Can’t Wake Up Your Teenager?

Can't wake up your teenager? Sleepy teenager imageDealing with teens, especially sleepy teens, isn’t an easy feat. Many parents struggle daily to wake up their teenagers in the morning reporting frequent arguments and continued frustration.  Some parents, in a desperate attempt to rouse their children from slumber, even employ such extreme tactics as splashing their kids with cold water, pricking them with a pin, or physically lifting  them up and dressing them for school despite protests. The teens may be late for school and likely quite drowsy during the first classes of the day. Tardiness, absences, slipping grades, and the arguments which ensue are exasperating for both parents and children alike.  So why do some teens struggle so much to wake up?  There are at least few plausible explanations.

Chronic sleep deprivation is the most common cause of the teenagers’ difficulties waking up in the morning.  It is well known teens spend a great deal of time on their various electronic devices, watching TV, and using social media. It is also true they have long school days, plenty of homework, and extracurricular activities to boot. High school is a time of increased academic pressure, and there is simply not enough time to squeeze everything into a 24 hour day. Meanwhile, many teens have a tendency to sleep late and/or take long naps on weekends. They subsequently have difficulty falling asleep in the evening. This can be compared to jet lag: Imagine traveling to Europe on weekends and returning to the U.S. on weekdays.

There are other well-recognized causes of the teenagers’ difficulty falling asleep and waking up in the morning at the expected times. Some teens consume energy drinks containing significant amounts of caffeine.  Caffeine can be a potent stimulant and may cause insomnia.  Additionally, some teenagers suffer from depression and anxiety. These problems can also be associated with excessive daytime sleepiness or/and insomnia.

Circadian sleep disorder is yet another common cause of teenager sleepiness. When it comes to sleep, teens are vulnerable to delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). DSPS is a type of circadian sleep disorder where, biologically, during puberty, the teens begin experiencing difficulty falling asleep until late at night. As a result, they have great difficulty getting up early in the morning and are not fully awake until the afternoon. Thus, their inability to get up in the morning may not be their fault with research suggesting teenagers’ body clocks may be simply out of synch. The cause of DSPS is not yet known, although there appears to be a genetic factor. It is therefore important parents understand that a teen with DSPS is not at fault for not being able to get to sleep earlier.

Furthermore, the mismatch between teens’ natural propensity to become “night owls” and early start time at high schools is an issue pediatricians and sleep medicine doctors have been trying to address for years. Most recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement titled “Let Them Sleep.” The AAP recommended delaying start times of middle and high schools to combat teen sleep deprivation. Doing so would align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty. The AAP urged middle and high schools to aim for start times that allow students to receive 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night. In most cases, this would mean a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later, though schools should also consider average commuting times and other local factors. Despite this research, no discernible changes in schools’ start times across the nation can be seen.

How can parents help their teen’s sleep health?

  1. Practice good sleep habits from early childhood. A consistent bedtime, a consistent wake up time, and a consistent schedule on weekdays and weekends should be learned in early childhood and practiced throughout adolescence. TV’s and electronic devices should not be in children’s bedrooms.
  2. Poor sleep habits of parents affect their children. Parents should be practicing good sleep habits too.
  3. Teach children about the importance of sleep.
  4. Try to stay tuned into your adolescent’s school and extracurricular activities. Help them find the right balance.
  5. If your teens are struggling, they might need evaluation by their primary care doctor or a sleep medicine specialist.