Sleep is vital to our well-being—and especially so for teens. Most parents of teens report doing battle every morning to drag their kids out of bed for school. These teens are not lazy or difficult—they’re sleep-deprived, and it’s catching up with them.
Teens and Sleep
The teen brain is still growing and developing—and sleep is critical to this process. Most teens need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep each night, but research indicates that most teens are averaging between 6.5 and 7.5 hours of sleep. Part of the problem is that kids—like adults—are overscheduled, and in order to cram in activities and homework, they’re sacrificing sleep.
However, another part of the problem relates to changes in the hormones and circadian rhythms in teen brains. The teen brain produces melatonin later at night, which makes it physiologically more difficult for teens to fall asleep at an earlier hour. If a teen needs nine hours of sleep and needs to be awake at 6:00 a.m. for school, that means going to bed at 9:00 p.m. However, their brain chemistry makes falling asleep before 11:00 p.m. difficult. This poses quite the conundrum—and the typical result appears to be chronic sleep deprivation.
Because of this research, there has been a recent outcry against early school start times for teens. Most school districts face busing and budget issues that make it difficult to consider changing school start times; however, as the evidence continues to mount, schools may need to adjust in order to support the health and wellbeing of teens.
Consequences of Teen Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation does more than leave teens feeling crabby; it can have serious emotional and physical consequences:
- Depression: Sleep deprivation can double the risk of clinical depression in teens.
- Poor performance: Sleep deprivation causes teens to perform more poorly in school. In fact, one school district in Minnesota that switched to a later start time found that SAT scores improved significantly as a result.
- Compromised executive brain function: Sleep deprivation affects executive brain function, which includes skills like goal-setting, decision-making, and judgment. When executive brain function is compromised, teens struggle academically, socially, and emotionally.
- Weight gain: Sleep-deprived teens are more likely to be overweight because the body secretes more insulin and cortisol in response to lack of sleep and this influences weight gain. Furthermore, teens who stay up late tend to snack on junk foods.
- Behavioral problems: Sleep deprivation can lead to wild mood swings and behavioral problems.
Solving the Teen Sleep Problem
Although you are up against brain chemistry, there are a few things you can do to encourage healthy sleep habits in your teen:
- Set limits on activities. Most teens are overscheduled. Set reasonable limits so that your teen doesn’t compromise sleep in order to meet commitments. Sometimes in life, it’s important to choose. Help your teen choose the activities that mean the most to him/her and forego the rest in the interest health and wellbeing.
- Cut back on caffeine and sugar. A healthy diet goes a long way to supporting restful sleep. Limit caffeine and sugar intake in order to ensure that these substances don’t interfere with your teen’s sleep.
- Forego naps. Naps are only likely to exacerbate a vicious cycle—tired teens want to slip into a nap after school only to find that they cannot fall asleep at bedtime. Teach your teen to push on through the “napping hour” so that they have a better chance of falling asleep at a reasonable hour in the evening.
- Stick to a schedule. Healthy sleep habits are built upon a consistent schedule. Encourage your teen to fall asleep and wake up at the same time each day—even on weekends. Sleeping in on the weekends only further disrupts the sleep cycle and contributes to the ongoing sleep deprivation.
- Create a calm evening routine. Use lighting to your advantage—start dimming the lights throughout the house in the evening. Consider having your teen shower or bathe in the evening—the warm water has calming effects.
- Turn off the technology. Power down at least an hour before bedtime—this means TV, video games, phones, and any other stimulating activities. Remove TVs and computers from bedrooms. Turn off cell phones.
If you really want to solve the teen sleep problem, consider lobbying your local school district for a later school start time. All of the research indicates that teens will only benefit from it.