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Is Your Teen Sleep Deprived?

Help Your Teen Establish Healthy Sleeping Habits

How many hours of sleep each night does your teen get? What time does he get to sleep? What is the quality of his sleep? Is it restless or restful sleep? What time does your teen wake up in the morning, and what is his mood? Is he grumpy and moody or rested and alert? Is your teen often sleepy during the day?

These are questions Dr. William L. Coleman, pediatric professor at the Center for Development and Learning, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, asks parents. "Teenagers today are sleep deprived," he says. This sleep deprivation can lead to all sorts of problems including poor school performance, reduced ability to concentrate and sustain attention, decreased problem solving abilities, decreased ability to modulate emotions, increased depression, increased incidents of accidents when teens are behind the wheel driving and even increased acne and weight gain! Dr. Coleman stresses the importance of establishing healthy sleep habits in families.

Chris Sanderson from Ashburn, Va., and mother of two teenagers admits that her kids do not get enough sleep. "When I say to them 'go to bed,' I mean go to sleep," she says. "When they hear 'go to bed,' they take it as 'I should go to my room and find another activity to do from my bed'!" Sanderson jokingly calls her teens "cookie monsters and grouches," because they have developed a pattern of eating snacks late at night and are frequently grouchy during the day. Mornings involve repeated pushing of the snooze button. Sanderson says her son would rather sleep more in the morning and cut back on the time he spends getting ready for school. "If the expression 'get your beauty rest' was really true, I'd have very ugly kids!" she says.

Bryson Walker from Wynnewood, Pa., acknowledges that her 17-year-old son is also a "classic sleep-deprived teen." She shares that "he has the habit of multi-tasking – Internet, study, listen to music, IM his friends, etc., but this practice takes him later and later into the night. Then, of course, he can't miss Jon Stewart at 11 p.m.!" Sleep, or lack thereof, is a big discussion in the Walker family. With three teenagers and one preteen in the home, Bryson and her husband, Kelly, want to make sure all of the children get the sleep they need in order to function well during the day.

Why Is Sleep Important?

"During sleep we rejuvenate ourselves both physically and mentally," says Dr. Helene Emsellem, a nationally known sleep expert and medical director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders. She notes that there is a tremendous amount of physical and mental growth taking place during puberty; as a result teen sleep requirements are even greater than that of an average adult.

Why Are Teens Sleep Deprived?

Dr. Emsellem, who is also the author of Snooze ... or Lose!: 10 "No-War" Ways to Improve Your Teen's Sleep Habits (Joseph Henry Press, 2006), reports that "the current generation of teens lives in a very demanding 24/7 world." She says that teens have "many, many more obligations (school, jobs, community service, AP classes) and distractions (Internet, cell phones, video games, instant messenger, TV)." Sanderson and Walker concur, believing that these obligations and distractions engage our teens and contribute to keeping them up late at night.

Puberty also brings about many changes. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), "biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence – meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11 p.m." Most teens need about 9 1/4 hours of sleep each night in order to function at their best. Changes in sleep patterns during weekends may also contribute to sleep problems. Teens typically stay up later and sleep in later on weekends. According to the NSF, this irregular sleep pattern can "affect their biological clocks and hurt the quality of their sleep." Dr. Emsellem also notes that "sleeping in late reinforces evening alertness, making it even harder to fall asleep at a reasonable hour on Sunday nights." Teens can easily get stuck in this negative sleep cycle.

What Can Parents Do?

Dr. Emsellem suggests the following ideas:

  • Be good role models. Set up a sleep wake schedule in the household, emphasizing a wind-down period, separating the frenzy of the day from sleep. Go to www.snoozeorlose.com and take a test of sleepiness and download a sleep log. Have everyone in the household keep one for a week, so you can quantitate how much sleep you and your teens are getting.
  • Read about and understand the changes in sleep associated with puberty. Help your teen understand these basic issues so that he better understands how his body is functioning and can avoid activities that aggravate his "eveningness" making it even harder to get his much needed sleep.
  • Help your teen understand the purpose and benefits of sleep and the consequences of sleep restriction.
  • Parent your teen. Discuss and agree upon limitations on the use of electronics at night. Establish an "electronics curfew." Limit the number of electronic devices available in your teen's room at night.
  • Talk to your teen about her sleep restriction and help her schedule her time for homework, chores and wind-down relaxation time.
  • Limit light exposure in the evening and exaggerate light exposure in the mornings.
  • Limit weekend sleep-ins. A good working rule is that it is hard to keep your internal body clock aligned to a schedule if there is more than a two-hour difference between the weekend and the weekday wakeup time. It's particularly important to work on helping your teen get well rested over the summer time and then adjusting his sleep-wake schedule to accommodate the early wake-up time for school in the fall.
  • Promote healthy eating and exercise.
  • Don't let your teen drive if she has not gotten sufficient sleep.
  • Encourage your teen to use evening alert time wisely, laying out clothes for the morning, packing the backpack, showering so that sleep time can be maximized.
  • If your teen cannot fall asleep (because his internal body clock is set to a later time) provide him with music (MP3 player or CD player) so he can listen with the lights out, in bed, or books on tape or CD. Realize that you can help him have the proper environment to promote sleep, but cannot force him to fall asleep. A frustrated teen who gets up out of bed to do things because he can't fall asleep is promoting evening wakefulness.
  • Help your teen avoid over-committing herself.
  • Politic your school system for change. School districts that have changed to later teen school start times (8:30 to 9 a.m. or later) have shown that teens use the extra time for sleep; school engagement improves, the graduation rate improves dramatically and sports teams win more games. Even teachers have been shown to prefer the later start times.

Other Suggestions?

Talk openly with your teen about sleep issues. The 2006 Sleep in America poll, which reported on sleep in teens, found that teens are aware of their need for more sleep. The poll indicated that half of our adolescents get less sleep than they think they need to feel their best, and the proportion of those adolescents increased as adolescents got older (from 43 percent in 6th grade to 72 percent in 12th grade).

Interestingly, the poll also found that parents are much less likely to admit that their teens are not getting enough sleep. You may view the poll summary on the National Sleep Foundation Web site. Dr. Emsellem stresses that "recognition of the problem on the part of parents and dispelling the myth that teenagers are grouchy, irritable and edgy as a rite of passage is a critical first step in dealing with teen sleep restriction." Dr. Emsellem also reminds us that "well rested teens can be bright, energetic, creative, cooperative individuals!"

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