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Is Your Late-Sleeping Teen Just Lazy?

“My daughter avoids her weekend chores by sleeping the whole weekend away; I can’t get her up before noon!”

“My son stays up ‘til all hours playing video games or texting his friends, then can’t wake up for school in the morning! I end up having to yell and threaten him just to get him out of bed.”

It’s easy to think that your teenager is being lazy or just plain defiant when he or she stays up late and then can’t get up in the morning. However, the recent policy statement about teen sleep that was issued in August by the American Academy of Pediatrics reminds us that teens are biologically wired to go to bed and wake up later. This issue is getting increasing national attention, like in this NY Times feature, and the take-home message is this: Around the time of puberty, there is a shift in human circadian rhythm that makes it harder -and sometimes biologically impossible- to fall asleep early enough to meet recommended sleep hours in time for typical high school start times.

These difficulties may be exacerbated if your teen also struggles with other executive functioning skills such as difficulty planning ahead (“I know it’s hard for me to get to sleep by 11, so I’m going to put all my electronics away by 10,”) and difficulty switching gears (“I’m working on this project now, but I can stop now and then start again after school tomorrow”).

So what are the results of this? Many teens drag themselves out of bed, slump to school, and nod off through the first couple classes. Others, including some of the adolescents we work with at Think:Kids, find it impossible to get to school on time and end up engaging in frequent morning-time battles with parents.

The good news is that there is a national movement to consider later start times for high school students. This movement is picking up steam, and now includes schools in the Boston area, near the home of Think:Kids.

But if your child’s school isn’t making the switch to start later, remember the mantra: Skill not Will. If you are having morning-time struggles with your teen, consider his or her biology, consider what other skill struggles may be exacerbating the issue, and then try to work with your teen to problem-solve it together.

And don’t forget… wait to have that conversation until you’re both fully awake!

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