the low average of teen sleep, about six or seven hours each night, may contribute to a teen's risk for depression and even car accidents. He also thinks that sleep deprivation could be partly to blame for teen drug use.
" ... it's a very hard problem and there are no easy solutions because the timing of the activities that we ask of our teenagers is not physiologically sound with the amount of sleep they require," says Dr. Simon. "You cannot have these kids staying up until 10, 11 or 12 at night for school-sponsored social events and then be expected to be in school the next day at 7 and function."
Although it would be nice for high schools to delay their start times, that's not likely to happen, and most high schools have start times that require teenagers to get up as early as 5:30 a.m.
Dr. Simon says it is possible for people to move their biological clocks and change the timing by about one to two hours a day. "It depends on when we expose our eyes to bright light and dark," he says. "The human brain can change about an hour or two per day."
Dr. Simon says teenagers have a genetic tendency to be night owls. Since parents want to treat their teenagers like adults, they allow them to stay up late throughout the week, not realizing teens need more sleep – not less – than their younger siblings.
By Friday, many teenagers have already built up significant sleep debt before they start their late-night weekend activities. "Because teenagers are teenagers, they have lots of energy, and Friday night it's important to go to the football game and dance afterwards," Dr. Simon says. "So they do, and they stay up until midnight or so and go to bed like they are supposed to, and they fall asleep quite nicely. But because they are good kids, Mom or Dad lets them sleep in. They get up then at 10 or 11 the next morning because they are exhausted, and there is that huge sleep debt that drives that sleep."
Dr. Simon says the teen's biological clock is reset because he doesn't see light, for example, until 11 a.m. "If the brain wakes up at 11 in the morning, then it does not turn off until 2 or 3 in the morning," he says. "So this goes on Saturday night also, and then Sunday night, Mom or Dad tries to put their kids to bed at 9 so they get plenty of sleep and ... can get up at 7 for classes, and the kids can't fall asleep; they sit up and watch television, they listen to the radio, they surf the Internet and yell at their mom and dad until 1 or 2 in the morning when they finally fall asleep. Then 6 comes when it is time to wake them up for school, and Mom and Dad can't get them to wake up."
This problem is further compounded by the fact that it is still dark out in many cities around the country when teenagers get up for school in the morning. And what's the first thing a sleepy teen will reach for in the darkened morning? "In my day it was Coca-Cola and Pepsi," says Dr. Simon. "Now it's espresso. The problem is the caffeine helps them stay awake in the daytime, but caffeine has a six-hour half life, which means when you have a cup of coffee, six hours later half of it is still around. Caffeine also fragments sleep; even though you don't think it affects your sleep, it greatly does."
Barbara S. Natoli, the executive director at Applied Behavioral Associates, LLC. in Framingham, Mass., has two sons, ages 16 and 20. She recommends sticking to a consistent routine as well as minimizing highly stimulating or stressful activities at least one hour prior to bedtime. Don't be afraid to set a curfew and give teenagers limits. Create a dark, quiet sleep environment at night.
"If children are very hyperactive or excitable, relaxation techniques can be very helpful," she says. "But certainly if a sleep disturbance goes on for more than six months, then it would be indicated a family get an evaluation of what is going on."
Some teenagers get plenty of sleep but still do not want to get up in the morning for school. They may be depressed or are afraid of facing their peers due to social pressures, or they may have test or academic performance anxiety.
"As kids hit middle school or high school, there may be other learning or developmental issues going on, and a child might show signs of refusal to go to school because school may be hard for them," Natoli says. "We need to evaluate the underlying factors that may be contributing to that. Sometimes learning and developmental issues are not identified until later on past age 9 or 10. We do diagnose kids with issues at a high school age even."
Natoli says parents should look for signs of emotional or psychological disturbances such as teenagers withdrawing from the activities they used to enjoy, pulling away from friends and family or not talking.
But more often than not, teenagers appear moody because they simply aren't getting as much sleep as they require. Parents should focus on making sure their teenagers wake up and are exposed to light at the same time every day and encourage naps to make up for sleep debts that are inevitable for teenagers with active social calendars.