Late last year, a Perth doctor was fined and suspended from practising medicine after he burnt his 16-year-old son’s leg with an iron when he wouldn’t get out of bed to go to school.
It was a shocking reaction to a common issue among families: slanging matches between parents and teenagers, who are labelled as difficult or lazy because they refuse to get out of bed.
Teens need more sleep due to their brain development.Credit:iStock
Experts insist it is not that teenagers are being difficult, but that our society doesn’t support biological changes that happen during adolescence. These changes are being exacerbated by late-night screen use.
University of Sydney chair of adolescent medicine Kate Steinbeck says: “Teenagers have a delayed sleep onset phase, which means their body naturally wants to go to sleep later.”
This phase peaks during the middle of adolescence and also means teens tend to be groggier in the morning because their body has the same sleep need of eight to nine hours, but they still need to wake up early for school. “For many teenagers, it is like being in a permanent state of jet lag.”
Only about 7 per cent of teens gets adequate sleep, according to a survey of 12,000 Australian high school students by Dr Chris Seton, paediatric sleep specialist from the Woolcock Institute.
“Which age group has the highest percentage of sleep problems? It’s teenagers by far,” Seton says. “The reason we don’t see more teenagers is that the general awareness is low.”
Awareness is low because behavioural issues that may be sleep-related are brushed off as teens being moody.
It can be difficult to untangle what is causing what. We typically hear about hormonal changes affecting their mood, but there are also “incredible brain developments” during adolescence.
“[They] start developing the most effective communication and task pathways, so there’s an increase in synapses, which are nerve connections,” explains Steinbeck.
“These are trimmed back over time as you find the optimal way of doing tasks, and your nerves get covered in more myelin which allows them to have the messages sent quicker.”
With a rapidly changing brain and hormones, teenagers are particularly susceptible to the effects of inadequate sleep.
“As they get tired, prefrontal cortex, the sensible brain shuts down and goes to sleep,” Seton says. “And the amygdala – the emotional bit of the brain – is still wide awake. We call it all petrol and no brakes. The brake is prefrontal cortex and the petrol is the amygdala.”
Along with increased likelihood of risk-taking, impulsivity and emotional reactivity, teens struggle to retain information when they are tired. This also means trying to do homework, if they are tired, instead of getting the extra sleep is futile.
“They’re less attentive, less likely to take in learning,” Steinbeck says. “Sleep lack is associated with mood disorders, particularly depressive disorders. And it’s something that [has] also probably been associated with heavier body weight.”
So, how do parents separate our general moodiness or other issues from sleep deprivation?
In his clinic, Seton asks two questions. The first is whether the teen has big sleep-ins on weekends or school holidays. “Not like an hour, an hour and a half, but, you know, sleeping until late morning because that is a reflection of trying to pay back the sleep debt,” he explains.
The second question is whether the parent is struggling to get the teen out of bed for school each morning.
“That can be just school aversion,” he says. “But, it can be that they’re in deep sleep, and they’ve not had enough sleep.”
Trying to delineate between depression and sleep deprivation is trickier because poor sleep leads to poor mood and poor mood also makes sleep harder.
“If you’re a teenager with depression, your risk of insomnia is over 90 per cent,” Seton says. “And if you are a teenager who has inadequate or poor quality sleep, your risk of mental health problems subsequent to that is also very high.”
The struggle then is what to do with this information as the school year kicks back into gear.
In an ideal world, high schools would push back their start times, like some states in the US have to accommodate for this natural biological change.
As much as possible, it can help to ensure your teen isn’t doing intense exercise, consuming big meals, caffeine, or high-energy drinks late at night. As many as 90 per cent of adolescents also use an electronic device in the hour before bed at least one night a week, with more than half using a device every night.
It’s well-established that screen time before bed has a negative impact on sleep, but even having screens in bedrooms when you’re not using them can affect sleep, Seton says, and this is partly because of blue light and partly because our brains start to equate our room with something exciting and produce wakeful neurochemicals.
Steinbeck says screen use is an issue the whole family needs to address: “If you’re going to change it, the whole family has to change it,” she says. Easier said than done, especially when social interactions are at their peak importance during this stage.
“Talk to them about your health and wellbeing concerns. Say you know that friends are really important to them, but we’ve got to find a compromise.”
That compromise might involve leaving screens out of the bedroom and shifting bedtime forward by just half an hour.
It’s the perfect time of year to address it, says Seton. Bedtime may have become late over the holidays but as the school routine is back in full swing and days are becoming shorter, it’s time to make a change, and it might just help teens feel less jet-lagged and cranky when they get out of bed.
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