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Why Teens Don’t Sleep Enough, and How to Help

Lack of sleep puts teens at risk for health problems, poor academic performance and more — here's what to do about it

Malia Jacobson

Published on: March 09, 2020

sleepy teen sleeping on the couch in the afternoon

Does your teen sleep through the morning alarm, zone out during the day and turn into a cranky pest by nightfall? Then you’re probably one of millions of parents living with an exhausted adolescent. The National Institutes of Health reports that many teens don’t get enough sleep, putting them at risk for health problems, poor academic performance and dangerous driving.

Is your teen sleep-deprived?

These signals mean your teen isn’t sleeping enough:

  • Difficulty waking in the mornings
  • Irritability late in the day
  • Falling asleep during quiet times
  • Sleeping in more than two hours on weekends
  • Tiredness that interferes with daily life

Why are teens so sleepy?

During the teen years, shifting physiological patterns run smack-dab into the social, academic and athletic demands of adolescence. Teens’ changing bodies need more rest at a time when classes, homework, sports, jobs, relationships and electronic media all clamor for their attention.

Though teens require at least as much sleep as they did in preadolescence (generally between 8.5 and 9.25 hours per night), they habitually shortchange their sleep needs. By age 19, they get an average of 7 hours per night. In one study published in SLEEP, the official journal of the Sleep Research Society, 40 percent of teens went to bed after 11 p.m. on school nights and 26 percent got fewer than 6.5 hours of sleep per night during the week.

Teenage snooze-button addicts aren’t lazy — they’re reacting to a biological urge. According to SLEEP, teens experience a phase delay that keeps them up late and pushes them to sleep in. “This phase shift means that adolescents have a hard time adapting to early morning schedules, particularly in high school,” says Dr. Richard Seligman of the Presbyterian Sleep Disorders Center.

Teens fatten up their anemic sleep schedules on weekends by snoozing nearly two extra hours. Instead of helping matters, this sleep windfall makes them feel worse by creating an irregular sleep pattern and a vicious cycle of fragmented and poor-quality sleep.

Driven to exhaustion

Parents should think twice before letting a tired teen take the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsiness plays a role in more than 100,000 traffic crashes each year, killing 1,500 Americans and injuring 71,000 more. According to a North Carolina study, drivers under 25 years old account for 55 percent of all fall-asleep accidents.

Problems can also pile up in the classroom and at home. Teens who get less sleep and have irregular sleep schedules report more academic problems than their better-rested peers. Tired teens may be moody and have more difficulty controlling their emotions. “Behavioral issues in this age group aren’t necessarily willful,” notes Seligman. “They can be brought on by chronic fatigue and unrecognized sleepiness.”

Sleep-deprived teens are more likely to abuse stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, alcohol and other substances. According to the scientific journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, lack of sleep heightens alcohol’s effects in teens, so sleepy teens who consume even small amounts of alcohol heighten their risk of injury.

Parents of tired teens can promote healthy rest with these tips:

Get teens off the couch: Exercise makes falling asleep easier and promotes deep sleep, says Seligman. Encourage 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day. Chores and family activities can get blood pumping; teens can walk the dog, rake leaves, vacuum or join you on a brisk walk.

Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Set an appropriate bedtime during the week, and enforce a curfew on weekends. If work or extracurricular activities are interfering with sleep, talk with your teen about cutting down on commitments.

Regulate screen time: Circadian rhythms and sleep quality can be disrupted by nighttime light, including the glare of a laptop or television. Set and enforce “media hours” to control teens’ screen time at night.

Encourage naps: Naps aren’t just for preschoolers — teens and young adults may benefit from a few daytime winks. A post-school snooze can provide extra energy for homework and evening activities. Just avoid late naps that might interfere with nighttime rest.

Model good sleep habits: Stick to a consistent sleep schedule and sleep when you’re tired. Talk about the importance of sleep and how great you feel after a full night of shut-eye.

If improved habits don’t perk up your sleepy teen, consult a physician or sleep specialist. A treatable sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or periodic limb movement disorder may be to blame. Getting to the root of sleep problems can turn an exhausted adolescent into a healthier, happier one and put your teen on the road to a well-rested future.

kid-sleepingNeed more sleep solutions?

Read more from author Malia Jacobson in her book "Ready, Set, Sleep" — now available on Amazon.

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