HomeSleep HealthSleep Loss in Teenagers: How to Help Exhausted Adolescents

Sleep Loss in Teenagers: How to Help Exhausted Adolescents

By - Last Updated: August 13th, 2019

Sleep loss in teenagers has a multitude of negative consequences to their health, grades, and social life.

It’s becoming such a large issue that some scientist and medical professionals consider teen sleep a national health crisis.

Learn the dangers of sleep deprivation in adolescence, the most common causes reasons for teen sleep loss, and how to help your child get better rest.

How Much Sleep Do Teenagers Need?

The amount of sleep you need changes as you age.

Teenagers go through a major stage of brain development and their bodies experience a large growth spurt as they enter puberty.

These physical and mental changes combined with hormone fluctuations mean that adolescent teens require more sleep than adults.

Doctors and scientists recommended that teens get at least 8 – 10 hours of shut-eye per night.

Sleep Loss in Teens

Sleep loss is becoming more common in teens as societal stress and demands increase.

A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 87% of high school students in western society get less than the recommended 8 – 10 hours of sleep per night.

Sleep loss in adolescents is such a widespread issue that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers it an international health crisis.

So why are teens missing out on much-needed shut-eye?

There are various reasons teenagers are not getting enough sleep. Some of the most common reasons include:

Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder Causes Sleep Loss in Teenagers

When children go through puberty they’re at risk for developing a temporary sleep condition called Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPD), also called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome.

DSPD is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder and occurs when there’s dysfunction in the internal body clock that regulates biological processes on a 24-hour cycle. We call this internal clock our ‘circadian rhythm’.

DSPD delays the circadian rhythm by 2 or more hours. This means that a teen with the disorder won’t feel tired and fall asleep until much later than the societal norm. People with DSPD are often described as ‘night owls’

If your teen has DSPD, you may find they don’t feel the urge to sleep until 2:00 am. They likely prefer to sleep into the late hours of the morning the next day. Some teens may even sleep until the afternoon.

This altered sleep schedule makes it difficult for teens with DSPD to wake up for school in the morning. They also suffer from chronic sleep loss which affects their academic performance and social life.

Unfortunately, due to early school start times, it can be difficult for teens to cope with their sleep loss. Multiple studies have shown that high school students don’t function at their best before 9:00 am.

Some schools are starting to adopt later start times however this process has been slow.

What Causes Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder in Teenagers?

Recent figures found that up to 16% of adolescents have DSPD but scientists don’t fully understand why the disorder is common in teens.

Some scientists think that DSPS is an extreme reaction to the normal change to the circadian rhythm as teens go through puberty.

It’s important for parents to understand that DSPS is not a deliberate behavior and that the majority of teens develop normal sleeping habits as they get closer to adulthood.

Biological Changes Cause Sleep Loss in Teenagers

Teenagers go through a major hormonal shift as they enter puberty.

Hormones play a large role in sleep regulation and any changes can influence sleep. The surge of testosterone in boys and estrogen and girls can alter a teen’s circadian rhythm, lead to sleeplessness (insomnia) or oversleeping (hypersomnia).

Puberty hormones have such a large influence on sleep that scientists discovered that they can predict when a pre-teen or teen is about to enter puberty based on their sleep patterns alone.

Thankfully, these hormonal changes don’t last forever and sleep usually normalizes once puberty is completed.

Over-scheduling Cause Sleep Loss in Teenagers

Activities such as clubs, sports, and afterschool jobs are a great way to help your teen becomes more well-rounded and prepare for adulthood.

Unfortunately, our society places a lot of pressure on kids and teens to pack as much into their day as possible.

Overscheduling extracurriculars limit your teen’s time to wind down at the end of the day and get enough sleep.

Technology Causes Sleep Loss in Teenagers

Kids these days are glued to their devices. You can’t go anywhere without seeing a teenager using their smartphone.

There is nothing wrong with allowing your teen to use electronics except during the hours before bedtime.

Blue light emitted from smartphones, tablets, TVs, and computers reduce the brain’s production of the hormone melatonin. When your teen doesn’t get enough melatonin, their body doesn’t know what time it should go to sleep.

Teenagers and young children don’t make as much melatonin as adults to they are especially susceptible to the effects of blue light exposure.

And if that’s not worrying enough, scientists have found that the use of screens at night is associated with difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep (insomnia), an increased risk for developing a mental illness or chronic health condition, and poor academic performance.

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Further Reading:
The Essential Melatonin Guide and How to Use it Safely

Stress and Mental Health Disorders Cause Poor Sleep in Teenagers

Being a teenager has become more stressful in the last couple of decades. Not only do we push teens to do well academically but we also expect them to excel at sports, recreational activities, and afterschool jobs.

The pressure society places on teens, alone with their changing brains, and shifting hormones makes them very susceptible to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Science has shown that up to 90% of people with depression and anxiety experience sleep problems.

Sleep problems can also make existing mental illness worse and reduce the effectiveness of treatment.

Bad Habits Cause Poor Sleep in Teenagers

Poor sleep in teenagers and adults is often caused by bad behaviors developed over time. These are habits you do throughout the day that make it difficult to sleep at night.

Common Habits that Affect Teen Sleep include:

  • Not keeping a strict sleep routine
  • Consuming caffeine late in the day
  • Doing strenuous or stimulating activities in the hour before bed
  • Going to sleep in a room that has too much light, is noisy, or too hot.
  • Eating foods high in fat and sugar
  • Going to bed hungry or too full
  • Not getting enough exercise
  • Looking at screens before bed

Sleep Disorders Cause Poor Sleep in Teenagers

Like adults, children and teenagers can also develop sleep disorders. There are over 80 recognized sleep disorders by the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD) and teens can suffer from almost all of them.

If you suspect your child has a sleep disorder, it’s essential that you have them evaluated by their pediatrician. Your teen may be referred to see a sleep specialist to have a sleep study.

While this is understandably overwhelming, it’s important to remember that treating your child’s sleep disorder as early as possible is the best way to prevent further health complications.

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Further Reading:
The Complete List of Sleep Disorders

What Happens When Teenagers Don’t Get Enough Sleep?

Sleep loss has a negative effect on everyone but it’s especially detrimental to children and teenagers.

When teens don’t get enough sleep they’re at much greater risk for the following problems:

1. Increased Risk of Poor Mental Health

Sleep loss and mental illness go hand-hand. People with chronic sleep loss are more likely to develop mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Teens are especially susceptible to mental health issues due to the fluctuations of their hormones, brain development, and increased academic pressure.

All teens experience some level of moodiness but abnormal levels of sadness, anger, or anxiety may suggest that your teen isn’t getting enough sleep.

2. Reduced Academic Performance

When your teen is sleep-deprived, their brain struggles to focus and pay attention. This makes it extremely difficult to learn new information.

Sleep is also necessary to consolidate (store) memory so that it can be recalled in the future. Poor quality of sleep inhibits these processes, leading to learning and memory defects.

Sleep loss also increases your teen’s likelihood of sleeping in class and missing important educational content.

When students have difficulties learning, their grades and academic performance suffer.

3. Increased Chance of Illness

The Immune system exists to fight off infectious disease and cancer.

Just like any other part of your body, the immune undergoes maintenance so it can keep functioning properly. A lot of the maintenance to our immune system happens while we sleep.

Sleep also helps us fight off infections by increasing the strength and activity of the immune cells that locate and attack dangerous germs.

Chronic sleep deprivation weakens your teen’s immune system and makes them more susceptible to catching illness like the cold and flu. It also reduced their ability to fight off illness, meaning they’ll be sicker for longer.

4. Reduced Physical Performance

Sleep is important for helping the body conserve energy for physical tasks. It’s also needed to help your metabolism create new energy from the food you eat.

Scientist discovered that sleep loss decreases the production molecules that are used for energy use during physical activity.

Without sleep, your teen may experience reduced energy, increased fatigue, reduced reaction time, and poor focus.

This has major impacts on sports and other physical activities your teen enjoys.

5. Increased Risk of Injury

I’ve already discussed above how sleep loss reduces focus and attention during learning, but it can also increase your teen’s risk of injury.

Decreased focus and reaction time increase your child’s risk of getting into accidents.

A study by The National Sleep Foundation found that sleep loss causes over 100,000 traffic accidents each year. Over 55% of accidents due to the driver falling asleep at the wheel were caused by people under the age of 25.

Parents shouldn’t let sleep-deprived teens performance potentially dangerous tasks when they’re sleep-deprived.

6. Reduced Ability to Heal

Just as sleep loss increases a teen’s risk of injury, it also reduces their ability to heal.

Every single day your body accumulates a variety of damage to its DNA, cells, organs, and tissues. Luckily, sleep expedites the time it takes to heal.

Chronic sleep deprivation increases the length of time it takes for wounds to heal and also inhibits the immune system’s ability to fight off infection.

7. Reduced Judgment and Ability to Self-Regulate

Teens already have reduced self-regulation and impulse control because they haven’t finished developing their executive functioning.

Sleep makes their ability to self-regulate even worse and increases aggression, impulsivity, and moodiness, and reduces their judgment.

Sleep-deprived teens are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior including drug use, dangerous driving, and engage in unprotected sex.

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Further Reading:
Why We Sleep: The 8 Essential Reasons

How to Help Teens Get Better Sleep

To help your teen get better sleep, it’s important that you take steps to evaluate their behaviours and lifestyle.

Below are eight things you can do immediately to help your teen improve the quality of their sleep.

1. Encourage Your Teenager to Keep a Sleep Schedule

Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day will help your teen maintain regularity in their biological clock.

Not only will this better prepare their brain for sleep but it will also reduce the risk of losing precious sleep hours.

2. Investigate Your Teenager’s Schedule

If you think your teen is packing too much into their day, you can help them reorganize their schedule.

Make sure your teen has enough room in their schedule so that they get at least two hours of quite a time before bed.

Also, make sure they don’t have any activities scheduled too early in the morning that will make them miss out on sleep.

3. Encourage Your Teenager to Avoid Caffeine Late in the Day

You can’t monitor your teen’s eating habbits 24/7 so making sure they aren’t slugging down caffeinated drinks in the afternoon can be challenging.

Instead, discuss with your teen the benefits of discontinuing caffeine consumptions before 4:00 pm. You can even send your child with alternatives such as flavoured water or non-caffeinated tea.

Make sure your teen is aware which food and drink items contain caffeine. These include:

  • Coffee
  • Some teas
  • Energy drinks
  • Soft drinks
  • Chocolate
  • Icecream 

4. Discontinue Your Teenager’s Screen Time Before Bed

Teens love their electronic devices and often use them right up until the moment they go to bed.

It’s essential that your teen understand the detrimental effects of blue light on their ability to sleep.

Encourage your teen to stop using their phones, TV, tablets, and computer at least 2 hours before they go to sleep. Offer them alternative activities such as books, board games, or music.

5. Help Your Teenager Come Up With a Pre-sleep Routine

Creating a routine that your teen follows every night will help their brain relax before bed.

Common pre-sleep routines include:

  • Taking a warm bath
  • Having a glass of non-caffeinated tea
  • Reading a book
  • Listening to peaceful music

6. Create a Relaxing Bedroom Environment for Your Teenager

Help your teen unwind by making sure their bedroom is a relaxing environment for sleep.

Try to eliminate as much light pollution as possible by using blackout blinds or curtains, or offering your teen a sleep mask.

Make sure your teen’s bed is comfortable and inviting, and use bedding that breathes well and doesn’t overheat.

Finally, the body needs to go through a cooling process before it can sleep so you should maintain your teen’s room at a temperature of around 65 degrees.

7. Have Your Teenager Evaluated By a Medical Professional

If you suspect your teen’s sleep loss is due to a medical or mental health issue, it’s imperative to have them evaluated by their health care provider.

Many sleep issues are caused by other health conditions, including sleep disorders, so it’s important to address this with your pediatrician.

book icon
Further Reading:
10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Help You Sleep Better Tonight