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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Teenagers and Sleep, How to Help?

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 23rd 2007

If you are the parent of a teenager then you probably know how difficult it is to get them to wake up to go to school each morning. If you have a long memory, as I do, you probably recall how hard it was to wake up at 6:30 or 7:00 AM to get to school in time for classes. I clearly remember how cozy, warm and comforting both bed and sleep were.

The September 17, 2007 edition of Newsweek magazine ran an article about teenagers and the lack of sleep entitled "Homeroom Zombies." The article states that adolescents need as much as 8 to 9 hours of sleep every night in order to feel fully rested and be able to concentrate on school work. Yet, most American teenagers get only 6 to 7 hours of sleep each night. The lack of adequate amounts of sleep make them weary in class each day, unable to focus their attention and liable to fall asleep in class if film strips, slide or movies are shown by teachers in a darkened room. In fact it is said that some youngsters are incorrectly diagnosed with ADD because they are too tired to concentrate in school.

Now, many teenagers are buying drinks with high caffeine content, further complicating their sleep difficulties. Larger doses of caffeine available in many drinks make it more difficult to fall asleep at night, causing more exhaustion in the morning.

More than a few High School teachers have commented to me that their morning classes tend to be very quiet and uninvolved in classroom activities. Only later in the morning, around 10 and 11 AM do the students come alive and involved in what is going on in school.

The tiredness experienced by so many teenagers is further complicated by the fact that after school they participate in a variety of vigorous activities including athletic team practices and play, working part time jobs and the, going home to do homework.

The Newsweek article also stresses the fact that at the adolescent stage of development there is a natural biological clock that is ignored by most school systems. Teenagers do not start to feel tired until 11 PM at night. If they have to be in homeroom by 8:15 AM many of them must awake at 6 to 6:30 AM. If they go to sleep by 11 PM (and that is a big if) they are not getting more than 7 hours of sleep and that is not enough at that age.

The authors of the article make some very good suggestions to parents how to help their teenage children with sleep issues:

1. The entire family should practice healthy sleep behaviors such as going to sleep at the same time each night and limiting caffeine intake all day.

2. Naps are healthy after school but not in the evening and not too long.

3. Parents should keep the television and video games in the living room of the house in not in separate rooms in order to discourage late night activities that delay getting to sleep.

4. Household rules should include no going out after 11 PM on week nights when there is school.

5. Be alert to sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. This is a breathing disorder caused by some type of blockage that causes constant awakening all night.

Of note is the fact that some school districts that have begun to experiment with later openings for teenage students with some success reported in attendance and improved grades.

What are your opinions about this issue?

1. Should all High Schools open later in the morning?

2. Do these suggestions to parents make sense?

3. How can parents help without getting into unwanted struggles and conflicts with adolescent youngsters already struggling with needs to be autonomous?

Your comments and ideas are encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    schools should start later - - Nov 4th 2009

    Studies show that teens require more sleep than children and adults but, really, get less. Their natural body rhythms change as they enter adolescence and make it difficult for them to fall asleep early at night. At the same time, most high schools require students to get to school earlier and earlier. Added to this school schedule are the demands on teens to work, participate in many extracurricular activities and keep up with heavy academic schedules.

    Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, teacher, parent educator and author of Sleepless in America, says parents can play a key role by placing a high value on their children's sleep. She says the first step for parents is to "make sleep a priority."

    "The scientific research that links heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity with lack of sleep means that sleep is not a luxury," she says. "This is about health and well being."

    Kurcinka says parents need to set limits on extracurricular activities and teen computer time, and become advocates at their school for reducing the amount of homework, and encouraging schools to start later. 

    schools need later start times - Loni - Oct 21st 2009

    I absolutely think schools should start later, this article says it all. This change we are trying to make being difficult goes to show how ignorant some people really are. It's been proven that adolescents need just as much sleep, maybe more than younger kids, that their natural body clocks make them tired no earlier than around 11 pm, and that the body gradually grows more awake throughout the day, not early in the morning. It's time for students, parents, and teachers to take back their right to a full night's sleep that any developed country should honor

    Later start time - Antoinette - Nov 15th 2007
    I absolutely think high schools should start later.  Having 3 children, I can see that as they become teenagers and start having major growth spurts, they're much more tired in the morning than Elementary or early middle school aged kids who bounce out of bed early.  Instead, I find the schools have the younger children start school later than the high school children.  Even though my teenagers maintain regular sleep hours, and go to bed at respectable times, I still receive comments from teachers on how tired kids are in their morning classes, and that they sometimes doze.  Our educational system needs to get on the ball on this issue.  They have access to the same studies parents do, don't they?  Is change so hard?

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