It's Back to School...Let's Talk About Sleep!
Enjoying the early mornings of school days yet? Yaaawn....
Now that we are back into the school routine, let’s focus on the massive circadian shift needed for teens to readjust to the early morning school demands after a long summer of late nights and sleeping in. As we know, adolescents’ circadian clocks are shifted ahead from other developmental stages. Their brains naturally want to stay up and sleep later. However, indulging in their very nature all summer poses great challenges for them (and those of us who support them) when the school schedule rolls back around. Continuing to stay up late shortens the amount of sleep they get before they (or a parent) drag themselves out of bed for school at the crack of dawn.
Aside from this being a dreaded exercise, it means most teens are not getting nearly enough sleep for their own optimal wellness. The research tells us that adolescents need 9 hours of sleep a night to maintain healthy functioning. As I tell my teen and young adult clients (and my own teenage sons), sleep is foundational. When an adolescent is chronically tired, it affects their concentration, metabolism, gut function, emotion and mood regulation, and other key systems. We are serving and raising a sleep deprived generation. We must consider how sleeping patterns affect teens and their developing brains as we try to teach, treat, coach, parent or otherwise serve their needs. Here are some key things to consider when addressing sleep with teens:
1) Awareness is a great place to start. First and foremost, recognize that getting enough sleep is a real and difficult dilemma for teens. Most, ideally would like to get more sleep, but the demands for their time and early school start times are not all within their control. Even the things they can control like starting homework earlier, reducing the number of competitive classes or activities, turning off screens and concurrently socializing (the 2 often overlap), are all important priorities for teens. To keep teens engaged in a conversation on sleep, express compassion and understanding that this is a tough problem to solve and will be a work in progress.
2) Ask sensitively and strategically when inquiring about sleep. Make sleep a routine part of conversations on wellness. When functioning is impacted or irritability is high, sleep may be a culprit. If inquiries and discussions come from a caring place, teens will likely be more receptive to collaborative efforts toward improving sleep.
3) Provide education about sleep and its importance. Helping teens better understand how sleep strategically works for their brains and bodies offers an opportunity to approach the topic objectively rather than with judgment. Worry and blame don’t fare so well. Sparking a teen’s curiosity about the research and positive effects of getting enough sleep may entice them to consider it more of a priority.
4) Help teens weigh the pros and cons of staying up late vs. getting more Zs. Validate that getting enough sleep is really challenging given a teen’s biology and the demands of their environment. Let them know that changing sleep patterns takes deliberate practice and patience. Help teens weigh what they get out of staying up later as well as what it costs them so they can deliberate and figure out how to balance what is most important to them while also functioning well. Educating teens on positive sleep hygiene strategies can also be helpful. Talk through ideas together on what steps they are willing to take to try and improve the amount of sleep they get. Lastly, in the absence of follow through, and when lack of sleep is consequential, non-judgmentally talk through those impacts and exhibit patience as they experience their own trial and error. Parents can help by modeling healthy sleep habits and strategically limiting access to internet and electronic devices when needed.