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If you are worried that your teenager might not be getting enough sleep, you are right to be concerned. Teen sleep is a serious issue that every parent should be thinking about. In fact, making sure your child gets enough rest at night could be one of the most important things you do for their health and well-being.

Teen Sleep Deprivation

You may be surprised to learn that teen sleep deprivation can have serious consequences on much more than just grades. Sleep deprivation can also have serious repercussions for both physical and mental health at all ages. However, during adolescence, sleep deprivation can have even more of an impact than it does on adults.

“[Sleep deprivation] is extremely detrimental at all stages of life,” explained Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist. “In the teen years, when development continues … the sleep deprivation effects of brain and body development are significant.”

The negative effects of sleep deprivation include the following:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor grades
  • Drowsy-driving incidents
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts

Sleep deprivation correlates with a higher incidence of substance abuse and obesity. Teen sleep deprivation is also associated with an increased risk of depression. A recent study found that for each hour of teen sleep that is lost, there is a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts.

“We know that sleep deprivation makes teens more emotional and perform worse on cognitive tasks and testing,” Breus said.

Image CC by 2.0, by MC Quinn via Flickr

How Much Sleep Does the Average Teenager Get

The National Institutes of Health recommends that teenagers get eight to ten hours of sleep every night. However, a 2006 National Sleep Foundation poll found that more than 87 percent of American teens get much less than that. A mere nine percent of high school students in the United States manage to get the recommended amount of sleep. As if those statistics weren’t shocking enough, a whopping 20 percent of teens aren’t even getting five hours of sleep at night.

“I think high school is the real danger spot in terms of sleep deprivation,” said William Dement, MD, Ph.D., founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic. “It’s a huge problem. What it means is that nobody performs at the level they could perform.”

On average, high school students in the United States get 6.9 hours of sleep a night. This is a sharp decrease from the 8.4 hours they averaged in sixth grade. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this disturbing trend in teen sleep is a public health epidemic.

Teenage Trouble Sleeping

Now that we’ve established that teen sleep deprivation is a public health epidemic, the question becomes why. Why are teens having so much trouble getting enough sleep? Well, the problem is two-fold.

First, teens are hardwired to sleep and wake late. Circadian rhythms change during adolescence. Teens naturally go to bed later and consequently; they wake up later too. Research has found that teenagers tend to fall asleep naturally as much as two hours later than younger children. When you add technological devices such as smartphones and iPads into the equation, falling asleep becomes even more difficult.

The second part of the problem is that high schools in America start early in the morning. Too early, in fact. This doesn’t just mean that teenagers don’t get enough sleep. As pediatric sleep specialist Rafael Pelayo explains, it also means that teens don’t get the needed amount dream-rich, rapid-eye-movement stage of sleep. The REM sleep stage provides us with some of the deepest, most productive sleep time. And our teens are being cheated out of it when they need it the most.

“When teens wake up earlier, it cuts off their dreams,” said Pelayo, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. “We’re not giving them a chance to dream.”

Reality of Teen Sleep in America

Carolyn Walworth was a 17-year-old high school student who was almost always up past midnight studying, usually ending her night in tears of exhaustion. Her school days began at 8:15 in the morning, and she found herself in a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.

“You feel tired and exhausted, but you think you just need to get through the day so you can go home and sleep,” Walworth said. “It’s an insane system. … The whole essence of learning is lost.”

Chloe Mauvais was a 16-year-old sophomore when she had her first panic attack after months of sleep deprivation in the name of good grades.

“I sat in the living room in our house on the ground, crying and having horrible breathing problems,” Mauvais said. “It was so scary. I think it was from the accumulated stress, the fear over my grades, the lack of sleep and the crushing sense of responsibility. High school is a very hard place to be.”

“I have difficulty remembering events of that year, and I think it’s because I didn’t get enough sleep,” she said. “The lack of sleep rendered me emotionally useless. I couldn’t address the stress because I had no coherent thoughts. I couldn’t step back and have perspective. … You could probably talk to any teen and find they reach their breaking point. You’ve pushed yourself so much and not slept enough and you just lose it.”

Image CC by SA-2.0, by hackNY.org via Flickr

Sleep Tips

As parents, it is our jobs to do we can to help our children to be happy and healthy. Helping our teens get enough sleep is an important component of making sure they are able to thrive. While we can’t necessarily control what times our teenagers have to be in school at the start of the day, there are some things we can do to help our teens develop good sleep habits.

Cleveland Clinic gives the following nine tips for good teen sleep:

  1. Get adequate sleep: It is recommended that teens get nine hours of sleep each night.
  2. Take a short nap: If your teen wants to nap for 20-30 minutes in the early afternoon, let them. Just don’t let naps last for too long or creep too late into the evening.
  3. Get regular exercise: Getting 30-60 minutes of exercise at least four times a week can help your teen sleep better. Lie with naps, try not to exercise to close too bedtime.
  4. Limit caffeine intake: Drinking caffeine in the late afternoon and evening can make it difficult to fall asleep. Remember that caffeine can hide in soda and chocolate.
  5. Don’t go to bed hungry: Have a light snack before bed.
  6. Avoid nicotine, alcohol, and sleep aids: All of these things can have a negative effect on teen sleep, as well as their health in general.
  7. Have a “winding down” time: Give your teen an hour of quiet time to wind down before bed.
  8. Make the bedroom inviting and relaxing: Keep teen’s room to be quiet, cool, clean, comfortable, and dark.
  9. Keep a regular “wake-up” time: Even if it isn’t a school day, wake up at the same time every day.

My Teenager Can’t Sleep

Although teenagers naturally go to bed later than they did when they were younger, it is still possible for teens to suffer from sleep disorders. If you suspect that there is a more serious issue at play, talk to your teen’s doctor. Knowing when to seek the help of a professional is an essential part of raising children. Your teen’s doctor can diagnose sleep disorders and there are many treatments available that can help your teenager get the rest they need to thrive. Here are a few of the sleep disorders that can cause your teen to have difficulty sleeping.

  • Insomnia
  • Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) or Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
  • Nightmares
  • Narcolepsy
  • Sleepwalking

Teen Sleep Matters

Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences on your teen. Teenagers who don’t get enough sleep have a harder time doing well in school. They are more likely to be depressed and anxious. Helping our teens to get enough sleep can benefit their mental health every bit as much as their grades. As parents, we have a responsibility to recognize when our kids are sleep deprived and to step in when they aren’t getting the sleep they need. Start using these tips today to help make sure your teen is getting enough sleep.

Featured image CC by 0, by John-Mark Smith, via Pexels 

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