A circadian rhythm, or circadian cycle, is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. The circadian rhythm of a young child runs on an earlier schedule, therefore children become sleepy earlier and wake up earlier than their adult parents.
Adolescent teenagers, however, have a different circadian rhythm. During puberty, the timing of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (the central pacemaker of the circadian timing system) is shifted progressively forward: a change that is common across all adolescents. So far forward, in fact, it passes even the timing of their adult parents.
As a nine year old the circadian rhythm would have the child asleep by around nine pm, driven in part by the rising tide of melatonin at that time in children. By the time that same individual has reached sixteen years of age, their circadian rhythm has undergone a dramatic shift forward in its cycling phase. The rising tide of melatonin, and the instruction of darkness and sleep, is many hours away. As a consequence, the sixteen year old will usually have no interest in sleeping at nine pm. Instead, peak wakefulness is usually still in play at that hour. By the time the parents are getting tired, as their circadian rhythms take a down-turn and melatonin release instructs sleep-perhaps around ten or eleven pm, their teenager can still be wide awake. A few more hours must pass before the circadian rhythm of a teenage brain begins to shut down alertness and allow for easy, sound sleep to begin.
Of course, this can lead a lot of frustration for all parties involved for multiple reasons, especially when it comes to the morning and there is the need for them to wake up by a certain hour. Given the lack of sleep, it’s no surprise if they are not able to function optimally.
Sadly, neither society nor our parental attitudes are well designed to appreciate or accept that teenagers need more sleep than adults, and that they are biologically wired to obtain sleep at a different time from their parents.
As they age into young and middle adulthood, their circadian rhythm will gradually slide back in time. Not all the way back to the timing present in childhood, but back to an earlier schedule.
If you are a parent whose daily battle is to get your teenager out of bed in the morning or if you are concerned about the lack of sleep they are getting, then you may now be wondering why on earth has Mother Nature allowed this to happen!
Well, Matthew Walker in his book ‘Why we sleep’, proposes that is perhaps socio-evolutionary. Central to the goal of adolescent development is the transition from parental dependence to independence. He says that perhaps one way in which Mother Nature could be helping adolescents to unbuckle themselves from their parents is to move their circadian rhythms forward in time, past that of their adult mothers and fathers so that they can , for several hours, operate independently.
So now that we have established that teenagers are not so much at fault for staying up late, having difficulty getting to sleep and waking up in a bad mood-what do we do about it as parents when we can see that they are not getting enough hours in before an early morning start?
Well there is no perfect solution in the society that we live in. However, in my opinion it is important to try encourage teenagers to go to sleep earlier, even though they may find it difficult so that they can wake up if it’s necessary to go to school and they will have a better chance of healthy development than if they do not get enough hours of sleep. During those times where there is no need to wake up early then I personally think it is best that we respect nature and allow them this time.
How do you encourage a teenager to sleep earlier than their biological clock? There are many tools you can try such as sleep hypnosis and a calming bedtime routine, however nutritional therapy can also support your child when it comes to sleep. If you would like more information then please contact me.