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.

Reply
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??

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
Linda

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

Reply
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.

Reply
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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
⁣
But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
⁣
When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
⁣
But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
⁣
What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
⁣
In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
⁣
#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

Pin It on Pinterest