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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits 5 Trying to Sleep in a No-Sleep Teen Culture Earlier in the book I talked about one of the primary reasons teens have trouble getting the sleep they need: They’re biologically cued to fall asleep much later at night than adults and younger children. That biological factor is enormous on its own, but layered over it, compounding the problem, are social and cultural factors that are also working to keep your teen in a permanent sleep-deprived haze. All of these influences are important to understand, and some of them may truly surprise you. Early School Start Times I’ve already mentioned the negative impact of early school start times, and I’ll go further into its effects on sleep and learning as well as what you can do to change start times in Chapter 13. But here I want to say briefly that it’s one of the key reasons so many teens aren’t able to live and perform to their potential. Many parents, including me and possibly you, started middle school and high school somewhere around 8:00 or 8:30 or even later in the morning—and it seemed like an enormous challenge to get there on time. But approximately 12 to 15 years ago, school start times started creeping even closer to the cock’s crow. Now it’s not unusual for classes to begin at 7:20, which, for the many kids who have sports
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits practice before school, take the bus, or need to drive or bicycle a fair distance to school, means getting up before the sun. And that of course means very little sleep if they weren’t able to fall asleep before midnight. What’s driven this change in start times? In a word, money. Ever-increasing financial pressures have caused schools to make changes that will save them cash, and one of those changes involved transportation. School districts have found that it’s less expensive if the same buses and drivers bring all the students to school, rather than have separate buses and drivers for each school, and that the only way to do that is to get the buses started early, which means classes must start early as well. Getting kids to school early also helps reduce rush-hour traffic, which makes businesses and municipalities surrounding the schools very happy. But it doesn’t make teens happy, or healthy, or high performing. Certainly the powers that be who made the start-time changes didn’t mean to cause students harm—they only wanted to improve the district’s bottom line. But it turned out that earlier start times negatively affect teens—by depriving them of precious sleep. As you read in the previous chapters, not sleeping through four to five cycles of all five sleep stages—which you can’t do if you’re sleeping only from midnight to 6:00 a.m.—keeps teens not only performing at a lower level but learning at a lower level. That change of one to one and a half hours in start time has had an enormous, damaging effect. School, Home, Social, and Future Life Pressures Everyone has to deal with pressure, of course, but teens do get a big dose of it pretty much everywhere they turn—and that keeps them up at night worrying. In their social lives, which are enormously important to them, there is pressure to fit in, know what’s going on, and stay in close touch with friends. At home, their parents are constantly urging them to study more and participate in activities so they’ll be accepted by a selective college, as well as help out with family responsibilities. And of course high school is one giant pressure cooker. There teens not only need to keep on top of hours and hours of classes and
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits homework, plus pass standardized and exit tests, but they must think ahead to college too. Having college on the horizon brings on even more pressure. Of course, there are the SATs and the ACTs, as well as making sure you’re taking classes on the college track. But many high school counselors and college admissions officers tell students that colleges would rather see them get a B or even a C in an honors or an advanced placement class than an A in a less rigorous class. This information can push kids who can’t handle that kind of work into taking the more difficult classes—and feeling the increased pressure and pain. Colleges also say they want applicants who have shown steady improvement over the high school years, which again may cause kids to take on more than they comfortably can. Some of the patients I see are taking four advanced placement classes along with several other classes and are participating in a full load of activities. They’re loathe to give anything up when I suggest it because they think it would damage their college chances. The college-related pressure is strong and builds from freshman through senior year. A TEEN’S TAKE “Yes, high school is a lot of pressure. I’m not always up late at night worrying about what the next day will bring, but there are some nights when things do weigh heavily on my mind, like when I have multiple papers due, tests, or I’ve had a fight with a friend or a boyfriend. The pressure comes from a lot of places. Teachers try to pressure you, close to the breaking point, and I have a ton of friends who feel they have to stay up late and finish their work to please their parents. Other people, like me, put the pressure on themselves. Wherever it comes from, it’s pretty destructive.” That pressure can actually accelerate during senior year if students apply to colleges on the early-decision basis. Counselors often tell students that applying under this option gives them a better chance of being accepted, and it does give them at least a statistical advantage. But applying in this way can really stress kids out. Not only do they have to gather all the application materials and write several essays when fall classes are just starting, plus face a stronger pool of applicants, but if they’re accepted they’re bound to attend that college when they may not have had enough time to think through their choice.
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits While teens often put pressure on themselves to meet their own and everyone else’s expectations regarding college, parents can sometimes unknowingly put pressure on them, too. We all want our kids to do their best, but when we hear how competitive colleges have become, because there are more outstanding students than openings in a freshman class, we can get caught up in the hysteria. Baby Boomer parents in particular, whose own parents were thrilled that their kids could go to any college, are eager for their teens to attend the most selective colleges and, later, graduate schools. So while there are many wonderful colleges out there, and because a college should be chosen because it’s a great match for the student’s interests and abilities, teens often feel pressured to go to one of the handful of top-rated schools. LOWERING THE PRESSURE One Maryland high school held a parents’ night to ease some of the college pressure. During one presentation, the college counselor wrote on a black-board the names of a number of well-known, successful people, from politicians to CEOs to authors to TV broadcasters. Then he asked the parents what those people had in common—and it turned out that none of them had gone to an Ivy League college. The point, of course, was that there are many, many colleges and universities that produce outstanding, successful alumni and that parents can ease the pressure by encouraging their kids to choose a college that’s right for them. After-School Activities and Job Pressure Academic pressure is certainly fierce for many kids. But in addition to that pressure, many adolescents face the pressure that comes with participating in sports, being involved in community service programs and other activities, and holding down after-school and weekend jobs. Many kids, of course, take part in extracurricular activities because of interest and talent, but as they move through their high school years they’re often pressured into staying with those activities to show expertise and experience on their college application forms. If interests change or time is tight, kids may want to give something up but worry
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits that if they do they’ll be hurting their chances of being accepted by the college of their choice. The result can be more sleepless nights as well as bitten nails. Jobs, too, can be a source of worry as well as exhaustion. Many kids all over the world need to add to the family income by working after school, but working teens can’t start their homework until later in the evening and may have to stay up late to finish it. For some kids it’s a triple whammy—on top of being perpetually tired, they worry about holding on to their job and maintaining the grades to graduate, and that anxiety can cause them still more sleep loss. When teens come to me exhausted from trying to do too much, I usually recommend that they give up their jobs unless it would financially burden their family. IT’S A FACT According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Report on the Youth Labor Force, in 2000 over 57 percent of interviewed youths reported having held some sort of job at the age of 14. Over 64 percent of the youths worked in a job when they were 15. Eighteen percent of the 14-year-olds worked either during the school year or during both the school year and the summer; 31 percent of the 15-year-olds had jobs that included working during the school year. Sports programs, too, can deprive students of needed rest. Not only can the daily practices and games push doing homework into the wee hours, but the games are often played a good distance from home, which can leave even less time for schoolwork and sleep. My older daughter Stella found this out when she joined her college’s sailing team; some of the weekend meets were held several states away, requiring a seven-hour drive each way. Though she loved the sport, during sailing season her weekends left her little time for relaxing, and she had to stay up late into the night on Sundays to finish assignments due on Monday morning. All of this doesn’t mean, of course, that you should encourage your kids not to play sports. On the contrary, it’s great for their health, and can do a lot to stabilize their mood and make them feel good
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits about themselves. But if your teen is a serious athlete, it’s a good idea to be aware of how much time is devoted to practices and meets and make sure she isn’t over-extended and dangerously sleep deprived. SNOOZE NEWS Sleep researcher Mary Carskadon notes that extended travel by sports teams can be particularly hard on teams that play on the opposite coast. West Coast athletes playing in the east might not be able to fall asleep until later on the night before a game and not get enough sleep to play well. East Coast teams that play in the west will have an advantage over their opponents if they play early in the day because they’ll have been awake longer and have more energy; however, when they return home, especially if they’ve been gone a week or more, they may have a significant phase delay that will keep them from falling asleep until late. While adults who travel from coast to coast can experience problems adjusting to the different time zones, teens are at a greater disadvantage because of their different inner clocks. The Need for Privacy and Personal Time With their lives crammed full with classes, homework, after-school activities, jobs, social events, and family time, today’s teens are busy from the moment they get out of bed until the moment they climb back in. That leaves them with no time to relax, reflect, or have a good heart to heart with a friend—all vital during the emotionally charged, change-filled teen years. So teens who are especially busy but have a strong need for time to themselves often see the hours after their family is asleep as the only time they can call their own. That time may be used for just about anything. Some teens use it to call or IM their friends. Others like to read, write in journals, or listen to music. Still others use the time to work on a hobby. After a hectic day, quiet time, when no one’s asking anything of them and they can actually relax, can be very appealing to adolescents—and worth the exhaustion that results the next day. Another reason teens choose to stay up late at night is because they can. It’s not only quiet after midnight, but it’s a time over which they can have some control. After a day that’s regimented by school administrators, teachers, coaches, and parents, the night hours are a time when kids can be in charge. For independent-minded teens, who are working to break away and find their own identity, time that they can regulate can seem like a must-have.
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits Three Patients Say … “I get to have a secret relationship with myself when everyone goes to bed around midnight. I get to think and write and get to know my own mind in a very honest environment.” “I have two friends who I’m never able to see during the day [at college]. So we meet quietly at night in one of our dark dorm rooms when our roommates are asleep. We whisper and talk for hours.” “My house is especially crazy and hectic. Nighttime is relaxing. It’s just you and your thoughts.” Technology OK, I have to warn you here—I’m about to rant and rave. Television is malignant—there’s no other way to say it. The shows that adolescents watch are filled with violence, inappropriate sex, and truly horrific stuff, and it’s not only warping their psyches during the day but keeping them up at night. While some kids try to relax by watching soap operas in the afternoon—bad enough in itself—many are watching shows with disturbing content at night, right before they try to fall asleep. From 10:00 to 11:00 p.m., most networks provide programming in which characters get blown up or tied up or have life-threatening illnesses or creepy people stalking them. At a time when kids should be trying to wind down and empty their minds of problems to make the transition to sleep, they’re bombarded by frightening images. NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF TELEVISION WATCHING The results of a research study entitled “The Children in the Community” reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that adolescents who watched more than three hours of TV a day were at a significantly higher risk for sleep problems by early adulthood. Adolescents who lowered their TV watching to less than an hour a day experienced a significant reduction in that risk.
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits Much of what’s on TV at night just doesn’t make viewers feel good. And if you’re already worried or feeling under pressure, a heavy dose of suspense can send you over the edge. But these shows can be very hard to turn off because their formats are calculated to have you watch until the next commercial, and you feel like you can’t shut them off before the end. And if teens have a TV in their room, they may be even less likely to turn the thing off—and you’ll be less likely to know what they’re watching and less likely to ask them to turn it off. While I know many teens think of TV watching as a way to relax, I believe it’s counterproductive and adds to their sleep issues. MORE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF TELEVISION WATCHING In a study noted in MediaFamily.org’s online MediaWise column, 65 percent of teens reported having a television in their bedrooms. And according to a study conducted by the National Institute on Media and the Family, kids who have a TV in their room watch five and a half hours more TV each week than kids who don’t. Not only has this extensive exposure to television been linked to poor school performance, it contributes to reducing kids’ desire to become involved in nonelectronic activities, such as reading, outings, and family time. Computers, too, can be very stimulating and add to teens’ sleep problems. Yes, kids need them for homework and projects, but if they browse the Internet or spend time on disturbing Web sites or playing violent computer games close to lights out—or after lights out—it will be a big deterrent to winding down enough to sleep. At my home we keep the computers in the family room so that it’s less likely that my kids will browse inappropriate sites or e-mail or IM friends in the middle of the night. It also helps to keep some of the homework materials off their beds and out of their rooms and makes it more likely that, when they go to their bedrooms, sleep will actually take place. Then, of course, in addition to the MP3 players and all the other portable music options, there are the ubiquitous cell phones. I certainly use mine every day and I imagine you use yours, but I don’t
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits IT’S A FACT A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 81 percent of teens who use the Internet play games online and 75 percent use Instant Messaging—35 percent of whom say they IM for over an hour a day. If there’s no time for it during the daylight and evening hours because of busy schedules, I wonder when there is time … think you and I use ours in the middle of the night—the way many teens do. Adolescent patients tell me that they often talk on their cell phones or text message under the covers, making plans with friends for the next day or finding out about any social happenings they missed that day. They may stay up chatting for hours, and when they do finally try to get some rest, any worrisome news they heard, about their boy- Look familiar? The many distractions of the adolescent bedroom.
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits friend or girlfriend or even schoolwork, can make them too anxious to fall asleep. If they do fall asleep, there still may be another problem—many teens don’t turn their cell phones off at night and keep them in their rooms, if not right in bed with them. Remember the story I told you earlier about how Elyssa’s cell phone rang at 2:00 a.m. when she and I were on a college tour? Well, she’s not the only teen receiving phone calls when the callers—and everyone else—should be sleeping. (If you don’t think this is a problem at your house, ask your cell phone service provider for an itemized bill; you might be amazed to see the hours at which your teen is receiving—or making—calls.) To cut down on this sleep-reducing problem, I encourage patients to either turn their phones off at night or leave them in the kitchen or another room away from their bedroom. They can check their messages first thing in the morning, the way Elyssa does, and get right back to social business then. It’s even possible, if your teen’s friends or her parents read this book, or your teen knows that you know that she’s making calls after lights out, that there might not be any middle-of-the-night messages to answer. It’s a Status Symbol While many teens learn that staying up well past midnight exhausts them and that they need to get more sleep, others think that the later they stay up, the better. Yes, they may be perpetually tired and their academics, sports, and social lives may suffer, but to them staying up all night is a sign that they’re tough and cool, that they can handle anything. Some kids even have contests to see who can stay awake the longest. One patient told me, “I beat my friend in our staying-awake contest when he fell asleep at 5:00 a.m. the next day. He tried to deny it, but we had him on film. He had to buy me dinner.” It’s a Low Priority When teens are loaded down with school, work, and activities, and they realize that something’s got to give, it’s often sleep—getting eight or nine hours of the stuff just isn’t at the top of the list. Adolescents who want to do it all—and that’s many of them—believe that eliminat-
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits ing some sleep will give them more time for what they want and are expected to accomplish. That, of course, backfires, because getting less rest makes them less energetic and more stressed, but still they often make the choice to sleep less so that they can do more. A Bad Mood Just think about how pumped up you need to be to get through a hectic day and then do it all over again the next. And think how stressed you feel when you’re under pressure to perform, perform, perform. Teens who aren’t sleeping well or long enough can get worn down by the constant need to stay in the game and smile—and it can put them in a perpetually bad mood. That in turn can add to their sleeplessness and make them feel bad about themselves—and that can make them want to stay up late so they can talk with their friends and feel better. During the day, when that pressure is actively on them, just looking at their parents can make teens feel it more; late at night, when the reminders aren’t visible, teens can socialize, relax, and feel free to enjoy themselves. Living in a Multitasking World Multitasking may seem like a strange thing to keep teens awake. But most teens today operate at a fairly complex level, and the hectic daytime schedules they keep can actually cause them problems at night. Even when she watches TV, Elyssa multitasks by talking on the phone with friends and maybe getting things ready for the next day; some kids watch TV, listen to music through headsets, and do their homework all at the same time. After keeping all their many balls in the air during the day and packing in as many leisure-time activities as possible in the evening, many kids find it hard to let go at night and sleep. And some kids who are busy and connected all day can actually feel lonely at night, which makes them worry and stay awake, too. Consuming Caffeine Ah, caffeine. It’s what many adults rely on to get their motor running every morning. But as I talked about in Chapter 2, too much of the
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits Details of the vicious cycle of late sleep time, insufficient sleep, and late weekend sleep-ins that our teens are dealing with. stuff late in the day can keep you awake late into the night. Caffeine intake has also been associated with worsening mood. Many teens, though, especially those in college, like to get together in the evening to relax or study over a cup of coffee or tea. And, of course, what’s better to have with coffee or tea than a rich, chocolaty dessert or giant chocolate chip cookie? On a warm night coffee or tea might be replaced with an ice-cold cola—but most of those choices are packed with a big dose of caffeine too. (See page 43 for the caffeine content of many popular beverages.) So teens might drink caffeine in the morning to cope with their sleep deprivation, drink more to get their schoolwork done, and then consume more in the evening when they get together or study with friends—which will make them feel grumpier and grumpier and feed the continuing sleep deprivation cycle. And if they feel bad enough as they try to accomplish all they need to do, they just might turn to an even more powerful form of caffeine in the mistaken hope of feeling
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Snooze…Or Lose!: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits and performing better. A high-caffeine drink called Bawls, which is currently advertised to Internet game players, is marketed with the slogan “Who needs sleep? Drink Bawls. Never sleep.” Parents Uh, oh, here’s one antisleep influence you probably didn’t want to see. I alluded to it earlier when I talked about how parents get caught up in the college hysteria and contribute to the pressure weighing on their teen. But the truth is, parents add to their teen’s sleeplessness in other ways: The current generation of parents of teens is not great at respecting their own sleep needs, so they’re setting a poor example for their kids as well as sometimes failing to set limits for them. Just as we need to set a good example in other areas of healthy living, we parents need to model good sleep habits as well as guide our kids to get more and better sleep. These twin goals are so important, in fact, that I’ve devoted two separate chapters to the issues: Chapter 8 covers techniques that will help you help your teen establish her own successful sleep program, and Chapter 12 discusses how you can become a great sleep role model. Briefly, though, I want to note here that while your teen may look like she’s completely ignoring you and everything you say (you know that look), she knows exactly what you do and hears quite well what you say—she just might choose not to acknowledge it. But if she sees you staying up late , she’ll think that must be OK. If she sees you drinking coffee to get moving, she’s likely to down a lot of java too. If you’re a couch potato, she might become one as well—and on and on and on. I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t watch TV or multitask or work late if you need to, but I encourage you to be aware of the household dynamic in which your teen is growing up.
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