Why is your teen so sleepy?
The great teen sleep debt

Do you have a teen in your house that stays up wide awake until 11pm, but then wants to sleep in until lunchtime the next day?

Believe it or not, this is not due to teenagers just being lazy (well, mostly not). It's largely hormonal and quite natural, thanks to significant changes during the teenage years.

Studies have found that this drastic shift in an adolescent’s circadian rhythm – the body clock – is due to major brain activity and growth, driven by hormones.

The problem for many kiwi teens is that their lifestyles don’t alter to suit their changing body clocks, such as early school starts, morning sport on weekends, increases in night-time homework and studies, so many of our adolescents are suffering major sleep debt.

Research has shown that teens need between nine and 10 hours sleep a night but it’s estimated that less than 15 percent get even eight-and-a-half hours on a school night.

The essence of darkness

This term does not refer to the mood of your sleep-deprived teen, it refers to melatonin – the hormone which starts to be secreted when we’re ready for sleep. From the onset of puberty, this hormone may kick in later … sometimes much later.

Landmark research out of the US also shows that the teenage brain is undergoing some major growth and development, and it’s happening at night while they sleep. This growth is happening all over the brain and is critical for a more adult-style intelligence, self-awareness and performance.

What this means is that even if kids are wanting to go to bed later, it’s vital they get a full night’s sleep, or the chance to sleep in on the weekend and catch up on that sleep debt.

Research has found that as adolescents get older they go to bed later, sleep less and have very different sleep times on weekdays compared to weekends. The time of getting up on weekends can shift by one-and-a-half hours in 12 to 14-year-olds as puberty kicks in.

The problems for sleep-deprived teens

Besides hindering that essential brain development during the teen years, not getting enough sleep causes a long list of other problems. In fact, continuously not getting enough sleep can be as bad for teens as going 30 hours without sleep.

Memory is reduced, as is the ability to do tasks that need visual and spatial abilities, such as working with different patterns or maps, or work involving coordinating eyes and hands, such as drawing and writing. Sleep loss has also been shown to reduce verbal creativity and the ability to think abstractly.

Personal safety is also compromised from lack of sleep with a higher likelihood of physical injury from sport associated with inadequate sleep in teenagers. Teens are also much more likely to have sleep-related car accidents.

A US study found that the amount of sleep a teen got had a direct impact on their grades, with those sleeping longer more likely to get As and Bs.

What can parents do?

Parents can help ensure their teens get enough sleep in the following ways:

•    Let your teen sleep in on the weekends – but not too long so that it affects their bedtimes.
•    Encourage an early bedtime on Sundays – teens struggle enough with the early start each Monday morning.
•    Negotiate with them on setting time limits for night-time activities which could be stimulating and delay sleep such as television, or computer use, communicating on social media or even homework.
•    Encourage restful activities during the evening, such as reading.
•    Try to avoid very early morning appointments or training sessions if possible.
•    Discourage your teen from having a packed extracurricular schedule so they can free up time for more restful activities.
•    Let your child have a short nap to recharge the battery – but not too long that it makes them stay up later at night.
•    Discourage drinks with caffeine at night.
•    Either don’t have electronic media devices in their bedrooms or make sure they’re all turned off at bedtime.
•    Get them to leave their phones outside the bedroom overnight.

Should high schools start later?

Biologically speaking, high schools are working against the teenage body clock. Research has shown that teens often don’t start firing until mid-morning, yet they may have been in classes for a couple of hours.

Some academics are now calling for high schools to start later so the students will be able to perform and learn better.

As it was reported in one study, “The students may be in school, but their brains are at home on their pillows.”

This article was written by Fiona Baker for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz

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