One big change happening for teenagers is their relationship to sleep. Gone are the nights of 9:00pm bedtimes and bright-eyed, bushy-tailed mornings. They have been replaced by all-nighters, weekends spent sleeping until mid-afternoon, and the constant refrain, “I’m just so tired.” With more than 60% of high school students reporting insufficient sleep, a majority of teens are suffering—both academically and emotionally—as a result. Here, we explore how you can support your child in prioritizing healthy sleep habits.

Why Teens’ Sleep Habits Change

Teens in industrialized nations are sleeping less, according to studies conducted by Stanford Children’s Health Sleep Center. Although teenagers need more sleep than they did during their youth, there are also more barriers to sleep for them than ever before. 

You might have noticed that in the years before adolescence, your child would naturally tire and wind down around 8:00 or 9:00pm, but now they are awake until past midnight. During puberty, kids experience a “sleep phase delay” that pushes their natural circadian rhythms (the biological clock that helps us regulate sleep-wake patterns) by about two hours later. While teens take a certain amount of pride in the privilege of being able to stay up late, they also cannot help it—they are responding to their bodies’ changing needs. Teenagers may also be responding to an increasing number or intensification of demands on their time from homework and studying, college application prep and related standardized testing, chores, scheduled activities like clubs, sports, other extracurricular activities, and part-time jobs, socializing, and the list goes on.

The Impact of ‘Social Jet Lag’

Your teen might push their sleep back a few hours so they can scroll through social media or text with friends, but doing this right before bed can harm their natural sleep pattern: technology screens emit a blue light that prevents the body’s natural production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Many teens fall into a pattern of building a sleep deficit during the school week as they stay up late and then wake up early to begin their school day. On the weekends, they may stay up later to socialize with friends and sleep in later to compensate. The result of these asynchronous sleep patterns is a phenomenon that Dr. Mary Carskadon, a professor at Brown University and expert on teen sleep, terms ‘social jet lag.’ Insufficient sleep combined with irregular sleep patterns may increase the likelihood of teens experimenting with substances, taking risks while driving, and may adversely affect metabolism, mood, emotional regulation, and learning and memory processes.

Why Sleep Is Important for Teens

During adolescence, the teenage brain is experiencing a growth spurt, and the teenage body needs extra sleep to support this intense neurological development. As Johns Hopkins pediatrician Michael Crocetti, M.D. M.P.H. explains, “Teenagers are going through a second developmental stage of cognitive maturation.” The prefrontal cortex of the teenage brain is rapidly growing—much like it did in the first major developmental stage when they were babies—and is responsible for teenagers’ planning skills, working memory, organization, ability to reason, mood regulation, impulse control, and judgement. “As this second wave of over-production is occurring, it prepares the adolescent brain for the challenges of entering the next stage of life, the adult years,” says Dr. Jay Geidd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health. “There’s enormous potential at [this] time.”

Sleep is one of the keys to fulfilling that potential, and teens need more hours of sleep per night than when they were just a few years younger. Without enough sleep, the development of the frontal lobe is significantly slowed, impeding academic performance and creative thinking. When teenagers do not consistently sleep the recommended eight to ten hours, they can experience increased moodiness, daytime drowsiness, trouble concentrating, weakened memory, lower test scores and grades, and even depression. 

Sleep and Teen Driving  

Not sleeping enough jeopardizes teens’ alertness level and safety when behind the wheel. Federal regulators reported that the accident risk posed by someone who drives when they are drowsy is on par with someone driving while intoxicated. AAA reports that teenagers are one of the highest risk groups for drowsy driving. 

Sleep and Academic Performance 

One study found that students who reported earning Bs or better in school slept 17-33 minutes more during an average school night than students earning Cs or worse. The benefits of healthy sleep habits may follow your student to young adulthood and beyond. A study published in Nature’s NPJ Science of Learning Journal provides ‘quantitative, objective evidence that better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep are strongly associated with better academic performance in college.’

Seven Tips for Supporting Healthy Sleep Habits

Here are seven ways that you can start a conversation about healthier sleep with your teen:

  1. Explain the science. Teens often do not understand the changes through which their body is going. Connect those changes to the biological need to fuel them through responsible sleep habits. 
  2. Draw connections. Teens may feel like sleep has little to do with their waking life. You can help dispel that myth. Draw connections between sleep and mood and sleep and performance. Ask them leading questions about their sleep and their performance in sports or class that day, for example. Highlighting a correlation between sleep habits and a good day or bad day may help reinforce the importance of prioritizing healthy sleep habits. 
  3. Put sleep on the calendar. Time management is key to creating beneficial nighttime sleep habits. Collaborate with your teen on a schedule that leaves enough time in the day for a consistent nighttime routine and wind-down. 
  4. Aim for a calm nightly routine. Help your teen plan and implement a nightly routine that promotes calm. Prepare a sleeping environment that supports this goal: dim or soften the lighting (maybe use a bedside or desk lamp versus overhead lighting), climate control the nighttime space (if possible) so that the temperature is more consistent with the level your teen find most conducive to sleeping, play relaxing background music or white noise. Encourage your teen to keep their final activities of the day consistent with this zen vibe: sip herbal tea, read, journal, stay off your phone and other screens to help them train their body to understand the signs of winding down and associate their bedroom with sleep. 
  5. Turn screens off. Set an example for your teen: Protect your sleep environment as a sacred space that supports your health and wellness by disconnecting completely from screens and technology as part of your nighttime routine. Consider implementing House Rules for technology and phone use at night. For some families that may mean powering down the WiFi at a certain time and/or collecting phones at bedtime and securing them in a lockbox until morning. 
  6. Make rest the priority. The stress of not being able to fall asleep can keep us up at night (literally). While full cycles of deep sleep are ideal, the most important thing is that our bodies and minds have a chance to rest. If your teen feels anxiety around sleep, remind them that laying still and breathing, meditating, or completing a guided Body Scan mindfulness exercise can all be beneficial.
  7. Reward positive behavior. Reward your teen with privileges associated with healthy sleep habits. If they drive and have access to a vehicle, make this access dependent on being well-rested, since drowsiness can lead to accidents. 

As your teen becomes more independent and takes on greater responsibilities, it is more important than ever to support them in taking control of their sleep and forming a positive relationship with it. For a better understanding of how executive functioning skills and healthy habits can help your kids, contact Organizational Tutors today.

OT Team

Author OT Team

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