Sleep problems in teenagers and what parents can do to help.
Can’t get your teenager out of bed each morning? This daily battle is shared by many families and can be a source of frustration for everyone involved. Typically, adolescents want to stay up late and sleep in late, which is a big problem in a world that expects them to be up and ready for an early start at school.
The stereotypical image of a high school student falling asleep at their desk is not surprising considering that the average teenager is only getting between 6.5 and 7.5 hours of sleep each night, well below the recommended 8-10 hours. Chronic insomnia affects about 10% of adolescents, which includes teenagers who have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, waking up too early, and feeling unrefreshed in the morning.
So what causes sleep problems in this age group and what can you do to help teenagers get the sleep they need?
What causes insomnia in adolescents?
It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons why your teenager is not sleeping well, so consulting a GP can be an important first step.
Common causes of poor sleep in teenagers include:
Biological changes during puberty
Every night as the body prepares for sleep, a hormone (called melatonin) is produced in the brain which increases feelings of sleepiness. During adolescence the release of melatonin occurs much later in the night than for children and adults, making it harder for teenagers to get to sleep at time when their parents are going to bed. So you might be relieved to hear that instead of being rebellious or lazy, your teenager may simply be following the sleep patterns dictated by normal biological changes happening at this time in life.
High levels of stress
Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and change, and the road towards independence and maturity can be a stressful and bumpy one. Teenagers can face any number of problems in their lives, whether this be at school, within their friendship groups, or within in their family life at home. If they are ill-equipped to deal with difficult and challenging situations, or feel pressured to achieve and perform, young people can feel overwhelmed and stressed. Lying awake worrying or thinking about problems is a common cause of insomnia.
Too much screen time
Teenagers are notorious for their addiction to mobile phones and sitting up late at night on their computers. In this digital age of modern technology, we are yet to fully understand the affects of excessive mobile phone use on the developing brains of young people, and how it influences their sleep.
There are three main problems with too much screen time at night.
- Firstly, being over-stimulated by working, playing video games, or chatting on social media can cause hyperarousal which interferes with sleep.
- Secondly, when teenagers are being entertained by their devices, they are less likely to notice the natural signs of sleepiness that could cue them to turn the light out to go to sleep. Missing signs of sleepiness can leave them sitting up later and later, riding a “second wind”, and making it much harder for them to get the sleep they need.
- Thirdly, the light emitted from electronic devices has been found to delay the release of melatonin, the hormone that helps us to fall asleep. As a delayed body clock is already a problem for teenagers, too much screen time at night can add to the problem, pushing back their bed time even further.
Mental health problems: e.g. depression and anxiety.
Around 10-20% of adolescents experience mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, and sleep difficulties often occur with these conditions. If you are concerned that your son or daughter has a mental health problem, please seek advice from a GP or mental health professional.
Why is it important to address sleep problems during adolescence?
There are so many benefits to good sleep that you could call it one of the pillars of health along with good nutrition and exercise. Poor sleep should be addressed as early as possible to minimize the impact it can have on a young person’s life.
So, what are the benefits of healthy sleep during adolescence?
- A better ability to focus and concentrate on their studies to achieve better marks.
- Improved memory, so they can remember more of what they learn!
- A greater ability to regulate their mood and a lower risk of anxiety and depression
What can a young person do to improve their sleep?
Before I share some sleep tips to help your teenager, I first want to provide some words of support to you as the parent. It’s certainly not easy to manage sleep problems in your children, and I encourage you to seek advice from a health professional to get some further help.
It is normal to feel frustrated, which is really sign that you care and want the best for your child. Nevertheless, taking a step back can often provide a new perspective and give you time to regenerate some energy to try a different approach!
Reduce screen time at night
The first step to helping your teenager might be to explain that the biological changes occurring during adolescence can delay his or her sleep/wake cycle a few hours so they won’t feel sleepy until later in the night. Some tips to help bring the sleep/wake cycle back to one that fits with regular school hours would be to stop using computers, smart phones and other electronic devices a couple of hours before bedtime, and in the morning having some time outside in natural light, which could include walking or riding to school.
If possible, allow a sleep in
If your teenager is genuinely not sleepy until later at night (and is following all the other tips in this article), then they may benefit from a sleep in to give them the 8 hours sleep they need. If your child’s school offers some flexibility in the day’s schedule, another option is to negotiate for your child to start school later in the morning to allow them to sleep in to reach the recommended 8-10 hours sleep. Several major health organizations in the US including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the American Academy for Sleep Medicine have recommended later start times for high schools to help teenagers get the sleep they need.
Encourage relaxation before bed
If your teenager can recognize that he or she is experiencing some stress, they could benefit from allowing a couple of hours before bedtime to relax and wind down. They would need to stop homework or study, avoid social media, and instead relax on the couch listening to music, reading a book, or watching some light relief TV.
Encourage mindfulness exercises
If your teenager has an interest in learning meditation or yoga they could benefit from undertaking a mindfulness course, which has been shown to reduce stress and improve sleep. If your child is caught in a cycle of insomnia (i.e., worrying about sleep is keeping him/her awake) then mindfulness can teach him or her how to let go of trying to sleep, settle down rumination (overthinking) and to release the tension and stress causing wakefulness. Relaxing the body and calming the mind is a key skill to getting good quality sleep.
A Mindful Way offers an online mindfulness course, suitable for older teenagers (16+) and adults, that provides step-by-step training on how to sleep well using the life-long skills of mindfulness and other strategies proven to improve sleep. Find out more about the course here.
We've also written a similar article directly to teenagers. So if your teenager is interested they can read 'Ten sleep tips for teenagers" here.
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