201: The Teen Sleep Epidemic, with Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Did you know that only about 10 percent of U.S. high school students get 9-10 hours of sleep a night, the amount required for healthy sleep at that age? Teens who aren’t sleeping enough don’t just walk around groggy. A lack of healthy sleep negatively impacts mental health, cognitive function, reactivity, emotional regulation, immune function, and relationships.  

Clearly, adequate sleep is important. But how do we help teens with a lot of demands and distractions prioritize sleep? That’s what Heather and Julie, authors of the new book, “Generation Sleepless,” offer in this episode of Beautifully Complex. We discuss the ramifications of sleep deprivation and how to help your teen get motivated about their sleep health.

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Generation Sleepless, by Heather Turgeon & Julie Wright

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My Guest

HEATHER TURGEON
Heather Turgeon, MFT is a psychotherapist who specializes in sleep and parenting. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kids. She and Julie frequently speak at parenting centers and schools, and offer sleep consultations and individual therapy.
 
JULIE WRIGHT
Julie Wright, MFT is the creator of the Wright Mommy and Me, one of Los Angeles’ best known mommy and me programs. She has specialized training and experience in the 0-3 years, interning at Cedars Sinai Early Childhood Center and LA Child Guidance Clinic. She divides her time between Los Angeles and New York City and has a son in college.



 

Transcript

Heather Turgeon 0:03

When you scan the brains of people who are sleep deprived, you do see all that, prefrontal activities is lower, and then you show them images of people's faces and people will perceive faces in a more negative way when they are sleep deprived.

Penny Williams 0:22

Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started.

Welcome back to the beautifully complex podcast. I am thrilled in this episode to be bringing you some crucial information on the teen sleep epidemic. And there's so many of you listening are really struggling with your kids and maybe their sleep patterns or not getting enough sleep and, and all of the fallout that we deal with in our families, when our kids are not rested enough. And I have here with me, Heather and Julie, and they are going to really give us some valuable insights and strategies on this teen sleep epidemic. Thanks for being here. Ladies, would you start by introducing yourself to everyone listening? Let us know who you are and what you do?

Heather Turgeon 1:32

Sure, this is Heather. I am a psychotherapist and author. And we've written three books two about sleep and one about empathic communication. The Happy sleeper and generation sleepless are books that focus on kids and asleep.

Julie Wright 1:49

And I'm Julie right. I'm also a psychotherapist and like Heather said, we've written the three books together. We also do sleep consultations with babies, young children, teenagers, and we're really excited about our new book because we feel so responsible for helping teenagers now that we realize how bad the crisis is. So we're excited to be here.

Penny Williams 2:18

Yeah, thanks so much for giving us a little bit of your time and wisdom. I think we should start by talking about how it's an epidemic. What do the numbers look like? What is the crisis that's going on with teens and sleep?

Heather Turgeon 2:33

The crisis is pretty pronounced. So about 70% of young children get healthy sleep and about 60% of adults get healthy sleep. But only about five to 10% of us high schoolers, especially by their junior year are getting enough sleep. So we're looking at, the sleep needs of a teenager being around nine hours nine and a quarter is actually the average for an adolescent to need every night. But they are getting about six to six and a half hours on a school night. So they are racking up about 10 to 12 hours of sleep debt every week while they're in school. So it's very stark. It's a nosedive that really happens starting in middle school and it picks up speed and reaches its crisis point by the middle of high school.

Penny Williams 3:23

Yeah. And it has so many repercussions. It affects so much of our daily life, right? What do we see in teens who are lacking that healthy sleep that you're talking about?

Julie Wright 3:34

Yes, sleep deprivation affects every single aspect of our life. The aspect that we'd like to look at first for teenagers is their mental health. And it's no coincidence that we're in a period where teens are also in a mental health crisis. So we know that when the brain is sleep deprived, it just doesn't work the same way the prefrontal cortex is less active. And that's the part of our brain that helps us make sense of things and have objectivity and filter people's words and facial expressions in a more positive light. The part of our brain that is more active as the brain stem the amygdala, the more reactive fight or flight part of the brain. So we're much more likely to just be over reactive have knee jerk reactions, we're more likely to be emotional, we're more likely to see the world in a negative way. That's just one aspect of what happens with sleep deprivation that affects mental health. But sleep deprivation affects our ability to learn, to focus to retain information, so everything that matters about school, it also affects our overall health and our immune system and our healthy weight regulation. The list really goes on and on.

Penny Williams 4:55

It's pervasive. It sounds to me like it's completely pervasive. So that effect on the mental health on your physical health, right, you're talking about the immune system that can really affect everything that a teen is trying to do or asked to do or expected to do.

Heather Turgeon 5:15

Yeah, I think it's ironic that, we expect so much of our teenagers and they're so busy, and they're responsible for so much, and their days are long, and we're expecting a lot of them. And meanwhile, all the, the constraints that they have on their time, are, we're basically working against them or stacking the deck against them, because they can't learn as well. They don't feel as inspired and creative. Because you can't, when you're sleep deprived, your brain is, like Julie said, not as creative not absorbing information well, so we're really, we're not setting them up for success.

Penny Williams 5:51

Yeah. And we talk a lot about availability to learn here on the podcast, because a lot of our neurodivergent kids end up spending a lot of time in that fight flight or freeze dysregulation. And when that happens, their thinking brain is offline, right, and they're not as available to learn. And you're also describing something similar is that the prefrontal cortex isn't working as well to really simplify it. And that means that kids aren't really learning in that school environment. If they make it, they're super tired. It's just not productive, almost right.

Julie Wright 6:28

It's absolutely the case. And, we all know what it feels like to be sleep deprived, it's literally like part of your brain is asleep, which is what you know, those scan showing the prefrontal cortex, what a lot of people think of as the executive function is just less active. And like you said, the executive function controls not only the things I mentioned, but it does control how we learn how we focus, and also how we relate to others. So another aspect I didn't mention is our relationships really suffer. I mean, we all know what it feels like to be sleep deprived, we feel fuzzy, we feel grouchy, we have a hard time concentrating, we feel kind of blue and depressed. Yeah, it's all there.

Penny Williams 7:15

And those relationships are so tough already as a teenager. I mean, that's a hard time to navigate social interactions and to be sleep deprived. On top of that makes it even more challenging.

Heather Turgeon 7:30

Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly it. Our teens need as much positivity, and they need their resources to go out in the world and make friends and also to perceive their families. I think what we see is that when we work with teens on sleep, family dynamics improve, because you go from feeling sort of reactive, and you know, when you're at home, your defenses are down, and everybody's cut sometimes be at their worst, right? Because you're just not holding it all together, like you are out in the world. And when people have more of a well of patience, and just a positivity that comes from sleeping well, they're kinder to their parents, and they're kinder to their teens. We also want parents to be sleeping well, because that also gives us more energy. And we see things in a more positive light and mean, when you scan the brains of people who are sleep deprived, you do see all that, prefrontal activities is lower, and then you show them images of people's faces, and people will perceive faces in a more negative way when they are sleep deprived. So it really does change. It's like putting a filter on the world. And we're sending our teenagers out there with that negative filter.

Penny Williams 8:44

And they so don't need to, they don't need any more right struggle or negativity these days at all. And then what do we do is the big question. As parents, it's really hard to force our teenagers to sleep. So how do we help them?

Julie Wright 9:03

Yeah, it's really true. We describe a perfect storm of factors that contribute to this sleep deprivation, which has been steadily you know, declining sleep has been steadily declining for teens for decades. And those factors include, first of all, just the natural biological shift in the teenagers clock, which means they get tired about two hours later, which means of course, their bodies want to sleep two hours later in the morning. And when we add to that, excessive homework, unreasonable levels of homework, way too many activities often linked to, sort of preparing for their college applications, which has gotten completely out of hand. And then you add technology, which comes in like a wrecking ball to these other factors. All of those that I mentioned, squeeze their sleep in the evening and push bed time later and later.

And then on the other end of their night to early school start times, squeeze sleep from the other end. So what you end up with is just a mathematically impossible equation where teenagers just can't get enough sleep. And we always like to start our practical tips by reassuring parents that we are not pointing the finger at them for this crisis at all. It's a societal issue, it's multi dimensional. As you can tell from all the factors of The Perfect Storm, we really want big tech, and we want college admissions. And we want schools to all wake up and make changes. And in our book, we list ideas for all of those entities. But the good news is that families, parents and teenagers can make a difference in their sleep right away. So that's also true. And because Heather and I are, we are just nerdy sleep specialists, we can help and we have several chapters in the book devoted to helping teenagers essentially get to bed earlier because we can't change in a moment their school wake up time. So a lot of these tools sort of are focused on this idea that we came up with called paleo sleep. Paleo sleep is just this idea that we shift back as best we can to following the natural rhythms of the sun. So the sunset and the sunrise, so we use natural evening darkness to help our bodies prepare for sleep, melatonin and other sleepiness hormones are released. So in the home, we advise parents and their teenagers to start to dim the lights, about one to two hours before the bedtime so that the body's natural chemicals can start to help.

And in the mornings, exposure to early morning sun is pivotal because it helps the melatonin recede and the cortisol emerge. And the cortisol is the hormone that helps us feel alert, and perky and focused and ready to start our day. And the thing that triggers that the best is real early morning sunlight you have to be outside in the sun to get. And the benefit to doing that as well is that it pushes go on your internal clock and your sleep drive starts to build from that moment, which makes falling asleep that evening at a reasonable time. Much easier. So those are just a couple of things to keep in mind. There's a ton more, but that's kind of a good place to start.

Penny Williams 12:33

Yeah. And I hadn't thought about actually getting outside for the sunlight in the morning. And that making more of a difference. I've never heard of that before.

Julie Wright 12:42

Yeah, it's a newer part of sleep science, Heather, and I've learned a lot about it also in the last few years. But it turns out that our bodies need morning sunlight, just as much as we need evening darkness in order to have healthy sleep.

Penny Williams 12:56

That's fascinating.

Julie Wright 12:57

It's very interesting. And it's not that hard to do. You just have to kind of change your habits a little and go outside. You don't have to be outside for long, five to 10 minutes, depending on, you know how cloudy or not it is outside. But it doesn't take a long time.

Penny Williams 13:12

Yeah. And you mentioned the habit word there, which I think can be so hard to change those patterns and those habits. Do you have strategies to help our teens to do that?

Heather Turgeon 13:25

Well, for teenagers, what we love to do, we do talks at high schools. And we love doing that, because we want to talk directly to the kids. And actually a lot of kids enjoy reading the book because we made it fun to read. And it's very digestible and very actionable. So we're finding that a lot of these kids are super interested in the brain and how their bodies work. And they want to feel good. Yeah, they want to feel good. So giving them the information is really important, and maybe not being the one to directly give it to them. Like say, here's what I learned in here, XYZ but saying, Hey, there's this chapter in the book, check it out. I just thought it was fascinating, because it has to do with your brain and I had no idea and giving them you know, a part of the book or sending them an article, we've written plenty on teen sleep, because we really want to inspire them. We don't like you said earlier, we can't tell them, Okay, you Here you go. You have to start your bedtime routine. And I'm going to read you a book and turn out your life and walk out. It's not like that anymore. They have to feel motivated, or else it's not going to stick. So we start and we're therapists, so we have a lot of tools for talking to teenagers, we lead with empathy, and we listen and we have to remember that as parents, it's just your standard good parenting advice for being an empathic listener and figuring out what they are interested in. And, showing them or helping them figure out how sleep will help so we have a lot of athletes who are teenagers, and that is extremely the research is so clear about athletic performance and sleep. So I would say before anything we really have to inspire and self motivate kids.

Penny Williams 15:02

We have to get their buy in. Right? The more we lecture, the less they're hearing us. We have to get their buy in. And I know that, we talk about this sometimes with helping kids to make better choices with food, too, is they have to understand why and want that they have to buy into that and be self motivated, as you're talking about. And that can be tough. You know, I, I know, my own kid, I witnessed his therapist many times when he was still under 18. Telling him, the better you feed the body, the better you're gonna feel, the better you sleep, the better you're gonna feel. And it wasn't important to him yet. He didn't have a connection with something that was really driving him for that yet. And sometimes I think we have to find that right, we have to find that thing that matters to them that connects to getting healthy sleep.

Heather Turgeon 15:54

That's exactly right.

Recently, I was at a high school, and I showed a video of the brain cleaning itself during sleep, and no one had ever seen anything like that before. They just, they always hear that, you just have to go to bed early. And it's good for you. And it's sort of like general advice. But when they see that the brain has a washing machine system that comes in and sweeps out waste during the night while you're sleeping. But it doesn't do that during the day, you have to be asleep for it to happen. They're like, Oh, okay, that's very specific and kind of fascinating. And it makes sense. Like, you wake up in the morning and your brain doesn't feel clean.

Penny Williams 16:35

Who wants a dirty brain?

Heather Turgeon 16:39

That should have been the title of our book. Who wants a dirty brain?

Penny Williams 16:43

Yeah, I mean, another thing you've just thrown out here that I have never heard of either. It's fascinating.

Julie Wright 16:49

That's a recent Yeah, it's like a in the last five to 10 years is when people have really been able to identify that system.

Penny Williams 16:56

Wow. Yeah. And I found too, that a lot of times, especially with our neuro divergent kids explaining the science and the physiology behind things, they tend to really sort of gravitate to you. They're interested in that, we do that around behaviors so that kids know that there's a reason why sometimes they have behavior that they can't control or something like that. And so it works for kind of those consequences of sleep deprivation, too, I think.

Heather Turgeon 17:23

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think that's right.

Julie Wright 17:25

It also helps kids to learn sort of in a related way, the sort of behind the scenes goings on at big tech and college admissions, and even their own high school so that they realize that they're things that impinge on their sleep that are not their fall, or their parents fault, and that they kind of had that sort of skeptical look on technology, and all those big companies laughing all the way to the bank, who don't have their best interests at heart, and just giving them that feeling that I know what's going on, I'm not going to let them control me, that kind of information and talking, I remember teaching my son when he was really young about TV commercials, and he loved it, he would look at me and say, Mommy, I know what they're trying to do here, you know. So it's just really nice to talk to your kids about all this in a way that, like we've been saying it's not, we're not just directing them or telling them what to do. We're really informing them and having a conversation almost like we would with a friend, you know.

Penny Williams 18:28

Yeah, it has to be collaborative. With our kids. That's where we get the most buy in. That's where we give them a sense of control, which means they're feeling better about things. Right. And so it definitely, I think has to be this. We're on the same team. And here's why your sleep is important. Yes, I think is just going to be so much more effective. I want to talk a little bit about school start times. You mentioned that before. And I've seen maybe in a couple areas in the United States where they're starting to experiment, maybe with leader start times for high school. Have there been any studies or anything? Are we getting any data from that yet?

Heather Turgeon 19:09

So yeah, start times have been changing back basically, in the 90s is when researchers realized, oh my gosh, teenagers, brain clocks are shifted two hours later, and they still need nine hours of sleep. Why have we been making them wake up at 630? In the morning? We did a talk at a University recently, where kids were talking about how in high school, they some of them had to wake up at 430 in the morning to get the bus. And so this has been pretty clear from the research for decades now that it's unhealthy for teenagers to have to wake up so early and that it really puts a strain. I mean, basically, the sleep deprived brain is a is a brain under stress. So we're having our kids start the day with just a baseline level of stress in their brains and bodies by making them wake up so early. And like Julie said the morning sun is just pivotal to our health. And when kids have to go to school without seeing the sun, it really puts a drag on the brain. So just depends on where you are in the world, what time high schools are starting, but many places in the US have actually started moving their start times, as of a couple decades ago, and the research is really clear that those kids are healthier, that depression levels go down, visits to the nurse's office go down, because the immune system is boosted with better sleep. There's, fewer absences and all these things.

And you know, they've even shown better grades and academic performance and just feeling better, like fewer kids falling asleep on their desks, right. And so the research is extremely clear. There's just a mountain of evidence. And we have a whole chapter on start times, because it's just so clear from the research that it's important. And now, California, there's a state law in here, I'm in California, and we have a state law now that high schools cannot start before 830. Because of all that research, so California has implemented that law as of this year, my son is a freshman in high school. So we've benefited from that. Yeah. And now New York is considering a similar loss. I'm just I'm hoping we're hoping that that is a trend for states.

Penny Williams 21:18

Yeah, I would like to see it even later. Knowing my own teens, and how hard and even myself, I'm not a morning person, it's really hard to get going in the morning. And I remember as a teenager, or as in high school riding the bus in the dark, I had to catch the bus at like 6:20 or something, it was still dark. And it was depressing to ride the bus to school in the dark, it didn't feel so much different. I remember that. But I think here, where we are in North Carolina, in our county, they start about 10 till eight, which is definitely later, but it still feels like even you know, why do we not sort of let kids guide us in what they need? If we start in it, 9:30 or 10am? I think we would get way better results for teenagers specifically, yeah, there's a lot of pushback, just from the society in general.

Julie Wright 22:17

And that's natural, we don't like change, and we can come up with many reasons why it's not going to be a good idea. But in the districts that have made the change, everything works out, the sports teams still get their practice, and the kids all still get picked up after school. And financially, they actually see improvement in the finances for whatever the district is. So it's just a lot of it's just that humans being resistant to change. Yeah, we are very resistant in education. We'd like an even later.

Penny Williams 22:48

Yeah, all the battles that we do with our teenagers and so much of them revolve around sleep and responsibilities that are early when they're still tired. And like it would just create a more gentle home atmosphere to I think, better family relationships, definitely.

Julie Wright 23:09

And the research. Also people will say, Well, if you change school start times later, teens are just going to stay up that much later. But the research does not support that. Yeah, it supports that they still go to bed at about the same time. So they do get an increase in their sleep. And it's cumulative that 3040 50 minutes a night is huge for them. It's a huge difference.

Penny Williams 23:33

Yeah, it really makes all the difference. I want to guess we kind of wrap up, think about where our kids are and what we can do to help them to really make some shifts like what's the first step for a parent to take on that can start to make kind of some quick change, maybe? Is there such a thing?

Heather Turgeon 23:58

Yeah, there is. Yep, absolutely. So the most powerful signal to our sleep is the sun. And we know that sleep starts in the morning. And well sleep actually starts in the morning, it doesn't start at night, we start the brain clock signaling for sleep in the morning. So we have to get outside. Like Julie said, we have to get outside. artificial light inside is not the same. The sun has much higher intensity and different wavelength of light than our indoor light. So we have to just move our bodies outside at least five minutes outside, when we first wake up is extremely important. So if you live in a place where you know, like I'm in Southern California, if you sit outside here, you know for five minutes, your brain is like okay, I'm great. I get it. I know what time it is and I'm ready to coordinate all my physiological activities all day long and get ready for bed. If you live you know in a cloudy or place where the sun is not as intense you might need 15 minutes

But that combined with not sleeping in on the weekend, because let's say you have to wake up for school at seven o'clock during the week, you want to wake up on the weekend by eight or nine at the latest because otherwise, your brain clock is going to be confused and the potency of your sleep chemicals are going to be diluted. So you want to combine those two, you want to limit your sleeping in and don't confuse your brain clock. So Saturday and Sunday, getting out of bed by eight or nine. And that's, if you have to wake up at seven, and then getting outside for five to 15 minutes of sun, just those two things, your brain is going to start to work for you even though you don't realize it, you're giving your brain so much important information and it's getting ready for sleep and it's going to regulate your sleep for the you know, the nights that follow. We really try to get kids motivated to get outside and get sun and not sleep in too much. And then on the evening side, too, then this is more complicated, we really have to figure out how to get their devices away from them and wind the house down and all of that we can talk more about technology. But that tends to be more complicated. I would say the morning sun and the not sleeping in are very actionable. If you get your teenagers permission, you can pull their shades open on the weekend and let the sun come in the window even though it's not as ideal as outdoor sun is at least better.

Penny Williams 26:22

Yeah, I'm just imagining families or kids at least sitting outside eating their breakfast in the morning when weather permits. Like that would be a great way to do it and work it into what you're already doing. Exactly. Instead of adding something too.

Julie Wright 26:38

On my best days, I have my family eating breakfast outside, like you said, or walking the dog or something on my you know not so great days, I would just say to my son, my 14 year old, I'd be like take your phone, go outside, sit on the couch. We have a little porch. Just go sit outside in the sun. I don't care if you're on your phone. Just move your body outside.

Penny Williams 26:58

Yeah, yeah. And I you know, honestly, my kids are grown now. But I don't think I ever had them go outside in the morning. Not once because I didn't know to. We don't think about that at all. So that's a remarkable little nugget that I think it's going to be a big change shifter for a lot of people now. Yeah, I'm imagining myself moving my rear outside with my coffee in the morning.

Julie Wright 27:22

And yeah, it's important for all of us. And then what happens if you do that if you're also working on the evening and trying to, change some family rituals and routines around Dimming the lights, maybe parking devices, all of you, including parents, for younger teens, holding on to those bedtimes and not being afraid to do that. What will happen is if you have that early morning light, it'll be easier for everyone to fall asleep at an earlier hour versus just, teenagers saying I just can't fall asleep. I'm not tired yet. I'm lying awake. So it all follows. You know, it's it's this idea of, looking at our evenings and our mornings, and we even have a section on daytime practices that help with sleep like napping and caffeine and even diet.

Penny Williams 28:12

Yeah, yeah. There's so many factors I can imagine. I think we've gotten such a good place to start from, just a few good simple things to start with. And then opening that conversation more to trying to work on helping our kids understand why it shouldn't be important for them. And getting their buy into it. Yeah, amazing. I've learned so much in the last 30 minutes. It's incredible. Oh, fantastic. Yeah, I know everyone listening has learned a ton as well, and has some action to take right away, which is always exciting. And I want to make sure for everyone listening that you know how to connect. And to get the book that we've been talking about as well. If you go to the show notes for this episode, they're found at parentingADHDandautism.com/201 for episode 201. And I will have links there for everything that they have provided. So every website, social media, the books that Heather and Julie have written, all of that good stuff will be there for you to connect and learn more from them. And I really encourage you to do that. Because clearly, we have a lot more to know about sleep. I feel like I might have dropped the ball a little bit in that area, but it's never too late to pick it up. Right. It's never too late tomorrow morning. I'm gonna have coffee outside. That's what I'm gonna do.

Julie Wright 29:39

Never too late.

Penny Williams 29:39

Yeah, I know. I'm actually excited about it. This is good. I love the sunshine. I just don't get enough of it. It's now I have even more reason to make sure that I do.

Heather Turgeon 29:50

Oh, that's great.

Penny Williams 29:50

So awesome. Well, thank you so much. It has been a pleasure to chat with you. And again, I really really appreciate you sharing some of your time and your wisdom with the families out there that we're helping.

Julie Wright 30:01

Yeah, we enjoyed it.

Heather Turgeon 30:03

Thank you so much. This was fun.

Penny Williams 30:04

Awesome, and I will see everyone on the next episode. Take good care.

Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingADHDandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

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