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

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 report that many teens don’t get enough sleep, putting them at risk for health problems and poor academic performance. Why are teens so sleepy?

During the teen years, shifting physiological patterns run smack-dab into the 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 pre-adolescence (generally between 8.5 and 9.25 hours per night), they habitually shortchange their sleep needs. By 19, they get an average of 7 hours per night. In one study published in SLEEP, the Official Journal of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, 40 per cent of teens went to bed after 11pm on school nights and 26 per cent 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.


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 wilful,” 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 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:

Recognize the signs of sleep deprivation in teens. Dozing off unexpectedly during quiet times, becoming irritable late in the day, difficulty waking in the morning, and sleeping more than two hours past regular wake-up time on weekends are all signs that a teen isn’t getting enough sleep.

Get them 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 or vacuum, or join you on a brisk walk around the mall.

Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Set an appropriate bedtime during the week, and enforce a curfew on weekends. If work or extra-curricular 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 like 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.

Malia is a freelance writer and the mom of two well-rested children.


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