Why So Many Teens Are Struggling in School

“Sleepy teen syndrome” is fixable.

Mrs. Simon, the English Literature teacher walked by Joe, saw him sitting straight up with eyes closed, and, thinking the sixteen year old was probably bored in class, did not bother waking him up. She was a lenient teacher. Mr. Peters however, was not so lenient and had reported Joe to the Principal last week. When Mrs. Simon’s class ended and Joe still did not open his eyes, she became concerned, calling his name; no response; she came close and gently touched his shoulder; no response this time either. Instead, he slowly slumped down to the desk. Now she was really worried and called the office for help, while all the other kids were quickly leaving to move on to their next scheduled class.

Joe’s mom picked up the phone, dreading the school secretary’s voice, asking her to come in. She had rushed to the school half a dozen times in the last month alone, with complaints that Joe falls asleep in class, and is difficult to awaken, often causing teachers and staff to be concerned something was badly wrong with him. She had taken him to emergency once, and the school had called paramedics one time, afraid that he had passed out unconscious.

She, however had known of the problem for some time and had asked Joe to go to bed early because every day she had to practically throw water on his face to get him out of bed, and still he was almost always late to class; skipping breakfast and rushing out the door looking tired, with puffy half closed eyes from being sensitive to light. He had always been a good student, finishing home work as soon as he came home, always at the top of his class in junior high, and then something happened to him when he started high school.

He complained he just could not go to sleep early and had too much to do in the evenings. He said he felt his mind woke up when he went to bed. He could not turn it off, tossing and turning in bed for hours, and sometimes passing time by watching videos on his phone. He had lost interest in socializing, and seemed to lack motivation to participate in activities he used to love. His doctor had even suggested to take him to a psychiatrist.

He was always up at 11 pm, midnight, and often at 2 am when mom would herself get to bed after finishing chores. She had been a night owl all her life, struggling with getting to work on time for years. For that reason, she had changed her work shift to start later in the day when her boss had threatened to fire her.

Mom knew his problem, but just didn’t know what to do about it. There did not seem to be a name for this problem, nor any way of fixing it. She was frustrated because she had seen her own brother become depressed and isolated, failing school and working graveyard shift all his life. This, in spite of the fact he was so creative and intelligent, full of life and wit until this problem had hit him, like many others in her family, around the onset of puberty.

After many wasted trips to see various doctors, she found an answer, in a long scientific sounding name: “delayed sleep phase circadian rhythm disorder”. Joe’s sleep specialist said this is quite common and completely fixable, with one condition; Joe has to want to correct the problem and work on keeping it corrected once he achieves the desired results.

In fact, the doctor said to learn more about how the human body is designed to recognize day and night, with a built in clock and a timer in the brain, and how they work together to make us sleepy in the evenings.

Sometimes, these functions don’t work very well, particularly in people with busy minds, writers, thinkers and artists. Once the person realizes they are having a problem with going to sleep at the right time, and waking up at the right time for their schedule, they have the complete ability to fix it, and do it without resorting to medications.

The problem is that the body does not recognize the time of the day correctly, likely due to a genetic fault that often runs in families. It most often shows up first around puberty time. Many people have paid the cost of not being correctly diagnosed with this condition, by being labeled as depressed or insomniacs, and have been treated with psychiatric medicines, stimulants and all kinds of chemicals. Undiagnosed and untreated, they run the risk of losing out on daytime activities, falling asleep at work and school, and sometimes even while driving which itself is a big safety risk.

So how did the story end for Joe and his mom?

Joe started taking a small amount of melatonin at night and exposing his eyes to bright daylight during the day according to an easy schedule he developed with his sleep doctor to gradually shift his sleep onset to earlier in the night so that he could wake up early enough for school. He learnt some relaxation techniques from his doctor to calm his mind in the evenings and stopped using gadgets with lighted screens around bed time. His doctor sent a note to his school to let them know Joe was being treated for a sleep disorder. He is now studying hard for SATs, hoping to get into his favorite college next year. Mom on the other hand likes having her quiet time late at night, and since her job starts later in the day, she does not feel the need to change anything about her sleep schedule.

P.S. The story is based on real patients but has been fictionalized for illustration, and the names are not real. If you feel you or someone you know may have the “night owl” or “ delayed sleep phase syndrome” which is affecting everyday life, find a specialist in sleep medicine who deals with sleep-wake cycle disorders and go see them. Its worth the trouble.

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