Why your teen is so sleepy and what to do about it

I did a presentation with a great bunch of veteran high school teachers this morning on developing teaching strategies based in what we know about the teenage brain. One of the more fascinating discussions to come out of the morning was around the problem of teens and sleep.

Research tells us that around the age of 13 or 14, teens change the way they process the hormone Melatonin, which (among other things) regulates our sleep cycle. In other words, the circadian rhythms of adolescent brains is literally different than that of adults. They don’t feel at all sleepy until midnight or 1 am, and then they want to sleep in until noon.

The kicker, of course, is that all this happens around the same time their parents reach middle age and start wanting to go to sleep at 10 p.m., which means no one is around to enforce a regular bedtimes.

And it also means that these kids are miserable getting to school for 8 a.m. They are chronically sleep deprived, and usually hungry as well, since who wants to eat breakfast when you are exhausted.

It’s a terrible combination for learning. The sleep-deprived brain is not good at absorbing or processing information, which means a good chunk of morning classes are not teaching them anything. Some schools have tried to accommodate this biological change by starting school later in the morning, and while the early indications are very positive, this is unlikely to happen in the vast majority of schools.

Sleep-deprivation is also correlated with depression. And teens who are depressed can end up experimenting with all kids of high-risk activities. We don’t want to go there.

However, some teachers still have to teach algebra or French grammar to 16-year-olds at 8 a.m. on a regular basis, so I went over a variety of strategies they can use in the classroom to help their students stay awake and maybe even learn something: keep them moving, minimize lecturing, use group work, etc.

But what they all kept wanting to know is how to get the message about sleep through to these teens and their parents, despite the change in their brain chemistry. They asked me for a list of tips they can communicate to students and parents at the start of the next school year, in the hope that it makes a difference for even a few of them.

  1. Get the technology out of their bedrooms before bedtime. Not only do computers, TVs. cellphones and gaming help stimulate the brain right when they should be slowing down for rest, but they can distract teens well past the time they should be lying down. One teacher told me her students report putting their cellphones under their pillows so they don’t miss a single call or text.
  2. Establish a regular bedtime and bedtime routine. Impress upon kids the importance of this, so that they can do it even when mom and dad have turned off their lights.
  3. Trying and keep the same schedule even on weekends. I know how tempting it is to let them sleep until noon on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but they will have that much harder a time of it when the alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. Monday morning.
  4. Figure out some kind of reasonably healthy breakfast sleepy teens can have before school. Smoothies (yogurt, fruit, milk, orange juice) are one easy, delicious and portable option. Even a small glass of orange juice can make that first class more productive.
  5. Avoid caffeine. One recent study found 85% of teens are consuming at least one caffeinated beverage a day; 11% reported consuming the equivalent of four espressos daily. The initial buzz of caffeine can leave you feeling shaky and depleted shortly after. Caffeine can leave you feeling irritable and restless, interfere with concentration and produce withdrawal symptoms from headaches to heart palpitations. And worst of all, the caffeine you ingest during the day can make it harder to go to sleep that night.

3 responses to “Why your teen is so sleepy and what to do about it

  1. My daughter is ten and she was always a night owl and not a morning bird even as a baby. Now it seems to be getting worse as she is getting older. Your tips are really good. The weekends are the hardest since we have large family get-togethers. But even then, we try!

    • Thanks for the comment, Laura. It’s true that different temperaments have different sleep patterns. My older girls have always been earlier risers than my 8 year olds, but they are sleeping in later now that they are turning 12 (though our little one is usually last one up on weekend mornings). Even harder are the later evenings, since we know they just need more sleep hours than they are getting, but you can’t force them to sleep. We do what we can, but trying to keep some patterns in place seems to help.

  2. Pingback: Parenting pledges for a great school year « riskwithinreason

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