Sleep deprived teens are at risk for health problems, poor academic performance and dangerous driving.
Does your teen sleep through the morning alarm, zone out during the day or turn into a cranky pest by nightfall? Then you’re probably one of millions of parents living with an exhausted adolescent. The National Institutes of Health reports that many teens don’t get enough sleep, putting them at risk for health problems, poor academic performance and dangerous driving.
Why so sleepy?
During the teen years, shifting physiological patterns run smack-dab into the demands of adolescence. Teens’ changing bodies need more rest at a time when classes, homework, sports, jobs, relationships and social media all entice them to sleep less.
Though teens require at least as much sleep as they did in preadolescence (generally between 8.5 and 9.25 hours per night), they habitually shortchange their sleep needs. By age 19, they only average 7 hours per night. One study published in SLEEP, the official journal of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, reported that 40 percent of teens went to bed after 11 pm on school nights, and 26 percent got fewer than 6.5 hours of sleep per night during the week.
This means teenage snooze-button addicts aren’t lazy—they’re just reacting to a biological urge. According to SLEEP, teens experience a phenomenon that keeps them up late and pushes them to sleep in. “Adolescents have a hard time adapting to early morning schedules, particularly in high school,” says Dr. Richard H. Seligman of Presbyterian Sleep Disorders Center in Albuquerque, NM. In fact, this fall the American Academy of Pediatrics made a recommendation that middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 am or later.
Teens often fatten up their anemic weekday sleep schedules by sleeping in nearly two extra hours later on weekends. Unfortunately, this sleep windfall often has an overall negative effect, making them feel worse by creating an irregular sleep pattern and a vicious cycle of fragmented and poor-quality rest.
Driven to exhaustion
Overtired teens can experience a whole host of problems that might be avoided given the right amount of sleep. For example:
- Parents should think twice before letting a tired teen drive a car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsiness plays a role in more than 100,000 traffic crashes each year, killing 1,500 Americans and injuring 71,000 more. According to a North Carolina State study, drivers under 25 years old account for 55 percent of all fall-asleep accidents.
- Problems can also pile up in the classroom and at home. Teens who get less sleep and have irregular sleep schedules report more academic problems than their better-rested peers. Tired teens may be moody and have more difficulty controlling their emotions. “Behavioral issues in this age group aren’t necessarily willful,” notes Seligman. “They can be brought on by chronic fatigue and unrecognized sleepiness.”
- Sleep-deprived teens are more likely to abuse stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, alcohol and other substances. According to the scientific journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, lack of sleep heightens alcohol’s effects in teens, so sleepy teens who consume even small amounts of alcohol increase their risk of injury.
Get back on track
If your teen is chronically exhausted, try changing some patterns to promote healthy rest.
- Recognize the signs of sleep deprivation. Dozing off unexpectedly during quiet times, becoming irritable late in the day, difficulty waking in the morning and sleeping more than two hours past regular wake-up time on weekends are all signs that a teen isn’t getting enough sleep.
- Get them off the couch. Exercise makes falling asleep easier and promotes deep sleep, says Seligman. Encourage 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day. Chores and family activities all count; teens can walk the dog, rake leaves, vacuum or join you on a brisk walk around the neighborhood.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Set an appropriate bedtime during the week, and enforce a curfew on weekends. If work or extracurricular activities are interfering with sleep, talk with your teen about cutting down on commitments.
- Regulate screen time. Circadian rhythms and sleep quality can be disrupted by nighttime light, including the glare of a laptop or television. Set and enforce “media hours” to control teens’ screen time and texting at night.
- Encourage naps. A short post-school snooze can provide extra energy for homework and evening activities. Just avoid late-afternoon naps that might interfere with nighttime rest.
- Model good sleep habits. Stick to a consistent sleep schedule yourself and sleep when you’re tired. Talk about the importance of sleep and how great you feel after a full night of shut-eye.
If improved habits don’t perk up your sleepy teen, consult a physician or sleep specialist. A treatable sleep disorder like sleep apnea or periodic limb movement disorder may be to blame. Getting to the root of sleep problems can turn an exhausted adolescent into a healthier, happier one and put your teen on the road to a well-rested future.