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4-step plan for waking teenagers
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I’m not a doctor, but I play one at home. I’m a sleep specialist. And for most of the summer I’ve been conducting a clinical trial of sleep disorders. My patients: two of my teenage sons. The ones not yet old enough for a summer job.
On a typical summer day, they sleep until noon. When they get up, they eat five bowls of Lucky Charms and then move to the couch to partake in a yawning convention.
Around dinner they eat a frozen pizza or, if they are lucky, get a brother to make a run to Taco Bell, and the cycle begins anew.
Amazingly, there was once a time when these slackers were infants, and they never slept. About age 2 they slept through the night and woke up at 5 in the morning and started barking out commands from their crib. Things have changed, obviously.
I Googled this issue and found the Web chock full of chatter on this. Researchers point out that in teenagers, sleep-promoting hormone levels rise at different levels than in adults and infants. Basically this hormone—called melatonin—is one explanation for these bizarre sleep patterns. Their studies describe body clocks and things called “natural rhythms.” They advocate later start times for schools, and some administrators have obliged. So the message is clear: Slackers can’t help themselves.
I’m not buying any of this. I’ve learned that waking teenagers up requires a four step plan.
1. The first wake-up call. Goal: Confirm life. Take a pulse. Never mind opening the eyes. That’s hopeless. Is there breathing? Check for involuntary movements. This is no easy task. Little Johnny is buried under nine pillows, iPod headphones, two blankets and the stuffed teddy bear he’s slept with since first grade. At that moment Johnny is enjoying his dream of all dreams—which means dreaming of sleeping. This is REM sleep so intense no doctor has yet to discover it. Think ol’ Rip Van Winkle OD’d on Ambien. Rock their world with the announcement: “You have school today. Get up.” You are attempting to drill down their brain and right now you are at the outer crust. Return in five minutes.
2. Visit No 2. Goal: Open the eyes. Get to the brain’s outer core. Testing the hearing is a good start. You have already mentioned school and got no reaction. Take the next step. Tell them something outrageous. “The Royals swept the Twins.” “Trent Green retired and has taken up with Willie Roaf..” “Roy Williams is returning.” “KU football coach Mark Mangino is at our front door wearing a Speedo.” Do not leave until you see the whites of their eyes.
3. Visit No 3. Goal: Get them on their feet. Yank the blankets and pillows off the bed. Cold temperatures, next to cold water, are your best shot at this point. Now you must get to the inner core of their brain. Raise the voice, but since they tune out adults, talk like a teenager. “Dude, things are all messed up. We are running out of hot water.” Or try this “Dude, your cell is broken. It’s the cat. It’s terrible.” Shake their arms, their legs, their iPods. Once they stand up, leave the room but don’t go far. You must prepare for the next visit.
4. Visit No. 4. Every teenager on the planet will attempt to crawl back to bed. So get back there quickly and sprinkle water on them. Resort to Oldies 95 if necessary. Blare it. Then dial their cell phone number. The distinctive ring will mean another social mixer at Town Center mall. And then wait for the announcement that will shake them to their core: “We are almost out of Lucky Charms.” Have the clothes laid out, the toothbrush ready, the backpack packed and the energy drink opened. They are walking but still not awake. Do something crazy—make them talk. Ask questions that require something other than, “I don’t know.” This part of the equation I have yet to master. When I figure that out, I’m going to learn whether my sons have any “natural rhythms.” Stay tuned.
Matt can be reached at