A supersoaker filled with icy water, an air horn, shouting, tickling, siblings or pets jumping on the bed—these are methods desperate and stressed-out parents use to try to roust a seemingly comatose teen in time for school. High school teachers regularly face first period classrooms in which the majority of teens sit, dazed and uncomprehending, or sleep outright.
Research suggests that laziness, late-night texting, and overconsumption of jolting energy drinks can’t take the full blame for teen inertia in the morning as much as parents might like to think so. Teens need at least nine hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. On average, teens get seven and a half hours of sleep, and many get less, particularly those students with heavy class schedules, jobs, and multiple extracurricular activities.
To get nine hours of shut-eye, teens have to be in bed early in order to be up, showered, dressed, fed, out the door and at school before the late bell peals, which is between 7:45 and 8 a.m. at local high schools.
Even teens who do make it to bed at a reasonable hour may not fall asleep. That’s because the sleep-wake cycle undergoes a change in adolescence, shifting the production of melatonin, the hormone produced by the pineal gland, later into the night. Melatonin maintains the body’s circadian rhythm, and helps regulate sleep. A Brown University study on adolescent sleep cycles showed that teens’ melatonin secretions began later in the evening and shut off later in the morning. This shift in teens’ internal clock means that the drive to go to bed later and get up later is physiological, not necessarily the hallmark of a slacker.
Sleep deprivation in teens has serious consequences. There are the mood changes that can turn your teen into a monosyllabic, glowering creature. Lack of sleep is also linked to increased tardiness and absenteeism, and lower academic performance. Tired teens gain more weight and have poor nutrition—either no time for breakfast or increased caffeine in an attempt to wake up. And most serious of all, fatigue raises the risk of accident and injury. More than half of all crashes where the driver fell asleep at the wheel involved drivers younger than 25, according to a study by Pack and colleagues in Accident Analysis and Prevention.
School districts in Minnesota, Colorado, Kentucky, Virginia and Massachusetts are among those that moved middle and high school start times up by one hour to accommodate adolescents’ sleep-wake cycles. Some reports from these districts show better attendance, fewer students falling asleep, and improved grades, but broader and more rigorous studies are needed to confirm the relationship between a later bell and higher academic performance.
If back-to-school has you dreading a return to the pattern of hectic mornings and sleepy teens, try to create a new routine this year.
Suggest 30 minutes of electronic-free time before bed, where phones and computers are shut off to give your teen a chance to wind down before going to sleep. Work with your teen on getting as much done the night before as possible: backpack packed, clothes laid out, lunch or lunch money ready. And yes, this may seem possible only on another planet, but try it anyway and see what happens.
And don’t forget to engage your teens in making mornings go more smoothly by asking them what they think would help. While they may not stir to the shrillest alarm clock or the sound or your bellowing, your teens may be able to work out a system with friends where they call each other to wake up.
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Parents, have you found a successful method of waking up your teenagers?
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And if you got up every day and walked five miles to school in the snow when you were a kid, tell us that, too.