Our brain benefits from sleep. Here's why and how parents can help teens get a lot.


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Teenagers need sleep. We have mountains of research on the dangers of sleep deprivation – how does that increase the risk of depression, makes it difficult to regulate emotions, harms health, and impairs cognitive functioning. At one level, teens already know it. They may not be able to describe the neuroscience that underlies them, but they know what it's like to live without sleep.

I lead workshops with college students on learning and the brain. The week we slept, they kept talking. During our startup activity, they filled out their notebooks and the whiteboard of ways in which sleep deprivation affects their thinking, their physical health, and – more animatedly – their emotional stability. Here's how they ended the sentence "When I'm not sleeping enough …"

  • It's hard to concentrate in class; I can not concentrate; I can not think clearly.
  • My body begins to feel heavy; I have headaches; I feel awkward.
  • I am so grumpy; my head is spinning with negative thoughts; I cry or cry without reason; I am more sensitive; I am impatient; my emotions are just out of control.

Or, as one girl put it, "When I do not sleep enough, everything is more difficult."

Knowing all this, however, does not necessarily mean a change in behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics considers that teen sleep deprivation is "a key public health problem" that poses a "serious risk to physical and emotional health, academic success and youth safety" of our country". Teens need at least 8 hours of sleep a year. night for optimal operation, but they do not get it. In fact, in Grade 12, 75% of students have less than eight hours of sleep on school nights, compared to 16% of sixth graders.

When planning my workshop course, I thought of something that KJ Dell's Antonia, author of "How to Be a Happier Parent," recently told me, "If you teach your children why sleep is important and what it can do for them, can really want and learn to change. In other words, we need to help our children find the motivation that will help them change their behavior.

So, rather than reminding my students of the disastrous consequences of bad sleep habits, I've tried to talk about all the incredible things that happen in your brain while you sleep. My goal was to show them that it was worth making small changes that would allow you to sleep a little longer and better, not only because you do not want to feel cranky in the morning, but because you want gifts to long-term sleep can give.

The benefits of sleep

We learn when we dream. When you dream, your brain illuminates activity while it treats what you have experienced during the day – in the manner of a virtual neural reality. It examines and repeats the information, linking it to what you already know. All of this strengthens your neural pathways and helps you learn.

In a study by Harvard Medical School, researchers have entrusted university students with a complex computer maze. After the students struggled for a moment, they took a nap. Students who dreamed of the labyrinth showed a marked improvement in their ability to solve it. One of the researchers suggests taking a nap after a study session or reviewing the notes shortly before going to bed – this could increase your chances of dreaming about the topic. Most people only remember a fraction of their dreams, but even if you do not remember, you can still take advantage of it.

Sleep "cleans" the brain. When you sleep, your brain removes information you do not need and consolidates what you learned that day. This leaves room for new learning. After all, do you really need to remember what socks you have worn, the joke you heard during the first period, or what you ate at breakfast? Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin have discovered that many of our synapses narrowed at night as the brain "eradicated" or "forgot" information that it no longer needed. And these are not just memories that need to be cleaned up. According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep also eliminates toxins accumulated during the day.

Sleep improves school performance. Sufficient sleep can lead to improved recall, shorter response time, and more problem-free resolution. In a 1998 study of 3,000 high school students, researchers at Brown and Holy Cross Universities found that students averaging C, D, and F dropped an average of 40 minutes later than average students. from A and B. More recently, a study conducted by Harvard Medical School with university students revealed a close connection between "regularity of sleep", that is to say the getting enough sleep at a constant time, and higher academic performance.

Sleep helps you stay emotionally regulated. Sleep improves our ability to manage our emotions and respond to the challenges of each day. Once again, the dream is part of this equation. According to research conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, when we dream, we treat and give meaning to emotional experiences. Sleep makes the amygdala work – it's the part of the brain that controls our emotional responses, including fear, anger, and anxiety. When your amygdala gets tired, it's harder to look at situations objectively, so small things can seem overwhelming. As one study has shown, without adequate sleep, we may have an "exaggerated response to neutral stimuli".

Sleep improves your health and your sports performance. Sleep improves your immune system. Among a long list of health benefits, you are less susceptible to colds. And for athletes, sleep improves reaction time and accuracy rates, reduces the number of injuries and is closely related to peak performance.

Four ways to help your child sleep better

Establish a routine. New parents are often religious about bedtime routines. Teens and adults can learn from the way we treat babies. Our brain loves routines and doing certain activities in a certain order warns the brain that sleep is on the way. Going to bed at a constant time also helps.

Watch out for blue light and caffeine. Our brain is designed to fall asleep at sunset. The blue light emitted by smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs can make your body more difficult to sink into a deep sleep, as it can disrupt the secretion of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles . The workaround? Take out the screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime (and keep them out of your room). And when you work on it at night, lower your screens or put them in automatic night mode (called "Night Shift" on iPhones). Plus, because caffeine increases adrenaline – and it takes at least six hours to get out of your system – it's best to limit these drinks the next morning (if at all).

Calm your brain. Develop a set of strategies to calm the mind – guided meditations to exercises where you focus and relax each of your muscles. The free meditations from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Resource Center are a great resource (if you use them with a headset at night, turn off your screen – remember that blue light). Also note: exercise during the day improves the depth and quality of your sleep.

Take control of your evening. Many teens and adults want more sleep – but we are very busy and have a lot of time demands (we look at you, homework). There is no simple solution. In addition to the workload, we live in a time of distraction. And when distractions constantly interrupt our attention, it takes exponentially more time to perform even minimal tasks.

But there are ways to better take our time into account. So we work more efficiently, leaving more time to sleep. One of my favorites is the Pomodoro technique. First, choose a task to perform and disable all distraction sources – text notifications, email notifications, and so on. Then set a timer for 25 minutes and let it run until the timer turns off (many of my students use an application called Forest to help you). . Take a five-minute break: stretch, go for a walk, grab a snack, and so on. After three or four 25-minute intervals, take a longer break (15 to 30 minutes) to rejuvenate yourself.

Deborah Kris is a teacher and administrator at Montrose School, as well as a writer for PBS Kids and MindShift. She tweets @dfkris and blogs to deborahkris.org.

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