Sleep Challenges, Part Three: The Teen Years

You know that there are challenges in getting toddlers to sleep. You may know that there are also important issues surrounding childhood sleep. But there is also a critical need to be aware of the importance of sleep in the teen years – the focus of this third installment on sleep challenges. 

What are the expectations? Teens (I’m focusing here on 12 – 16 years of age) need more sleep on a nightly basis than you might think – between 9.5 and 10 hours a night. The thing here is that this should happen nearly every night – it’s very unhealthy for them to get irregular sleep during the week and then try to catch-up with 12-14 hours of sleep on the weekend. (Note: a little catch-up sleep is a good thing, but in moderation and not such that it disrupts the regular sleep pattern during the week).

What are the challenges? Well, many teens have complicated, busy lives – they try to pack in school and homework and sports and activities and social lives and leisure time. What is typically not figured into the mix is the effects this lifestyle can have on sleep. Getting irregular sleep during the teen years not only increases the risk for obesity and diabetes and interfers with learning – these are the years that rates of anxiety and depression start to spike (especially in girls) and sleep deprivation can play an important role.

How should you handle these challenges? To start, it’s important to recognize the need for the right amount of sleep every night – meaning especially school nights – and to remind yourself that signs of sleep deprivation (needing to crash early some nights, looking especially tired in the morning, being very hard to wake up and get going on a school day, falling asleep in school) should never be ignored. It may be necessary to help your teen make hard decisions – like giving up an activity if it proves to take too many hours out of the day and interferes with things like homework (and hence eventually amount of sleep). It may also be the case that you need to reach out to your school if you feel the homework load becomes excessive and interferes with other important activities – as you want to be sure that your teen has some down time every day where they are not “doing something.”  Of course, making sure bedtime does not equate social media time is another thing to manage these days.

The teen years are a great developmental period to get your kids to understand that they need to take care of their own bodies and make decisions to promote their overall health. So in addition to having discussions about sleep with them, you could encourage them to do their own reading on sleep so that they can learn the signs of sleep deprivation and begin to monitor their own sleep habits.

Image of exhausted teen sleeping in school via Shutterstock.com

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  1. by Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D.

    On January 4, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    Another critical – but uncontrollable – obstacle to teen sleep are the extremely early school start times required by many schools. Many high schools now start in the 7 o’clock hour, a practice started several decades ago largely to save money on bus runs, with teens asked to catch buses that pick up as early as 5:20 am in some areas. There is now compelling evidence that these hours are out-of-sync with teen sleep needs (these kids would have to be asleep by 8 p.m. to get enough sleep), and that the resulting sleep deprivation is seriously undermining physical, mental, and educational well-being. And yet politics & misunderstanding have made it impossible for many schools to prioritize health and learning over adult vested interests and convenience. That’s why many people who have worked to change school hours for years think the solution may lie in a minimum acceptable start time for schools, basically a form of child protection that would make it easier for schools to choose safe, healthy school hours. You can sign a petition asking for this change at http://signon.org/sign/promote-legislation-to.fb1?source=s.fb&r_by=1521139 .