Kids and Sleep:  The Teens

From the time that your child is born through the later elementary school years, she’ll need a little less sleep each year until she bottoms out at about 8 – 9 hours each night.  Bedtimes will be mid-evening and she’ll be up and moving at a relatively early hour each morning.  But that amount of nightly sleep required will rise as her body – and his if you have a boy – runs aground on the shoals of puberty.

Kids need more sleep as they enter the teen years with the optimal amount being about 9.5 hours each night.  Most are unaware that many of the key body chemicals and hormones for growth and development are released by the body during sleep.  Unfortunately, the combination of technology/environment and the teen’s body itself works against most teens getting that amount of sleep on a routine basis.  Most teens’ bedrooms are a technological cocoon with the presence of television, stereo, radio, phone and computer.  They’ve become used to the technological ‘noise’ and don’t want to separate themselves from the electronic presence of friends available via the media sources or don’t wish to turn off the ‘noise’ with which they’re now comfortable.  Faced with an early school day, the typical teen is operating on a sleep deficit as the bedtime isn’t until much later than a 9.5 hour optimal sleep amount would account for.  Assuming that a teen has to rise at about 6:30 in order to prepare and arrive at school on time, the ideal teen bedtime would be about 9:00 the previous evening.

Good luck with that.

Life with a teen tends to be an emotional rollercoaster fraught with churlish turns and attitudinal drops.  Honestly, it becomes a bit more difficult for some parents because the evening break that came with an earlier bedtime is now gone and there’s no longer a perceived relief.  It can be easier to blame the desire to stay up later on rebellion and resistance but their late night habits do have a scientific basis.  Humans have a "darkness hormone" called melatonin that the body begins to produce in the evening to relax itself and prepare itself for sleep.  Studies have found that this hormone starts production in the typical adult at about 10:00 in the evening.  The typical teen body however, doesn’t begin production of this hormone until almost 1:00 am, a full three hours later.  So the teen’s body isn’t close to being ready to shut down until much later while still facing an early morning wakeup for school.  The question about delayed melatonin production however, is causal.  Is it due to the hormonal chaos of puberty or instead environmentally delayed by the ambient light produced by the various screens within the teens’ bedrooms?  Nobody frankly knows.

So what are the options?  We try to walk the middle ground and not enforce an "early" bedtime that ensures the full 9.5 hours nightly since there’s going to be enough potential conflict without it.  However, the teens are expected – and required when we catch them – to have the interactive electronics(texting in our case) off at a certain hour before bed so that their bodies have a chance to relax.  We’re helped by the fact that we’ve never allowed televisions or computers in their rooms but they do have music available as we did when we were teens.  The principle is the same but the only difference is the technology platform.  This means that we check on them around bedtime and occasionally afterwards to assure that they’re sans electronics.  I know of other parents who’ve routinely confiscated cell phones at a certain hour each evening to assure that the texting is done or who’ve removed the televisions if they’re found in use after hours.  It ensures that there’s going to be conflict, but some is to be expected as the teens test their limits.  Frankly, refusing to abide by parental rules is always grounds for a worthwhile conflict since parents should expect to be obeyed if the rules are reasonable and fairly enforced. 

Teens are able to absorb information and knowledge at an amazing rate and I’m routinely surprised by what my kids know.  But knowledge isn’t the same as judgment.



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