In this post: Your teen’s sleep schedule may seem crazy to you, but their brain science is controlling a lot of their erratic habits. Here’s what parents can do to help according to the book The Sleep-Deprived Teen.
When it comes to teens, we are obsessed with their sleep patterns. We talk about how they stay up too late and, given the choice, stay in bed too long on weekends and holidays. We wonder why they want to nap after school but are wide awake at 11 p.m. We worry about what the right amount of sleep is for their developing mind and growing body and why it doesn’t match up with the slumber they are actually getting.
But we don’t ask whether there is a legitimate reason for this erratic behavior as it relates to their sleep schedule.
Lucky for us, scientists have asked that question. The short answer: yes, your teen’s natural sleep cycle is different and their poor sleep habits might not be entirely their fault.
Why are teen sleep habits so bad? The teenage brain is different.
How much your teen sleeps has a lot to do with brain science
Brain science has come a long way since we were teens. Studies indicate that during puberty, the brain undergoes dramatic changes not seen since toddlerhood and continues to develop until age 26. (In fact, the brain is larger in early adolescence than any other period of life.) These changes make teens more impulsive, more vulnerable to stress and cause a shift in sleep patterns.
The science of sleep (yes, this is a thing) confirms that sleep is critical for many reasons. It is during sleep that our bodies and minds literally recharge. We gain new brain waves that help us process information and consolidate memories. Throughout our bodies, our cells regenerate and repair damage, and our bodies produce and release hormones. (Growth hormones, in particular, appear to directly correlate to sleep, lending some credibility to the idea that our kids grow overnight.)
All of this means that teens experience a temporary circadian rhythm delay. Lisa Lewis, author of The Sleep-Deprived Teen, Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired and How Parents and Schools Can Help Them Thrive explains. “What this means is their body clock shifts to another schedule. They are not able to fall asleep until later, about 11 o’clock at night.”
Is your teen getting enough sleep?
The research says that teens need AT LEAST eight hours of sleep each night, but ten is even better. Lewis stresses that “everyone hears eight hours, but eight hours is the midpoint for adults; our range is seven to nine. Eight hours is the minimum recommended amount of sleep for teens.”
She reminds us that “even though these teens are transforming before our eyes and often look like adults, they are not adults yet, and they don’t have adult sleep needs.” She adds that “unfortunately, they have these early morning start times all too often which, to be honest, many adults do not have.”
The sleep deprivation today’s often over-scheduled teens feel come with a price, as the effects of sleep deprivation are well documented. Insufficient sleep contributes to a host of issues, both mental (irritability, inattentiveness, and poor focus, for example) and physical (such as obesity and an increased risk for Type II diabetes and heart disease). Studies also indicate that lack of sleep can impact mental health; there is an increase in depression and suicidal ideation among sleep-deprived teens.
While the quantity of sleep is important, we also need sustained blocks of uninterrupted sleep. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, “REM sleep seems to play a critical role in the consolidation of procedural memory. Other aspects of sleep also play a role: motor learning seems to depend on the amount of lighter stages of sleep, while certain types of visual learning seem to depend on the amount and timing of both deep, slow-wave sleep (SWS) and REM sleep.”
How parents can help improve their teen’s sleep habits
Helping your teen to establish good sleep habits now will set them up for success through their college years and beyond. While sleep needs drop slightly starting at around age 18, the dangers of sleep deprivation remain. It’s not at all surprising that research at the college level also shows a correlation: more sleep equals higher levels of happiness and lower levels of anxiety (as well as higher GPAs).
Simply put, sleep deprivation makes everything harder.
While Lewis believes that later school start times are crucial, she does have suggestions to help parents work within the system. She says, “the biggest piece is awareness of teen sleep needs. And prioritizing sleep. That can take many forms. Every family and every school situation is different.”
But the issue of teen sleep deprivation has to be addressed, she says. “It’s a public health issue.”
Some ways parents can help manage their teen’s sleep include:
Reduce stress and manage expectations: Take a hard look at your teen’s academic schedule and activity commitments. Talk to your teen about setting realistic expectations of how much they can reasonably handle. Don’t be afraid to insist they sign up for less, particularly if you see warning signs such as moodiness, daytime sleepiness, or other behavior changes (and consult your pediatrician if you think there is anything going on from a health perspective.). Many parents and students think they need to take every AP class and sign up for numerous extracurriculars to get into college when in actuality, many schools would rather see a more focused, engaged experience in a few specific areas.
Sit down with your teen to map out all their academic requirements, extracurricular activities, and social commitments. Plot out a week, listing all structured activities: school, jobs, volunteering, clubs, sports, homework, tutoring, as well as all unstructured (but equally important) activities: eating, grooming, chores, playtime, downtime, and family time.
Seeing it on paper can be powerful for you both. Do the math. Can they fit everything into a 14-hour day to allow them for 10 hours of sleep most nights?
Create better nightly routines
When our teens were babies, we quickly learned the value of routine, especially at bedtime. We learned that quiet, calm activities with a predictable routine made it easier for them to fall asleep. This power of routine doesn’t go away when our kids outgrow being tucked in. In fact, nightly routines can be restorative for the whole family and can be effective in ensuring parents get enough sleep as well.
Create a “wind down routine” says Lewis. “If your high school students see you take this seriously, that you value sleep and you are taking steps to help wind down for the night, that sets a powerful example.” Reading (use a “real” book to avoid blue light), listening to a podcast or show, or taking a warm bath or shower can be good ways to alert the mind it’s time for sleep.
Lewis adds that this is more effective if you let your teen see it’s something you’re doing too. “Our brains don’t just flick off for the night, you don’t just turn it off the way you turn off your computer and walk away; you need that transition time.”
Reduce distractions Every family struggles with tech use, but the use of devices is number one when it comes to unhealthy teen sleep habits. Time spent on our devices can take away from time that should be spent on other things, so we are in a constant struggle to catch up. In addition, the light exposure emitted by electronic devices and the anxiety social media produces in our teens has been proven to cue the brain to stay alert and awake.
Parents should set guidelines about tech use, and enforce them. Consider banning electronics from the bedroom (or at least an hour before) to eliminate both the blue light effect and the temptation to use them after hours. Tech rules are more effective when they apply to the entire family. “You don’t just announce them, and you don’t say that these rules just apply to you. If the family rule is to charge your devices in the kitchen, that’s where the parents’ devices should be charged too. As a parent, you need to walk the talk.”
While we need to have the hard conversations, don’t play the blame game. Remember that tech is “stimulating, it’s engaging, and that’s by design. These various forms of technology were designed to be immersive. They want you to spend as much time on them as possible.
As adults, we face the same things. [For example] if you’re watching TV and one episode seamlessly rolls into the next one, it’s designed that unless you get up and take an action, you’re just going to slide into the next episode. Things like video games and social media were designed with these reinforcements [to] keep people involved. Then there is the interaction. If a teen is involved in some heavy chat with a friend and it’s late at night, that’s not helping them ease into sleep, but [instead ] maybe revving them up. “ Lewis was surprised that while admitting that blue light is a factor, the experts “thought those other two aspects, the time displacement aspect and the engagement features of technology, were probably playing a greater role in cutting into sleep time.”
Involve your educators: Healthy sleep habits start at home, but we need information from all sources in order to promote good sleep for our teens. Have your child ask teachers for weekly homework estimates at the beginning of the year. In some schools, teachers communicate with each other to avoid having major projects due in multiple subjects at the same time. If your school doesn’t, bring it up to the PTA or principal to see if such a policy can be implemented. Lewis also advocates for changing policies surrounding assignments to be turned in online. “In many cases the default time to turn in assignments electronically is 11:59 pm which of course, you know human nature you’re going to turn it in closer to the deadline.” Moving the deadline to an earlier time will make it less likely for students to work through the night and allow them to get to bed at a reasonable time.
Campaign for later school start times: Lewis argues that the most effective way to help teens get more sleep is to start school later, pointing out that “every major medical group [is] recommending later start times.” She cites studies that show that schools that have changed to a later start time report that attendance, GPAs, and graduation rates have gone up while tardiness has decreased. Student-athletes have shown an increase in both short and long-term performance after getting sufficient sleep. In fact, even a one-hour delay in school start time has an effect equivalent to reducing class size by one-third.
When she realized the toll early school start times was taking on her freshman son, Lewis started a local chapter of Start School Later and became an advocate for change. Her efforts were rewarded: a new California law dictates that public middle schools start no earlier than 8:00 and high schools at 8:30 am.
She admits, “You can’t just walk in and get your school’s start time changed, but you can advocate for it. A lot of schools changed over the pandemic; [they had to] pivot to online instruction almost overnight. In doing so, many of them did change start times, and in a lot of cases, they kept those times in place when they returned to in-person schooling.”
More sleep means happier teens
In what may be the best benefit of helping your teen get enough sleep, Lewis reports that well-rested teens report they have fewer arguments with their parents. She says, “When you’re well-rested, things do go better, and it can make for a more harmonious household.”
It’s a simple premise true for us all: When we get enough sleep, life is just better.
*Interested in learning more about teen sleep habits and how sleep deprivation is impacting adolescents? Read The Sleep-Deprived Teen by Lisa Lewis.
Kimberly Yavorski is a freelancer and mom of four who frequently writes on the topics of parenting, education, social issues, and the outdoors. She is always searching for things to learn and new places to explore. More of her thoughts on parenting “big” kids can be found at Life on the Other Side. You can follow her on Facebook here.