When I ask a room full of teenagers how many of them have a hard time falling asleep at night, almost every hand goes up. This confirms research showing that as students get older, sleep durations decline. There is also evidence of increased daytime sleepiness, daytime napping, weekend oversleeping, and excessive caffeine consumption. And most disturbing are the health and behavioral consequences linked to restricted sleep: increased risk of car crashes, delinquent behaviors, depression, substance abuse, and psychological stress as well as negative impacts on attention, memory, and school performance.
Several culprits have been blamed for this sleep shortage. The onset of puberty resets teen’s internal biologic clocks forward one to two hours, making it difficult for them to nod off until later at night and to be ready to rock and roll at school in the morning. In addition, after school jobs, high academic demands, caffeine intake, and electronic media usage all add to this problem. And technology multi-tasking is one of the most egregious offenders in disruptive sleeping. I remember hiding under the covers listening to Casey Kasem’s top 40 hits on my transistor radio at nighttime. But today it’s common for teens to be simultaneously plugged into a phone, pad, TV, computer, and multiple social networking sites. These screens produce enough light to suppress melatonin levels and make it more difficult to doze off. And it’s really difficult to shut down a brain that’s been wired from all that stimulation.
Teens tell me all the time how hard it is for them to settle into sleep. They keep themselves busy and distracted all day long, trying not to think about things that are bothering them, but when the lights go out, they are alone and quiet for the first time all day. And all of those thoughts and feelings they have managed to shove down throughout the day come bubbling up to the surface, and it’s hard to shut them off. And so they toss and turn, sometimes for hours, causing them to be more tired and crabby the next day, which worsens their problems, and they spiral downward.
So what’s a parent to do? One solution is to reset the starting time of high school to 9 AM or later. Research on student performance in schools that have tried this approach show improved attendance, decreased tardiness, improved academic performance in core subjects like English, math, social studies, and science, and better national standardized test scores.
We also need to teach kids how to slow down, get quiet, and spend time reflecting, expressing emotions, and processing through issues confronting them. I encourage teens to make a regular practice each evening before bed of using tools like journaling, writing songs or poetry or stories, using art to express their thoughts or feelings, coloring in mandalas, yoga, or meditation. Adolescents need to figure out what evening rituals work for them, i.e. how long before lights out do they need to turn off screens, how late in the day can they consume caffeine without it affecting falling asleep, etc.
This needs to be a conscious, deliberate process, and it will require discipline. They have to see the value of confronting their problems in healthy ways, having quiet time where they are unplugged, and practicing mindfulness. I often encourage girls just to try new bedtime rituals for a week or two to see if it makes a difference in their ability to study, to function, in their moods and their peace of mind. Experiencing the benefits of adequate sleep and quiet time often becomes the motivation for staying the course.
And even teenage girls aren’t too old to be tucked in. My fellow camp counselors and I tuck in campers at our summer camps, reading and telling them bedtime stories or just chatting, and the girls love it. Having some quiet moments to connect with parents can be calming for girls, allowing them to drift off to sleep feeling loved and secure.