Does Your Teen Get Enough Sleep? [Yes, It Matters!]

Does Your Teen Get Enough Sleep?

Takeaway: Most adolescents are sleep deprived, even if they don’t feel it. And this can affect their brain development, learning, mental health, and personality. Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to improve your child’s sleep hygiene once you’ve chosen to prioritise it. And a specialist can help with more persistent problems.

Most adolescents don’t get enough sleep. But why is this? Well, one factor is a change in their biology.

Early adolescents and teenagers get about 7–8 hours of sleep a night. But experts estimate that they really need more like 9–9.5 hours of sleep. So, why this mismatch? The first reason is connected to their biology. Our sleep/wake cycle is largely determined by an internal biological clock, which shifts its timings in adolescence. So, teens start feeling sleepy later than usual. The shift isn’t a problem in itself, but it becomes an issue when combined with the average teen’s daily routine. Regardless of how late she sleeps, your child will still have to wake up early to go to school. And it’s this inflexible wake-up time that’s challenging. (Have you ever noticed how some teens use weekends to ‘catch up’ on their missed sleep? It’s proof that they can sleep for longer but they just don’t have the option on weekdays.)

A teen’s changing social roles and attitude towards sleep are just as important as her biology, though.

An adolescent’s biology may be changing, but so is her school and social life. She has friends to hang out with (often, later in the evening), after-school activities to take part in, and extra homework to finish. She’ll also have to decide how she feels about sleep. If she sees it as simply an annoying inconvenience, she might try to delay it for as long as possible and take pride in pulling all-nighters. After all, why sleep early when you can spend time with friends or get things done?

The tricky part is that even if adolescents don’t feel sleepy, it doesn’t mean they’re not sleep-deprived.

Your child might insist that she can function fine on just a few hours of sleep. But many studies suggest that teens don’t always know just how tired they are. For example, in one study, Year 11 students who were given a chance to nap at about 8:30 AM fell asleep in about 5 minutes. (50% of them fell asleep in less than two minutes!) That’s twice as fast as in another napping session later in the day.

So, what can poor sleeping habits do to children?

Here are four ways that a lack of sleep can affect adolescents’ lives:

1. It affects their brain development.

Our brains keep developing till we’re about 25, and sleep plays an essential role in this development. For example, in one study, researchers examined MRI scans from 290 children and adolescents. And they found a connection between how long the children slept and how much grey matter they had in certain parts of their brain. Similarly, another study showed that an adolescent’s sleep affects the health of her brain’s white matter, too. Interestingly, there are animal studies with the same sort of trends. Photon microscope scans show that the nervous tissue in adolescent mice gets reconfigured (i.e., ‘tidied up’) much more efficiently when the mice are sleeping. And this happened with adolescent mice only — not adults. So, the study hints that sleep has an even more prominent role in an adolescent’s brain health than in an adult’s.

2. It affects how well they can learn.

Sleep boosts the way we learn by recharging our executive functions, attention capacity, memory, creativity, and more. Equally important, sleep quality matters — because different phases of sleep (REM, NREM, etc.) recharge the brain in different ways. So, when adolescents don’t sleep enough, their mental abilities aren’t recharged, making it much harder for them to focus and learn. Also, they’ll struggle to remember what they’ve learned because memories are consolidated (i.e. they ‘settle into’ our brain) only when we sleep. [Side note: sometimes parts of an adolescent’s brain will go into overdrive to compensate for poor sleep. And so she might function well for a while. But she’ll pay for her sleep debt sooner or later.]

3. It affects their emotions and mood.

In the short term, sleep deprivation might make your child more irritable than usual — perhaps causing her to snap at people or lose her temper easily. But, over time, it can cause deeper mood shifts — for example, increasing how anxious, hopeless, or depressed she feels. For example, one study looked at 106 adolescent patients in a psychiatric facility and found that 95% of them had moderate to severe sleep issues. Meanwhile, another study published in 2020 looked at data collected regularly from a large group of teens as they aged. And it found that those who had sleep issues were more likely to develop depression/anxiety by the time they were 24, even if they showed no signs of it at 15. Now, this doesn’t mean that sleep deprivation inevitably causes depression/anxiety. But it does signal a definite connection that we can’t afford to ignore.

4. It affects their personality and how they behave.

Research suggests that teens who are continually sleep-deprived become more impulsive and take bigger risks. For example, in one study of 50,000 US teenagers, they found that those with 7 hours or less sleep every night were more likely to drink and drive, ride with a drunk driver, not use seatbelts, and text while driving. Meanwhile, other studies suggest that sleep-deprived teens are more likely (later in life) to do things like binge drink, get into fights, and experiment with drugs. Add this to how depressed and anxious teens tend to withdraw socially, and you’ll have a child whose personality has significantly changed in just a few years.

The good news is that many sleep issues are relatively easy to correct.

Once your child decides she wants to get better sleep, it’s usually just a matter of tweaking her sleep habits. For example, the first thing she can do is wind down at least 30 minutes before bedtime. That way, her mind has an easier time transitioning into sleep. She could also experiment with mindfulness exercises to help her relax. And she can try to cut out ambient noise, dim her room lights gradually (to mimic sunset), and stop using screens before sleeping (or install a ‘blue light filter’ app on her phone/tablet).

For more persistent sleep issues, though, you might want to contact a specialist.

If you suspect your child’s sleep is becoming a problem (e.g., she’s struggling at school, withdrawing from friends, becoming more irritable), it might help to have a specialist guide you through your options. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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