American teenagers are chronically sleep deprived. The pressures of school, social life, and work, compounded by hormonal changes, make it especially difficult for these growing kids to get high-quality sleep, and it's all been compounded by the challenges of a global pandemic.
This can leave parents struggling to know how to help or what to do; how can they tell when their teenager is sleep deprived? Is it possible their teenager has a sleep disorder? Just how much is a 15-year-old supposed to sleep anyway? And ultimately, how do parents engage teenagers and empower them to want to prioritize sleep?
Why do teenagers need so much sleep?
According to the CDC, the average teenager needs between eight and 10 hours of sleep a night, which is more than their parents (seven hours or more for adults), but less than their younger siblings (between nine and 12 hours for younger kids). What factors determine a teenager’s need for sleep?
The most obvious issue is that teenagers are going through puberty and rapidly growing, which is stressful on the body. This age is also a time of intense neurological development. Their brains are improving their capacity for complex logical thinking, developing the ability to experience more than one emotion at once, and becoming more independent, distancing from the early biological tether to family. This all occurs before the part of their brain develops that causes them to stop and reconsider if they’re making a good choices.
Teenagers often have grueling schedules, whether due to school schedules, athletic and extra-curricular commitments, or socializing, all of which can both intensify fatigue and shorten the actual available window to catch up on sleep.
“A lot of things are happening biologically for teenagers,” explains Dr. Chris Winter, sleep neurologist, Sleep.com Sleep Advisor, and author of “The Rested Child.” “Most of these things would lead to them not necessarily prioritizing sleep, including things they need to do for school, work, their job, et cetera. And then you couple that with a fundamental lack of education about the importance of sleep, and it becomes less of a priority.”
During sleep, brains consolidate memories to complete the learning process, repair day-to-day damage on the body, and recharge for the next day. For teens to stay physically and mentally healthy, getting enough sleep is critical.
My teenager sleeps all day
Along with all the physical and neurological changes that a teenager is experiencing, their circadian rhythm is naturally shifting. If it seems like they’re up until unreasonable hours, it’s because teenagers’ circadian rhythm shifts to make them night owls, going to sleep a little later than either the average adult or younger child. It’s normal for teenagers to not be ready for sleep until 11 p.m. or midnight. This conflicts, however, with the national standard of early academic start times — many teens need to get up early for school. Since most high schools start by 8:30 a.m., students may be up and getting ready as early as 6 a.m., creating a recipe for sleep deprivation and frustration from anyone who is prompting them to get up and get moving.
“The average young person wants to stay up later and get up later than the average older individual. We don’t do a great job making school and education systems congruent with that need,” explains Winter. “When it comes to the early start times, they’re often not ideal for these students. A home-school student could have a real advantage or somebody bucking the trend and becoming a morning person.” Winter also cites encouraging reports emerging from the remote learning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with improved student performance by those who are able to start later and catch up on sleep, per CDC recommendations.
To catch up on sleep when adhering too early start times, these adolescents may sleep all day during the weekend as their bodies try to minimize sleep debt. Society tends to interpret this as a sign that teenagers are inherently lazy or victims of bad habits when it’s really a sign that they’re chronically sleep-deprived.
The symptoms of sleep deprivation are similar in teens and adults: Irritability, difficulty concentrating, poor decision-making, lower academic and sports performance, and depression are all common. There is a movement to better align school start times with times of peak alertness for teenagers, though legislation to standardize this is only in nascent phases.
Could my teenager have a sleep disorder?
How can parents tell the difference between a teenager who is struggling to get enough sleep because of their schedule and a teenager who has a sleep disorder? Aim to have open conversations about their sleep, their frustrations, and any symptoms, and to monitor their sleep patterns and habits to be aware of any problems they’re not aware of.
Though teenagers can still seem like children, it’s important to know that teenagers can experience all the same sleep disorders that adults can. Sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome can all show up in kids and teenagers.
One of the most common sleep disorders in teenagers, however, is called delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD). Teenagers naturally have a delayed circadian rhythm that makes them sleepy later in the day. This isn’t, inherently, a disorder. One of the characteristics of DSPD however, is experiencing significant issues in social relationships and at school. Other symptoms are having a bedtime that is more than two hours later than typical peers, and problems that persist for at least three months. DSPD may be related to medication or mental health issues, there may also be behavior or environmental influences that need to be addressed. A pediatric sleep specialist is the right person to help figure out what’s going on and the best ways to help.
“As soon as you feel like sleep is interfering with their potential and fill in the blank of what that is, it’s fair to be concerned about it,” says Winter. “Most parents will tell you when they’ve figured out that they have sleep apnea or narcolepsy, it’s been brewing for years. The impetus for my book is to talk about these problems and help somebody realize ‘Hey, that’s my kid.’”
Anyone who is concerned about a minor’s sleep should speak to their pediatrician. If further help is needed, an appointment with a pediatric sleep specialist could help identify acute issues. It’s better to hear that everything is within the range of normal rather than miss a problem that can be helped.
How to get teenagers interested in a good night’s sleep
Anyone who has ever tried to get a teenager to do seemingly anything knows that having buy-in makes the entire process wildly easier. However, the infallibility that seems to propel teenagers can also convince them that getting more sleep is not important. “Teens don’t think ahead to their body,” Winter explains. “They’re not concerned about their health when they’re 50.” The arguments that are convincing to adults — better performance, better mood, better health — can seem too abstract to teenagers. So how do parents get them on board?
Winter actually loves the potential when working with teenagers. “I like to work with this group the most,” he says. “You can make such an impact. It’s easier to prioritize sleep with a teen who’s just building habits than with an adult who’s trying to reprioritize sleep.”
Every parent knows: Nagging teenagers doesn’t help. Rather, it can create family tension and can make situations more difficult. Instead of pointing out drawbacks of not getting enough sleep, focus on the positives. Sleep is a superpower. It can lead to better performance, whether scores on a test, points in the game, nor ailing the solo in chorus. Show teenagers that when they feel better, the results will trickle down to every aspect of their lives.
Set the right limits
When considering how to get enough sleep, parents tend to focus on when their teen should be in bed. This is a losing argument. Instead, be firm about wake time. The teenager must be up at a set time to get ready for their day. Then, help set them up for success by working backward to get to sleep at a time that works for them. It’s important to remember that “short sleepers” do exist. In his book “The Rested Child,” Winter defines a short sleeper as “individuals who genetically require a little less sleep than the average individual.” By focusing on when the teen goes to bed, parents create a situation where the teenager can find the right time for them to sleep based on their own biological rhythms.
Let teens own some of the process
Regular patterns help teach bodies what to expect. Stretching says it’s time to exercise, a cup of coffee says it’s time to wake up, and a set nightly cue can signal that it’s time to go to sleep. Creating a bedtime routine with a teenager helps them understand what makes them relax and gets them ready for bed. However, not everyone relaxes with the same things. Set a positive, accepting approach by asking your teenager what helps them feel ready for bed, then work together to codify those practices as a nightly routine, whether freeing up the bathroom for a nightly shower, allowing time for wind-down stretching, or turning off the TV for quiet reading time in the family room.
Trusting teenagers and engaging them in the solution process will help them feel like part of the process in addressing their sleep. One hard rule to enforce, however: Phones, laptops, and computers are not part of a bedtime routine — not only is blue light problematic, but teenagers are especially susceptible to the allure of social media, as well to the anxiety and even ADHD-like symptoms that social media and doomscrolling can cause. It’s also a good idea to enforce at what time teenagers should be in their bedrooms doing whatever quiet activities help them rest — but still letting them have some control over when they lay down and try to sleep.
Be aware of blue light
Blue light is a frequent topic of conversation in sleep circles. It’s clear that blue light affects the body and brain by mimicking daytime, meaning that the body doesn’t produce the hormones needed to encourage sleep. Many products are designed to reduce the effects of blue light, from temperature changing light bulbs to filters on devices to light blocking sunglasses. However, blue light isn’t the only problem when it comes to electronic devices and sleep for teens. Blocking the blue light doesn’t remove the mental activation that occurs from scrolling social media, playing video games, or even watching TV and movies right before bed. Turn the lights down to cue the body that it's sunset, but also put devices away for at least an hour before bedtime to let the brain settle down and prepare for rest.
Approach sleep quality from an interesting point of view.
Instead of lecturing kids about the benefits of sleep, parents should aim to find an angle that will interest their teens. Show budding scientists the wealth of academic literature that shows how chronic sleep deprivation affects mental and physical development. Have mathematicians track sleep hours, quality, and restfulness and calculate the effect on tests, social relationships, and sports performances. Creative teens can explore the differences in their creative processes at night and in the morning, after too little sleep and after a solid night’s rest, or explore dream journals.
Winter even cites the unexpected benefit of teens’ obsession with social media in helping build interest in sleep. “One positive element of social media is that they might actually care about what somebody says about sleep on TikTok,” he explains. “It’s being put together in ways that are more digestible.” He also cites the influence of athletes in helping promote the benefit of healthy sleep for training and performance.
Parents often feel helpless and frustrated when faced with a teenager who just won’t sleep. They can see the negative effects of not getting enough sleep but can’t get their kids to see them. By understanding what problems exist, where they might need to trouble-shoot, and when to call in an expert, parents can help their teenagers set the foundation for a lifetime of successful, high-quality sleep.