On Healing 5/2/2005: Too many youths get too little sleep

Fifth-grade students aren’t getting enough sleep, according to a poll of 200 children reported in the Journal of School Health. That finding was consistent with the observation of many of their teachers, who said students frequently yawned and complained of sleepiness. The study’s author, Denise Amschler, a professor of physiology and health science at Ball State University, said elementary school children should be getting at least 10 hours of sleep a night.

We know that when children fail to get enough sleep, they perform poorly in school. And, like adults, they become irritable or withdrawn. This can affect grades, peer relationships and self-esteem.

Young children who are sleep-deprived can also show symptoms of agitation and distractibility – symptoms that look very much like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many children on medication for attention deficit disorder and ADHD are really sleep-deprived. Unfortunately, the stimulants prescribed for ADD help keep a child awake and focused, so the cycle continues.

And it’s not just younger children who are sleep-deprived. Most adolescents complain of sleep deprivation. That’s because the brain goes through a cycle in adolescence that requires more sleep than it did before puberty.

Our children are overstimulated. So much so that according to the study, almost two-thirds of the children who were asked reported that they had difficulty falling asleep. It’s no wonder they can’t sleep; many of these children have computers, video games or television sets in their bedroom.

Last year I taught a course on communication and compassion for adolescents and their parents. We began each lecture with a period of mindfulness meditation. Most of the parents loved it, but the children were unable to close their eyes, let alone calm their minds. They later told me that relaxation to them is listening to loud music while they are instant messaging several friends. Nobody can sleep when the brain is moving at that rapid pace.

Whenever I speak with groups of children, especially in the suburbs, their primary complaint is of constant pressure to perform. They try to meet the very high expectations of schools, peers, parents and themselves. They say that the stress is relentless. They live with multiple performance pressures, including standardized tests and unreasonable amounts of homework. Even their extracurricular activities are geared more toward performance than pleasure. And the problem goes beyond just sleep.

We know our children don’t eat very well. Very few report having family meals even a couple of times a week. And a high school student recently told me that lunch period was optional in her school. She said she doesn’t want to take the time to eat, so she eats a candy bar between classes.

We know our children live under stress, and we know that intentionally or not, we contribute to it. But do we know how? Most parents have a vision of what they would like to see their children accomplish in their lifetimes. That vision inevitably includes material and social success. We want our children to have lives of safety and security. But that’s our vision, not theirs. Our wish for them could wind up restricting their lives rather than enhancing them.

A lawyer near retirement told me that when he was in high school, his father told him to get good grades so he could get into an Ivy League school. So he did. Then, he said, his father told him that if he made dean’s list, he could get into one of the better law schools. So he did. Finally, his father said that if he made law review, he would be offered a well-paying job in a prestigious law firm. And he did. As he concluded his story, looking sad and tired, he said: “Now I have my Mercedes-Benz and my Shore house, but I don’t know whose life I’ve been living.”

A father’s dream. A son’s burden.

Summer is coming. Let’s try to switch gears, slow down, sleep more, eat better, and take time to listen to our children’s dreams for their lives.

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