Q: Dear Dr. Wes and John: I heard something recently on National Public Radio about teen sleep habits that I thought you should discuss in your column. It sounded like a problem I have with my kids, who like staying up with the computer and cell phone and then don't like getting up for school the next day. Could you do an article about it?- Sleepy Parent
A: Dr. Wes: I looked this up at NPR and actually found two stories on this topic. Both were consistent with my own clinical experience and the research in this area. Here's the gist of the issue: Teenagers always have been prone to stay up later than younger children and adults. There's a biological reason for this which essentially makes teen brains function best later in the day. Some schools actually have pushed their schedules back 30 to 60 minutes with very strong results - less sleeping in class, better grades, better attendance and so on. Even teachers and parents liked the idea.
However, as we've discussed in previous columns, the pace of life has been accelerating in the last 10 years for teens just as it has for adults. Easy access to computers, games and cell phones has made it possible to be plugged in 24-7 with friends in town and around the world. This tends to peak late in the day, and many kids are now up all hours of the night, keeping in touch. This acceleration also extends to school and homework. If you review your child's homework, it might scare you a bit. Much of what they study, especially in math and science, is more in line with what we studied in college, if at all. I can't say whether this is good from an academic standpoint. I can say that many very capable young people I see are incredibly stressed over taking the right classes and getting the right grades to get into the right college - or any college. By the way, some of these stressed kids are in the sixth grade right now.
These pressures of life have enhanced the natural disinterest teens have in sleep, creating a whole nation of sleep-disordered kids. Teens are supposed to be getting about nine hours of sleep each night. If they have to be up at 6 a.m. to make it to school (or earlier for the zero-hour students), they would have to go to sleep by 9 p.m. to pull this off. Do you know any kids who do that regularly? The bedtimes I hear from clients range from 10:30 p.m. to midnight. The reasons are nearly universal: Friends, activities and homework are in competition for the few waking hours that are not taken up by school. Sleep is optional.
Frequent readers know that I am not a big fan of this increasingly manic lifestyle, and I suspect that some portion of the surge we see in child, teen and adult mental illness has its origins there. I hope epidemiological studies will continue to cover this issue to see whether this is really the health crisis it appears to be. If it is, the only reasonable direction to take is the obvious one - lifestyle changes. However, as we see with the global warming debate, making such big changes in our lives isn't easy, even when the consequences of doing nothing are severe. As John points out, these things are easier said that done.
John: Healthy sleep habits should start long before nightfall. One strategy that definitely works is being physically active. When I took swimming class in the mornings, I slept better at night, and it was easier to concentrate in school, too. Keeping a regular sleep schedule also will help your body tune in. Try eating dinner earlier, since big meals require digestive processes that can keep you awake. Don't use computers or watch TV before bedtime, as these can overstimulate you. If at all possible, try to reserve your room for sleep. If you study in bed, your brain will associate the bed with studying and be less inclined to sleep. Use your last waking minutes to take a cool shower, then go straight to bed.
Experiment a little to develop your own strategies for falling asleep. I like to roll my eyes while imagining something pleasant. This seems to help me dream faster. If you can't get to sleep after a while, try getting up and doing something else. Going outside for a few minutes (if it's warm enough) can help you get relaxed enough to fall back asleep. Drinking warm milk or eating pickles can also do the trick. Whatever you do, don't work yourself into a fit over not falling asleep.
My grandmother likes to say, "If you want to soar with the eagles, you can't hoot with the owls." The benefits of healthy sleep are well-documented. For one, it reduces car accidents (a particular risk for younger drivers), which is why many states are trying to legislate "drowsy driving." Professional truck drivers are bound by law not to drive too many hours a day, because the fatigue slows reaction time, increases aggression and decreases awareness.
Dreaming also is a vital function of the brain. During sleep, the brain reviews what it has learned and experienced through the day, so better sleep has been linked to better learning and memory. Finally, adequate sleep also reduces the risk of diseases and obesity. But even if none of these reasons appeal to you, there is still one overwhelming reason to saw logs: vanity. Hey, it's not called beauty sleep for nothing.
Next week: Valentine's Day. Some teens love it. Some hate it. The most romantic (or lonely) day of the year is upon us.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.