My Tween Kid Is Exhausted, And Yours Probably Is Too

by Jennifer Rosen-Heinz
An exhausted tween kid, laying face down on a kitchen table
Peopleimages / iStock

It’s 6:45 a.m., and my son is sitting on the stairs in our house, tying his shoes. It takes him three minutes to do so because he’s moving in slo-mo. My mom instinct is to hurry him so he won’t miss the bus. My human instinct is to feel pity for him. That kind of tired is so visceral, it makes even me feel dragged down, as though I’m carrying some sort of comical anvil weight in a cartoon.

All things considered, this time of the year isn’t as bad — it’s at least starting to get light out. The birds have already been up and twittering for a while. But in the winter, it seems downright brutal to send an 11-year-old out into the snow and cold when it’s not even light out yet.

Aside from our subjective experience or even the shared war stories with other moms, there’s a wide body of evidence that’s been mounting for some time that sleep deprivation in tweens and teens is real, and despite lots of scientific proof, little has been done to change it.

You can’t just “get them to sleep earlier.” This has long been the argument: Our kids wouldn’t be so sleep-deprived if we just got them to bed earlier. Yeah, good luck with that. Even on nights when nothing is going on and all homework is done, after my son showers and reads, when all things are in place, he finds it hard to fall asleep. The thing is, it’s not his fault. It’s biology.

We’ve known for years that kids’ circadian rhythms change as they approach puberty, shifting later. This isn’t laziness or defiant behavior. It’s biology. In fact, the national nonprofit organization Start School Later says that preteens and teens’ bodies are not telling them they are sleepy until far later, and that their bodies are not telling them to wake up until after 8 a.m.. This falls directly in contrast to many school start times, where we expect kids to be in their seats and learning, like my son, by 7:30 a.m. Ask any middle school teacher, and they’ll tell you that kids don’t really wake up in class until 9 a.m.

Sleep deprivation isn’t just an inconvenience — it’s dangerous.

As anyone who has been sleep-deprived themselves knows, sleep deprivation is no joke. I’m pretty sure that the first two years of both of my kids’ lives (yes, they were terrible sleepers) I spent far too much time being grumpy, annoyed, feeling weepy, and otherwise feeling unproductive. If you’ve gone through a stretch of insomnia, you also know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing worse than feeling wired at the wrong time, and then so bone-tired you can’t function (but have to anyway).

Kids are no different. Studies have shown that teens need nine hours of sleep a night. Yet how many of our kids are actually getting this? And lest we think that they’re “just tired,” an overwhelming amount of research has proven that lack of sleep is a public health emergency for kids. When kids are sleep-deprived, their academic achievement suffers, they act out more and need more behavioral interventions, have higher rates of depression and suicide, and are at greater risk of accidents, including those newly minted 16-year-old drivers.

If evidence is overwhelming, why aren’t more school districts adjusting school start times?

That’s the $10-million-dollar question. All things being equal, if we understand that kids’ sleep deprivation isn’t just a nuisance, but has real health consequences, why isn’t there more of a will to change things?

I’ve been working locally with my school board to try and get our middle school start times shifted later, and I’ve seen firsthand what the barriers are. Some people, even after being presented with the data, still see sleep as a luxury rather than a necessity. (Cue the people saying, “In my day…”) There are all sorts of judgments about sleep: Those who sleep more are “lazy” or just need to be whipped into shape. Then there are structural issues like transportation: If a school district has a limited number of buses and uses them on multiple runs, there may not be enough buses to go around. This then leads to bottom-line issues. Rarely, if ever, is switching to a later start time cost-neutral.

However, if we prioritize our kids’ health, we can and must do better than the status quo. And although hard to track, by moving middle and high school start times later, we will also be saving money in other places. For instance, needing fewer behavioral interventions means less money spent there. If one of the stated goals of education is to raise healthy, productive citizens who happen to achieve more in school, it seems like something we should try to do.

Unfortunately, the changes I am advocating for may not be of benefit to my son. So far, our school board has taken two years to talk about and do preliminary work on changing school start times. They are hopeful to roll out a couple of test schools next year, and there are no guarantees that my son’s school will be one of them. But I know that this is a fight worth fighting. I remember those early days of bone-tiredness myself, and watching my kid slouch off to school in the morning reinforces for me the urgency of the issue not just for my kid, but for our kids. We can — and must — do better.