Teenagers, sleep and the ‘back to school’ grumps. Why it happens, and what we can do about it.

sleep is a necessity not a luxury

Two things you need to know about teenagers:

  1. They love trends.
  2. They love to be different – especially ‘different’ from us long-suffering but ‘out-dated’ parents.

Always have done. Always will.

As soon as we’ve caught up with them on Facebook, ‘friended’ them and got the hang of ‘spying’, they’re off to Instagram and pastures new! It seems we’re forever chasing them: Lego became Skylanders, and Skylanders became Minecraft. Then Harry Potter became Twilight which gradually morphed into Zombies or One Direction, depending on their taste.

They move fast our kids!

And if one of them stayed up late on Friday night to watch the latest romantic comedy or apocalyptic zombie-bash, then by Monday, back at school, the bragging fest is in full swing.

“I only slept four hours on Friday night.”

“I only slept three.”

“Well, I didn’t even go to bed!”

Poor teachers! Poor kids!

Little do they realise this one-upmanship over sleep deprivation could be setting a very unhealthy trend. No-one likes to be nagged – teenagers least of all – but as Professor Russell Foster says, sleep is “the single most important behavioural experience we have”, so we need to remind them that they need sleep just like they need air and water. It really is part of our biology, but we often try to kid ourselves that we can do without it. We can’t, and teenagers, in particular, can’t.

Sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Without sleep the genes in our brains required for neural restoration just don’t get switched on. Teenagers, despite all evidence to the contrary (!), are not being lazy as they groan and snuggle back under the duvet. They need nine hours sleep a night, and the trouble is many are only getting about five and a half. It just isn’t enough!

Back to school

At home our teenager’s grumpy, unco-ordinated behaviour can generally be absorbed by the family’s daily routines and a generous helping of love. But at school their tiredness is exposed and shows up clearly in things like:

  • Poor memory
  • A lack of creativity
  • Poor judgement and
  • Increased impulsiveness

Each of these on its own is bad enough, but throw them all in the pot at once, and you’ve got a recipe for one unhappy kid, a poor educational experience, low grades and potentially unhealthy life decisions. What’s more, sleep abnormality often precedes the onset of mental health problems. Any sleep disruption over a period of time is like an early warning system, giving us the opportunity to do something about it.

What can we do?

Well, maybe we can cash in on teenagers’ love of all things dark. Satisfy their curious leanings towards the ‘dark side’. Only this time there’s no fantasy involved. This darkness is for real. You see, physiologically we are not built to live with light hitting the backs of our eyes 24 hours a day, but by the amount of light still bouncing around at ten o’clock and beyond, you’d think we were.

The truth is we need darkness.  Complete darkness.

If we don’t have a sufficiently long period of blackout our biological clock is thrown out of kilter.  Morning light switches off a chemical process in our brain allowing our ‘clock’ to start again, but if late night computer games and TV programmes steal away the darkness the clock won’t re-set properly. It’s harder to get up and throughout the day your body is craving the sleep it’s missed out on. So:

  • Make your child’s room as dark as possible at night. Use heavy curtains, blackout blinds, cardboard or whatever it takes to block out the light from that pesky street lamp.
  • Keep computers, TV’s, phones and the like out of their bedrooms or, at the very least switch them off. The blue light emitted from this stuff is responsible for controlling our internal clock.  It tells our brain to wake up, which is fine if it’s morning, but not if it’s 9 or 10 o’clock at night and you need to get to sleep.
  • Reduce their amount of light exposure at least half an hour before they go to bed. So, in addition to the above, turn down the main lights if possible, or use lamps to create a softer light.
  • Ideally make the bedroom slightly cool. Turn down the radiator in the room, or open the window half an hour before bed time.
  • If all else fails, invest in some cheap eye-masks like they have on long-haul flights. My youngest son and I both use them, and they make a huge difference to the quality of our sleep.

Going back to school is never an easy time, but let’s give our kids a good start back with the gift of a good night’s sleep.

Do you have any tips or a favourite trick you use to help your kids sleep well? Let me know. I’d love to hear what works well for you.



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Leave A Reply (4 comments so far)

  1. Jean Tracy, MSS
    2 years ago

    Your 5 bullet point solutions are super, especially the one about computers.

    • Jackie Charley
      2 years ago

      Thank you Jean. Sometimes it’s helpful to know ‘why’ things work for or against us, and the point about blue light is very interesting. If you had a very scientifically-minded child, that little bit of information could be just what’s needed to help them understand the importance of switching off their computers etc.

      Here’s to us all getting a bit more sleep!

  2. Ben Stich
    2 years ago

    In my work as a counselor in a high school I would suggest that sleep deprivation — which is not helped by the 7:20 AM start time — is arguably the biggest impediment to school success. This is especially true for kids for whom school is already challenging. Your suggestions are great, and ones that I have made to students time and again. When the kids actually make these changes it really works to help them feel and perform better.

    I hope you check out my blog as well — here is one recent post: http://www.benstich.com/miscommunication If you would ever like to guest blog on my site please let me know. And vice versa.


    • Jackie Charley
      2 years ago

      Ben, thanks for your comments from the ‘coal face’, as it were. I definitely don’t think teachers are paid enough! :) I do hope, however, that by raising the sleep issue it gives parents hope and some simple ways to tackle the problem.

      I’ve read several of your posts over on your blog and really enjoyed them. You would be very welcome to contribute a guest post here. Let me know when would suit.

      Best regards.


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