Sleep and Teens – Why Nine Hours Matters. And How to Move Them Towards It

Sleep and Teens - Why They Need Nine Hours a Night. And How to Move Them Towards It

Our teens are busy. They’re exploring their place in the world, they’re experimenting with their independence and influence, and they’re starting to discover the types of adults they want to become. And school. There’s that too.

Even if they’re fully charged from a full nine hours of sleep, this is a taxing load. Most of our teens though, are doing adolescence tired – and it’s not their fault. Between their changing biology and the social expectations of adolescence, our teens are in a high-powered conflict between needing to fall asleep later when their bodies tell them, and needing to wake earlier to do, well, life.

Why are our teens tired?

It’s widely accepted that teens need nine hours of sleep each night, but two-thirds of high school students are getting less than seven hours. A two hours difference between actual and ideal might not seem like much, but countless studies have found that falling short of nine hours sleep has significant consequences for our teens, affecting them physically, emotionally, socially and academically.

Here’s the problem. During adolescence, the biological need to sleep becomes disrupted. According to decades of study by Mary Carskadon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at Wareen Alpert Medical School of Brown University, their biology is dictating a later sleep time, but early start times mean they are falling short of the nine hours. 

Melatonin, the sleep hormone that brings on feelings of sleepiness, is produced later in teens than in younger children. This means that teens won’t even start to feel sleepy until about two hours later than younger children or adults. This wouldn’t be a problem at all except for one thing – school. Late nights and early starts mean teens aren’t able to complete the full nine hours of sleep they need to thrive.

It would be tempting to blame technology and social media for the late night starts to their pillow time, but even if we were to send every device to somewhere far away from them, it’s very likely that they still wouldn’t be getting to bed any earlier. This because the delayed production of melatonin makes it more difficult for them to fall asleep before 11pm. As Carskadon explains, ‘The force behind the change that we see behaviorally is in the biology.’

The lack of sleep isn’t about not wanting to sleep, but about not wanting to sleep in the hours they are expected to. Teens stay up later and sleep less, but when they are allowed to sleep for longer, they do. In fact, Carskadon found that when students were woken up after seven hours of sleep for a 7:20 start time at school, if they were allowed to go back to sleep at 8:30, they would. At the time when they would ordinarily have been learning or doing exams, their bodies wanted to sleep.

‘About half of them looked like they had a major sleep disorder – narcolepsy. At 8:30, half of the kids fell asleep in under a minute and went directly into REM sleep which means that their brains were set up in a very strong way to be asleep. When you are trying to teach and learn, it’s a non-starter.’ Professor Mary Carskadon, Wareen Alpert Medical School of Brown University .

So does this mean devices don’t deserve the smackdown for keeping our teens from sleep?

Screen time is still a major player in late bedtimes for our teens, but their biology is an even more powerful influence. Research has found that 9 to 15-year-olds who are in the earlier stages of puberty are especially sensitive to light at night compared to older teens and adults. The light from devices suppresses the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone) by sending a message to the brain, via the retina, that it’s not night-time yet. This compounds the changes that are already happening as part of adolescence which are sending them to sleep later. 

Sleep and teens. What happens when they don’t get enough?

Technology, the biological changes of adolescence, and social factors (school start times, study) are creating a perfect storm of sleep-stealers during adolescence. An abundance of research has found that this is having a significant effect on teens in every way that’s important. Here are some of the ways a lack of sleep can get in their way.

  • It messes with their emotions.

    Without sleep, the brain loses its ability to recognise the difference between neutral information and negative information. When this happens, people tend to have similar emotional responses to both neutral and negative information. This can fuel more negatively charged moods, as well as anxiety, depression and poor judgement. It can also tend to make teens more vulnerable to being negatively affected by information that they might shrug off if they weren’t tired. 

  • Increases the vulnerability to depression.

    Research has found that adolescents who go to bed after midnight are 24% more likely to become depressed. Those who sleep less than five hours a night are 71% more likely to become depressed and 48% more likely to think about suicide than whose who get eight hours of sleep a night.  

  • Losing one hour of sleep is like going back two years.

    According to research done by Dr Avi Sadeh at Tel Aviv University, losing one hour (of the nine hours) of sleep is equivalent to losing two years of cognitive maturation and development. What this means is that a sixth grader who loses one hour of sleep will perform like a fourth grader. Our brains work hard while we’re asleep. One of the many things on its ‘to do’ list is to reinforce learning and memory. Losing sleep interferes with the ability to remember, solve problems, problems, concentrate, think abstractly, and shift information from short-term to long-term memory – all of which will significantly disrupt cognitive function.

  • Increases reactivity to stress.

    A lack of sleep seems to disrupt a part of the neuroendocrine system that controls reactions to stress. Adolescents who don’t enough sleep show a greater response to stress. Levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are greater in tired teens during and after stress, meaning they have more intense reactions to stress, and they stay stressed for longer.

  • Increases impulsivity and risk taking, and lowers inhibitions.

    Research by Professor Mary Carskadon (as well as many others) has found that teens who get less than seven hours sleep are more likely to engage in reckless driving and unsafe sex. Again, this is due to the collision between the natural changes of adolescence, and the physiological effects of losing sleep. Teens are naturally more vulnerable to risky behaviour because their frontal lobes – the part of the brain involved in planning, thinking of consequences, and handbraking impulsive behaviour – are still developing. The vulnerability for risky behaviour is increased by a lack of sleep, because of the effect of poor sleep on inhibition, impulse control, and judgement. 

  • Interference with puberty.

    The changes that happen during puberty are triggered by changes in the brain. These parts of the brain that control puberty become active during deep sleep. Research in children aged 9-15 found that most of the release of the hormone that triggers ovulation in girls, and stimulates the production of testosterone in boys, is preceded by deep sleep. 

  • Impairs ability to read facial expressions.

    Facial expressions communicate the important parts of a conversation that are unspoken, such as intent, meaning, emotion, mood. Research from the University of California – Berkeley found that a brain lacking in sleep, struggles to tell the difference between threatening faces and friendly faces. When teens (or any of us) are tired, they are more likely to overestimate threat and interpret all faces as threatening, even friendly or neutral ones. This can cause trouble for friendships and contribute to arguments, aggression, and social isolation.

  • Increases likelihood of a bad mood.

    It’s no secret that a lack of sleep can make any of us cranky and intolerant. And intolerable. We’ve all been there. Research has confirmed that a lack of sleep increases sadness and anger. It also makes it more difficult to balance our emotions, and makes a bad mood the next day more likely. 

  • Reduces performance in sport and athletics.

    Research has repeatedly showed that tired teens have impaired reaction time, vigilance, and alertness. A lack of sleep also makes injuries more likely. Research by the American Academy of Pediatrics has found that adolescents in grades 7-12 who sleep more than eight hours each night are 68% less likely to be injured than their peers who sleep less.

  • More vulnerable to illness.

    Colds, flu, and gastroenteritis are more common in adolescents who lack sleep. Longer sleep seems to protect teens from absences due to illness. Sleep deprivation can interfere significantly with their ability to do the things that are important to them – the game on the weekend, the exam, the performance, or the recital.   

For teens (and the rest of us) knowing sleep is important, doesn’t always mean ‘enough sleep’ will happen. What then?

Knowing what’s good for us is one thing. Actually doing it is another. To be honest, that’s not a teen thing, it’s a human thing. It can be wildly difficult to influence teen behaviour, particularly as one of the main developmental goals of adolescence is to explore their independence. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Their minds are curious and open and wonderful – and because of their drive towards independence, they might not necessarily embrace our views of the way they should do things, but there are some things we can do to gently steer them in the right direction.

  1. Set a bedtime that will get them 9 hours. 

    Telling teens how important sleep is won’t necessarily persuade them to hit the pillow earlier, but research has found that 70% of teens will go to bed at a time set by their parents. 

  2. Start small.

    Encourage your teen to stick to a consistent bedtime that gives them nine hours of sleep, just for one week – only a week. See if they feel better or perform better after that. After a week (hopefully!) they’ll be able to see for themselves that nine hours can make a beautiful difference. 

  3. Consistency matters with bedtime. 

    As much as possible, try to facilitate a consistent bedtime. This is important to set their natural sleep-wake cycle. If their bedtime changes too much from day to day, it will interrupt their natural cycle, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep and wake up at times that are healthier for them.

  4. Try to let them sleep time around their natural rhythm.

    Some adolescents will be night owls and some will be early birds. If you have a night owl, they’re likely to be more alert later in the day. If you can, try to organise mornings so they can sleep in as late as possible. This might mean encouraging them to get organised the night before, or avoiding early morning starts when they can, so they can wake up as late as possible the next day. This isn’t always do-able, but whenever it can be done, it will make a difference.

    If you have an early bird, try to avoid encouraging them to stay up late studying or doing homework. They’ll be more alert and engaged in the mornings than they would be late at night, and if they force themselves to stay up late, it will push against their natural sleep/wake cycle.

  5. Switch off devices off at least 30 minutes before bed.

    Because the light from devices delays production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy, encourage your teen to switch off devices at least 30 minutes before bed. 

  6. And get those devices out of the room.

    Recent research has found that one in five adolescents aged 12-15 always wake up during the night to use social media. One-third wake up at least once a week during the night to use social media. Waking up to look at devices interrupts the sleep cycle enough, but there’s also the effect of exposure to the light from their devices. Not surprisingly, teens who wake up to use social media, or who don’t have a regular waking time in the morning, are around three times as likely to report being constantly tired at school. They also report being significantly less happy than their peers. Think about having a rule that means all devices have to be put somewhere out of the room before your teen settles down to sleep.

  7. Let the sun in.

    As soon as your adolescent wakes up, let as much natural light into the room. This will let the brain know that it’s morning and that it’s time to switch on. The longer this is delayed, the longer it will be for the ‘sleep’ part of the cycle to kick in at the end of the day. 

And finally …

There’s no doubt that to be the best they can be, all adolescents need at least nine hours of sleep each night, but most of them are falling short and putting themselves in sleep debt. It can be tempting to blame this on their late night behaviours – social media, study etc – but their biology is the more powerful force. Their bodies just aren’t ready for sleep when the rest of us are ready to settle for the night. This wouldn’t matter if they were able to sleep in, but school or extracurricular start times mean they are often woken up at a time when their bodies have the physiological drive to be asleep.

Sleep is like a healing, cleansing, strengthening super-elixir for the brain. Anything we can do to support our teens in getting the peaceful zzz’s their adolescent brains and bodies crave, will go a long way towards strengthening them, both in the short-term and in the years to come.

20 Comments

Angie Brookes

This a great read. I am showing it to my 13 year old twins in the hope it makes them understand a little more why I am always asking them to switch off their media and go to sleep.

Reply
Melissa

Always amazing Karen! I love how deep you went on this topic. Sleep is often the magic answer to so many social, emotional and health problems.

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Jeanne

Sorry, in my last comment, I forgot to say that given they need 9 hours of sleep, how do you get a teen who is not tired to go to bed at 9:30 when they have to get up at 6:30? Is it okay for them to nap when they get home from school? My teen does this all the time.

Reply
Jeanne

You are saying they are not tired until 11, but if they have to get up at 6:30 for school, then how do we possibly get them to go to bed at 9:30??

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Karen Young

Yes that’s the problem – their biology is in conflict with the demands of their adolescent lives and the early mornings that come with that. Their bodies can’t store sleep, but any sleep will help to repay some of the sleep debt they fall into. Let them sleep in when they can, even if it means not getting up until 10am or later on weekends. Let them nap when they feel they need to, but try to encourage them to make it either less than 30 minutes or longer than 90. This is because after 30 minutes, they will drift into the deeper stages of sleep which will be harder to wake up from. They’ll be more likely to wake up feeling groggy and not very refreshed. Alternatively, if the nap can last for 90 minutes, this is generally the time it takes for a full sleep cycle so they won’t be waking up in the middle of a deep sleep.

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Par

Well said, In my many years of treating teens, I have found all the above to be true. Thanks so much for this post and for all you do to help families and kids.

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J Burkholder

Great article! Is there ever a time when too much sleep is detrimental? There is a studied minimum; I’m curious if there has been a maximum established as well.

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Karen Young

9-10 hours is ideal. Sometimes the body will need more, and that’s okay, but if there are longer sleeps happening regularly, it may be worth making sure this isn’t being driven by something else. Some illnesses can have tiredness or fatigue as a symptom, but a checkup should be able to clarify whether or not there is anything that needs attention.

Reply
Izabela

Great article! I like your writing very much: informative, extremely useful, and, at the same time, so pleasant to read.

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Robyn

Very informative, have had to deal with some of the issues mentioned like anxiety and I know lack of sleep can play a huge part. I have 3 teenagers I may try some of the ideas mentioned.

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Megan

The State of California is trying to pass a law to have start times for High School at 8:30. Many school districts are getting ahead of the law and going ahead with the plan.
I thank Senator Portantino for spearheading this action.

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Kerrie Jaques

This is the best teen sleep article I have ever read! Thank you. I will be sharing it with everyone I know thst has kids.

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Linda

Now school systems need to take this advice and change schedules accordingly.

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Karen Young

Yes absolutely. The evidence on this is so convincing. When schools have implemented later start times for adolescents have noticed there’s been a big difference in behaviour, performance and even car accidents.

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Joelle Williams Dupuy

Clear and informative article – thank you so much HeySigmund – I will have to circulate on my site wellbeingsophrology.com and to summarize it for my 14 year old sleepy head!

Reply
Jean Tracy

Thank you for this very informative article. The 10 problems without sleep are eye-opening. Your 7 solutions give hope. Thanks again, Karen.

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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