Does your teenage son stay up late every night, night after night? Blame it on wild animals.
One theory on why teenagers are wired to stay awake later is that in another time, they were charged with protecting the village or camp at night from any dangerous creatures that might invade. A teen on guard might be more alert for that bear than his adult counterparts would be.
Unfortunately, this innate tendency to stay up later doesn’t quite apply to today’s world, where most of the population isn’t at risk of a bear attack (even in Alaska). Teens are still wired to fall asleep later, but then are expected to wake up early the next morning. As a result, most adolescents (almost 90 percent) do not get the 9 hours of sleep that most recommendations call for.
The late nights can drive parents crazy, especially when they see tired teens who simply are not ready to go to sleep. The teen brain doesn’t produce melatonin—the hormone that induces sleep—at the same time the brains of younger children and adults do. As a result, the average teenager isn’t ready to go to sleep at 8:30 p.m., or 10, or maybe even 11.
‘Just Make Them Go to Bed Sooner!’
Teens’ seemingly bizarre sleeping habits are the source of many negative feelings from adults either unaware of unbelieving of the science. Some examples of these attitudes include:
- “Maybe if teens went to bed sooner, they wouldn’t be so tired!” Again, this overlooks the science that teenagers generally aren’t designed to go to sleep early. Winding down without screen time before sleep is a good way for teens to fall asleep easier, but you can eliminate every electronic from your teen’s life and insist he’s in bed by 10 p.m., yet he still might not fall asleep for an hour or more after crawling under the covers.
- “They will have to learn to wake up early eventually; why not now?” Once your kids hit their 20s, they will be more biologically prepared to function in the workplace every morning. Trying to force it upon them now will reinforce the attitude that mornings suck, potentially making them more resistant to your efforts to help them sleep.
- “I had to wake up early when I was a teen and was fine!” Congratulations, you were outside the norm and didn’t need as much sleep. However, study after study has discovered that a later start time for high school results in better academic performance. A goal for our children is for them to enjoy greater success than we did. Why would we thwart that by insisting on sleep habits that go against their basic biology?
Sleeping for the Weekend
Tired teens will often sleep later on the weekends; their bodies might simply demand it. This isn’t the best way to catch up on sleep—it can throw off their sleep patterns—but at least they are getting two nights of good sleep this way instead of none. Encourage your teens to go to bed at about the same time as they would during the week and not too sleep too late on weekend mornings. Midnight to 9 a.m. is a good weekend slumber for teens who may only be getting 7 hours a night during the week.
In the meantime, work with your teens to discourage screen time after a certain time each night. And remind them that, if they are awake late, look out for the bears.
How late does your teen go to sleep every night?