Tuesday, June 26, 2012

6. Life Balance and Gifted Teens – an Oxymoron?

10 ways Parents of Gifted Teens can support them in high school (continued)

Parents of gifted teens may well feel that coupling the phrases ‘life balance’ and ‘gifted teens’ is an oxymoron! They may have watched their teen become totally immersed in their latest passion, sometimes only surfacing for air when ultimatums are issued. They may have become used to the fact that their teen swings between surviving on far less sleep than seems healthy to not emerging from the heap of bedclothes in their cave until almost dinnertime.  Or they may have gotten used to the fact that their previously garrulous son or daughter has become as communicative as a Neanderthal.  They may have trained themselves not to grind their teeth when observing the inordinate amount of time their teen spends on exercising the “blackberry thumb” (smartphone texting). They may also be concerned that not enough time (or conversely, too much time) is spent studying.

One of the key descriptors of giftedness is “passion”.  Passion for learning and mastering whatever it is that has taken their interest. Another descriptor is “intense concentration”.  These twin attributes are part of the stuff of their potential genius, but they can come at a cost to both physical and mental health. Given that contrary to our teens' own belief that they are bullet proof and that their parents know nothing, it falls upon us to be older, wiser and infinitely more boring.  We need to help them find the right balance.

Intense concentration has a resulting need of relaxation.  

As parents we need to both respect that, and at times even enforce it. (Now that sounds somewhat paradoxical!) Allow your gifted teen the time to ‘mellow out’ and participate in mind-bogglingly inane activities – it is a way of tuning out.  Playing computer games gives the intellectual brain a break.  So does bouncing a ball around the yard, or stretching out on the couch clutching the remote and sporting headphones with the apparent ability to listen to two things at the same time.  The focus here is on balance though.  An inordinate amount of time ‘relaxing’ isn’t healthy either!

There needs to be a healthy balance between physical activity and mental activity.  

Encourage regular involvement in sport or physical activity.  Not only is this developing a healthy lifestyle for his future, it will actually have a positive effect on his learning.   Brains starved of oxygen do not function so well, especially when sitting for long periods.  

Sleep deprivation.  

Scratch the surface of most high school teachers and you will find that they are concerned about the number of high achievers with sleep issues.  They see these students struggling to stay awake in class, especially in the mornings, and immediately after lunch.  And no, it’s not boredom, it’s actually lack of sleep (and sometimes the wrong lunch).  We know that growing bodies need sleep but paradoxically we are biologically wired to become night owls during our teenage years[1]Unfortunately these are the very years that our children want to push the boundaries, assert their independence and ‘prove’ their maturity by staying up late.

There is a general acceptance that some young gifted children sleep less than their peers.  Do they sleep less because they physically need less sleep or simply because they suffer from insomnia because of an overactive, creative mind?  It may be a moot point.  The fact is, as they move into their teens, growing bodies and brains need more sleep but they get less. School systems that demand an early start of teens whose bodies are biologically clocking in at a different sleep rhythm compound the problem[2]. Further, the prevailing societal view that sleeping little is a badge of honour to which one should aspire, is a misguided one which needs to be de-bunked. 

Some teens compound the problem by pushing themselves to stay up later and later.  What they seem unaware of is the damage that sleep deprivation can cause, both in the short and long term. One gifted teen I worked with was awake until at least 2am every morning. Anna[3] had every moment of her day filled with work from waking up a 6am until about 10:30pm at night. Work consisted of school work and study, extra tuition in other non-school-related subjects after school, and helping parents in their restaurant.  By the time she retreated to her room at 10:30pm she was craving social contact and relaxation.  So she sat on the internet chatting until at least 2am.

Ah, Sleep! perchance to dream...
Information is an important factor in changing behaviours.  Anna read the information I gave her about sleep deprivation and we discussed it together.  Then we looked at her weekly timetable, and shared it with her parents in a round table discussion.  As a family they made decisions to change things. But most importantly, Anna had ownership of the changes because she now understood what sleep deprivation was doing to her mind and body and she wanted those changes. After changing her sleep habits, Anna was delighted to report that she found her mental alertness during school and studying hugely improved.  Interestingly, she said she hadn’t realised that there was anything wrong with her sleep-deprived performance – until she looked back from a sleep-healthy perspective and saw the difference.  

What you and your teen need to know about sleep deprivation[4]:

Too little sleep may cause:
  • Memory problems
  • Impaired alertness and productivity
  • More likelihood of accidents, fatal mistakes and poor quality of life
  • Blurred vision, slurred speech, muscle weakness, headaches and general irritability
  • Weight gain - those not getting enough sleep every night tend to develop unhealthy food cravings to compensate for their tiredness
  • Depression
  • Weakening of your immune system, with increased likelihood of becoming sick
  • Higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
  • Increase in perception of pain
Understanding the chronotypes of teenagers as described by chronobiologist Til Rennenberg (see  [1] below) will help us as parents realise that laziness is not the reason that our teens sleep late.  Similarly, understanding the need for sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation will help our teens realise the importance of getting enough sleep.

Growing bodies and minds need the right amount of nutrition

Breakfast is not a meal to be skipped.  Your teen needs to be aware of the importance of fuelling the body at the beginning of the day so that like a well-oiled and primed engine it continues to perform throughout the morning.  Understanding healthy food options and choosing wisely is another life skill that is really important.

I can just hear some of you saying “Sure – you try telling my teen what to eat – not a chance!” Perhaps it is about picking the motivation: are they keen to be really good at a sport or a particular field of endeavour?  Talk to them about endurance – find some role models in their field of interest (real life or biographies) as examples for them to find out how they were successful in their endeavours. The fact is that excellence and mastery requires physical endurance as much as mental endurance. Use these champions or experts as examples, as well as those rising stars that failed, and why. Eventually bring the discussion around to sustaining effort over long periods, what ‘burnout’ is and how important it is that we nurture our body as well as our minds because that is the carriage that is going to get us there. Information is gold.

We sometimes joke in the teaching world about the difficulties of teaching the ‘graveyard shift’ after lunch.  This is not something peculiar to just teens.  Eat the wrong food at lunch time, and your eyes and brain are begging for a ‘nod off’.  Foods high in sugar, and simple carbohydrates that convert quickly to sugar rob the brain of its alertness and create drowsiness as the sugar rush increases the blood sugar levels more than normal.  Encourage your teen to choose proteins and low GI foods when they make or buy their lunch. http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Feeling-Drowsy-After-Lunch has some good suggestions as a starter.

You are not powerless as a parent to ensure that your gifted teen gets the best they can out of high school.  From the moment they rise in the morning until the moment they fall asleep their behaviours have an impact upon how well they do at school.  How well they sleep, eat, exercise, and maintain a healthy life balance is something that you can have an impact upon, and something that the school can do comparatively little about. ‘Gifted teen’ and ‘Life Balance’ need not be an oxymoron!

[1] German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg in Internal Time: The Science of Chronotypes, Social Jetlad and Why You’re So Tired by Maria Popova, available http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/11/internal-time-till-roenneber/  
[2] Ibid.
[3] Not her real name

© Sonia White, (M.Gifted Ed).  Author, Teacher, Gifted Education Consultant (2012), www.giftedconsultant.ac.nz  

This article is part of a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years. 

To read preceding articles on this topic click on the links:

Parents of Gifted:  2. Does your teen know you love them 'warts and all'?

Parents of Gifted:  3. Promote sensible risk-taking

Sonia White is a parent, teacher, author and gifted education consultant.  She has many years of experience working with gifted learners of all ages.
To receive links for future articles on this topic, you can subscribe to Sonia's blog by email, RSS feed, or as a member of Blogspot. 
Follow Sonia on Twitter: @SoniaWhite_  or Facebook: Sonia White Gifted Education    

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