Learning Points: A good night’s sleep is crucial for teenagers

THERE are so many challenging relationships we have to navigate in our daily lives; our peer group, colleagues and family all demand incredible political acumen to traverse without conflict. But there are other relationships, ones that are more innocuous, subtler and yet drive us crazy at times. And while our relationship with family and friends are, to some extent, within our control, some relationships are not.

One of the most complex and problematic relationships I have in my life is my relationship with sleep. She has been a cruel mistress over the years. The night before my Leaving Certificate she was nowhere to be seen, I vividly remember begging, praying even, for her to arrive, but she did not obey my desperate pleas. I yawned my way through that first exam. In fact, over the years, the more I looked for her the more diaphanous that chief nourisher in life’s feast became. And yet, the night before my wedding I slept like the proverbial log. As I said, it’s complicated.

The loss of sleep is a common aliment; us humans have always had an unusual relationship with it. A deep sleep has not always been a good thing for our survival. So, we are suspicious of it, and yet we need it to survive.

They say if you live for 90 years you will spend a total of that time – 32 years to be exact — supine and still. But for many of us that quiet time can really be challenging.

Sleep deprivation occurs when an individual gets less sleep than they need to feel awake and alert. The amount of sleep an individual needs varies from person to person but, on average, teenagers need eight to 10 hours to be alert the following day, while adults need slightly less, averaging about seven to eight hours. Why do we sleep? Well, scientists and sleep specialists all agree we sleep to rejuvenate the body. However, for most of us, we are functioning on minimal sleep. And in my experience teenagers are the biggest sufferers of sleep deprivation and they are the very ones who need it the most.

Three facts about sleep deprivation you should know to support your teenager through exams:

1. Loss of sleep alters normal functioning of attention, and disrupts the ability to focus on environmental sensory input. When you think about this fact it is easy to understand why so many students around this time of year struggle with getting enough sleep. Stress impacts our ability to sleep, so when students become stressed they lose sleep and this in turn impacts the ability to function highly the next day which prevents them from being able to reach the levels of concentration required for learning off subject material and this causes more stress. So, it becomes a desperate negative cycle for the student.

I have many conversations with students concerning this cycle. In fact, schools are becoming far more aware of the importance of sleep. I get invited to schools to talk to students and parents about how to develop healthy sleep patterns. Education seems to be changing to support students cope with the demands placed on them by the points system. This is a very positive thing, because the pressure on them is immense.

Last year a student in The Institute of Education was one of six students in the country to achieve 6 H1s. I wrote about her last year because she is a remarkable and inspiring young lady. She obviously studied well but she also was very balanced in her approach, she kept up her extra curricular activities like tennis and still managed to have a social life.

One of the key aspects of her success, she told me, was finishing study before 10pm in the evening so that she could unwind before going to sleep. She acknowledged that a restful sleep was so important to her success.

Students need to hear a narrative like that, because they often mistakenly think they have to give up everything to do well in the exam — friends, sport and even sleep. And their mental health suffers as a result. Achieving your goal in the Leaving Certificate is not only about studying hard but also about having a healthy approach to that study. And getting the required sleep so that your brain is nourished is a vital component in that success.

2. Not getting enough sleep prevents the body from strengthening the immune system. That is why teenagers often get sick during the weeks leading up to the exams. They are rundown and susceptible to infection, because lack of sleep depletes the body’s ability to reproduce cytokines, which fight off infection.

3. Insufficient sleep impacts on a teenager’s diet. The less sleep they have the more insulin they produce which increases fat storage so when they eat foods like carbohydrates for energy their body will more rapidly store it as fat.

Sleep is a crucial part of a healthy day ahead and yet, at times, we can have such a difficult relationship with it. In next week’s column, I will write about how you can support your child and help them to develop a healthy sleep pattern.

- Richard Hogan is clinical director of therapyinstitue.ie, a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three. If you have a question, contact info@richardhogan.ie

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