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Sleep and your older child

The change may be gradual or it may seem sudden. You adolescent starts having trouble falling sleep at night (even though you’ve insisted on maintaining long-standing routines) and has increasing difficulty getting up in the morning. He sleeps later and later on weekends, prompting a few charges of “lazy” by you — and doesn’t seem particularly rested or restored. Is it hormones? Something else? What’s going on?

teen on laptop at bedtime

Even if you remember back to your own adolescence and your own love of your pillow late into Saturday mornings (even early afternoon), this change can be frustrating and difficult to understand. Why don’t they just go to sleep earlier? Why don’t they just get up when I go in and wake them the first time?

Changing bio-regulatory factors

Increasing amounts of sleep research show that adolescents need more sleep than they are actually getting, and bio-regulatory factors are changing adolescents’ ability to fall asleep and ability to wake up early in the morning. (And you thought adolescence was just about sexual maturity!)

Hormones and melatonin production shift in adolescence means that when your child says she lays awake in bed at night for hours and hours and can’t fall asleep, there is a fairly normal physiological shift to blame. “Not trying hard enough” has nothing to do with it.

The next morning, even if your child gets out of bed early and plods through the morning routine, parts of her brain are still being affected by this hormonal shift and she’s not fully awake. If she sat down for just a few minutes, closing her eyes would be easy and she’d be in REM as quickly as you hoped it would have happened the night before.

>> Help teens get the sleep they need

Learning and decision making

Sleep is critical to learning and appropriate decision making. New studies show that to learn a complex task well, sleep is required! It’s during sleep that the details are fully digested by the brain and embedded. During these pressure-filled high school years, with so much information coming in, sleep is a part of the learning process.

As you likely learned from your own experiences, sleep affects your decision-making. Teenagers may be notoriously poor decision makers overall, and though sleep may not be the only factor, it may well be exacerbating the issue in teens. If you want your teen to be a good decision maker in school, at home, with friends — or while driving the car — you need to lead by example, communicate and keep working to make sure she gets enough rest.

>> How bedtime routines help kids’ sleep

As such, dozens of school districts across the country have begun to address high school start times so that teens aren’t trying to take in complex topics like AP Physics at 7:30a.m., when their brains are functionally still asleep. While schools can’t control how much sleep kids actually get, they can adjust frameworks so that more restorative, learning enabling sleep is even possible.

Parenting challenges

As a parent, what do you do with this information? Give up and let your son stay up until all hours? Sure, that would be the easy thing to do maintaining and enforcing appropriate sleep hygiene may well be critical to getting through the next few years with this wonky hormonal teen.

You can respect that your child naturally doesn’t fall asleep until later, but still keep screens and electronics out of his room. You can understand what is happening in the morning, but limit (or, preferably, eliminate) caffeine use and improvise elements of the morning routine to accommodate this difference. You can understand without this change disrupting the whole family.

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