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.

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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.

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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.

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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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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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