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Parents Missing the Boat on Health Risks of Teens and Sleep

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Modern parents are crazy. Clearly. We obsess about all the strangest things, fret over each phase of development, consult with others about the ongoing changes in behavior, and lie awake at night worried about our children's emotional angst. Maybe it has always been this way -- but in a 24/7 society, life is a bit of a pressure cooker for kids to perform academically, and physically and socially to navigate through the increasingly vicious world of bullying.

Trouble is, often we spend our time and energy obsessing over things we cannot control, that don't really matter, or can't be helped, and miss out on the really BIG stuff. Take sleep for instance. Parents in the United States are obsessed with sleep -- for their babies. There must be hundreds of books about how to get an infant to sleep! Granted, much of this comes from our own exhaustion and desperation, insecurities as new parents, and naive gullibility to commercialism. Getting an infant to sleep is important, of course.

However, our interest in monitoring and controlling their sleep dramatically drops off after they are fully walking and talking. Why is that? If you are pretty "chillax" about the sleep thing when they are kids, you are in big trouble by the time they are teenagers. After undergoing extensive research into issues of sleep and teens, I would venture to say that lack of sleep can be the hidden root underneath a majority of adolescent and young adult challenges: irritable kids slinging insults that get out of line, slipping grades, obesity, depression, and yes, even increased suicides as we have seen recently in Boston and Cornell.

Somehow getting an adequate amount of sleep has ceased to be a priority in all of our lives. Parents are up late stressing out about unfinished work, clearing out the email box before bed, or just unwinding with some Facebook time. And kids are following along -- staying up much later than previous generations. Trouble is, their bodies are paying a much higher price, and one that can never be taken back.

I have seen untold numbers of parents allowing their elementary aged kids to stay up until 10 p.m. to watch American Idol. Kids start going to bed later than they should at a much younger age, and somehow we have developed a blind eye to its affects. Kids are allowed to go to sleep later and later as youngsters, and naturally believe it is okay to push the bedtime out further as they grow older. If a six-year-old is going to bed at 9 p.m., they are going to feel entitled to go to bed at 10 p.m. by age nine, and then 11 p.m. by the age of 12, etc. And the crazy part is we let them! It is a mystery to me, as so many other aspects of modern parenting life are overly monitored and controlled.

I often get the image of carpenter ants racing from one pile to the other when I think of modern parenting mania; doing all this busy work for very little gain. We heave around these heavy loads, and frantically dump them on our kids. 'Here honey! You need some exercise, so I signed you up for lacrosse, swimming and basketball for this year, and of course you will just love it!" Or "Uh Oh! You got a C in math this quarter, and that means you won't be tracked at the highest level going into middle school, which means you won't get into the honors courses for junior high and high school! I decided to hire a tutor twice a week to squeeze in right after dinner, ok sweetie?"

According to the National Sleep Foundation, if you are like 90 percent of parents, you may think your child is getting enough sleep or not really give the amount of sleep they are getting much thought or concern. Ask a high school kid, and you will get a different answer. Sixty percent of high school kids report feeling "extreme daytime sleepiness" and many admit their grades have dropped because of it. A full third of kids report falling asleep in class at least once a week, and only five percent of high school senior average even eight hours of sleep, which is still less than they need.

Our lackadaisical attitude about getting our youth to sleep is systematically damaging their bodies. It can't be made up once it is gone, and make-up sleep on the weekend doesn't help. You may as well feed your kids nothing but Coke 'n' fries all day, and teach them English in pig Latin. Think being tired doesn't really impact their grades? Think again. Studies have shown that "A" students get more sleep than "B" students, and "B" students get more sleep than "C" students. Turns out Rip Van Winkle is your child's best tutor, mentor and therapist.

Even an extra 15 minutes of sleep shows a marked improvement in academic ability. (Think of the teenage girls who get up an extra hour early to wash their hair and put on make up when that dismal report card comes home). According to recent studies, children who miss even one hour of sleep as a sixth grader will perform at a fourth grade level that day in school.

"Lack of sleep make a challenging time in life much harder to cope with by robbing teens of what their bodies need to refresh, fight off damaging physical and emotional conditions, and grow," wrote Helene Emsellem, MD, author of Snooze or Lose 10 No-War Ways to Improve Your Teens Sleep Habits.

Dr. Frederick Danner at the University of Kentucky conducted some of the seminal research that shows the adolescent brain requires 9.5 hours of sleep on average for optimum development -- and no one is getting it. Only five percent of high school senior sleep even eight hours these days. In fact, compared to thirty years ago, each grade level of children is getting at least one hour less of sleep than they used to. Roseanne Armitage conducted a historical study and found that in 1987, twenty-four percent of college students felt constantly tired. In 2002 the number had soared to seventy-one percent.

Bottom line, we simply cannot live without sleep. Rats that were completely deprived of sleep died in three short weeks, when they normally live three to five years! Another study with college students showed those who slept for only eight hours functioned well, but those allowed to sleep four to six hours had the same performance as the group that was not allowed to sleep at all for three days straight.

In the modern world of bouncy house play dates, iPods, texting in elementary school and endless activities, we bounce our kids here and there and scrutinize their every interaction. Yet somehow have developed a complete and utter blind spot when it comes to being "hyper vigilant" about their sleep, and recognizing it is truly one of the most important jobs we have as parents. Start a dialogue with your kids and teens about sleep. Explain to them why going to sleep earlier will make them feel better, and help unwind the household a little earlier -- for everyone's sake!

How much sleep does your teenager or college student get these days, and do you recognize it to be a major health issue? Let's start a dialogue, and I am collecting stories from parents and youth alike for a new book; "Walking Zombies- America's Exhausted Youth."