Teenagers and sleep: The effects of sleep deprivation
Many parents think that teens have it easy. We blame them for going to bed too late and then get stressed with them for not getting up on time for school in the morning.
Whilst it’s true that many teenagers do tend to go to bed later than they should, this is mainly due to changes in their biological sleep pattern.
In 2004, a study carried out by researchers from the University of Munich found that teenagers actually have a unique sense of time. The 24-hour cycle that we humans work to, gets later as we enter adolescence. The lateness of our sleep behaviour peaks at 20, and then our sleep times gradually drop back to earlier bedtimes.
Although it’s natural for teenagers to alter their bedtime patterns, ultimately it has a negative impact on their wellbeing.
With sleep deprivation one of the biggest causes of anxiety and lack of concentration during the teenage years.
What are the facts?
Getting a good night’s sleep is as important as eating the right food, exercising, drinking water, even breathing!
Teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep a night and yet a US survey suggests that only 15% get more than 8 hours of sleep during school nights, and often less at the weekends.
Sleep disorders in teenagers are nearly always related to stress or anxiety.
A survey carried out by the University of Sydney suggests that 70% of Australian teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived on school-days. A figure that has doubled in the last 15 years and represents more than double of any age group.
The survey also suggests that this sleep deprivation has led to a 27% increase in teenage mental health problems. A figure that has tripled since 2008.
Why is sleep so important for teens?
A US sleep poll suggests that it’s highly likely that sleep deprivation is linked to mental health issues, with teens displaying the following symptoms when they didn’t get enough sleep:
- Felt unhappy, sad or depressed
- Felt hopeless about the future
- Felt nervous or tense
- Worry too much about everything
And of course, the cost of ‘missed learning opportunities’ because of sleep deprivation is incalculable.
For teens, getting a good night’s sleep means they can manage stress better. Many have depressive or anxious feelings on a daily basis or are prone to risky behaviour, much of which can be attributed to lack of sleep.
Irregular sleep patterns can lead to sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, insomnia, and narcolepsy. All treatable problems, but unless we know they are there, our teenagers can suffer in their school and personal lives.
What is a sleep disorder?
Sleep disorders or somnipathy are medical or psychological disorders that disrupt our sleep pattern and cause drowsiness and irritability during the day.
Teenagers who suffer from a sleep disorder will certainly see school work and personal relationships affected.
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder in adults, largely caused by stress and anxiety. When teenagers suffer from insomnia it affects their school life and can cause wider problems.
Teens normally suffer insomnia during a particularly stressful period. If they suffer for longer than a month, specialists call this Chronic Insomnia. This chronic version can be caused by mental health problems, bullying, substance abuse, or underlying medical conditions.
The longer insomnia lasts, the more anxious your teen will become and sleep will be harder to come by.
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPD)
DSPD is probably the most common sleep disorder during the adolescent years, occurring in approximately 10% of teenagers and young adults.
Very simply it means that a person’s biological clock (circadian rhythm) is out of balance, resulting in the deregulation of their sleep pattern.
A teenager suffering from Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome will not be ready to sleep for around two hours after their recommended bedtime and, of course, then have difficulty waking up in the morning.
Sleep Apnea is a condition that causes us to temporarily stop breathing during sleep. Sleep apnea is generally caused by enlarged tonsils or adenoids, but can also be a problem in the overweight or obese population.
Teens who suffer from sleep apnea will snore heavily and may also sweat during the night.
The broken sleep pattern will cause tiredness and irritability throughout the day.
Nightmares or Night Terrors
We tend to associate the nightmare stage with younger children, but as we grow into teens and our worries of the world grow, nightmares can take on a whole new level.
For teenagers, worry and stress are the main causes of nightmares; substance abuse and bullying can also provoke nightmare episodes.
If your teenager has an ongoing issue with nightmares, it’s recommended they speak to a counsellor or therapist.
Nightmares can also affect a parent’s sleep, resulting in arguments within the family, and potentially insomnia issues for other family members.
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that makes a person feel excessively sleepy. It can cause sleep paralysis, loss of muscle control and hallucinations.
It’s uncommon in teenagers but will cause sleepiness during school hours and can be dangerous, as sleep can occur at any moment, such as whilst riding a bike or skateboarding.
Narcolepsy also causes a disrupted sleep pattern during the night and sufferers fall into a vicious cycle of lack of sleep during the night, followed by daytime sleeping.
Unfortunately, it’s not commonly diagnosed in teens and often goes untreated.
Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is more common in children than adults and results in sitting up, walking or talking during the deep-sleep period.
Sleepwalking tends to occur in children and teenagers who are sleep deprived. It’s difficult but necessary to wake the sleepwalker, who often has little or no memory of the episode,
What are the effects of sleep disorders in teenagers?
The stresses of a sleep disorder on your teenager go way beyond sleepiness and academic issues. A lack of sleep also leads to a number of bad habits, which can potentially be life-threatening for your child:
- Screen addiction
- Bad food habits: potentially leading to obesity
- Drug-use: potentially leading to drug dependency
- Low self-esteem
- Anxiety: potentially leading to depression, self-harm, even suicide
What stresses to look out for in your teenager
The facts tell us that teenage sleep deprivation can lead to very serious teenage issues, so it’s vital for parents to identify the signs of a sleep disorder and help them overcome the stresses that are at the root of the problem.
School life: The stress of upcoming exams or falling behind academically is one of the biggest concerns for a teenager. They are coming to a crucial stage in their education, so it’s essential that parents are aware if their teenager is feeling under pressure from schoolwork.
Part-time work: Many teenagers take on part-time work to gain financial independence. But this, coupled with school work, can often mean they are working long hours, and not getting enough sleep.
Personal relationships: The teenage years are complicated when it comes to relationships. Peer relationships are everything, with parents and siblings superfluous to their needs. This can often cause problems at home, or upsets between friends.
Bullying: Bullying can often go undetected by parents, as teenagers feel scared and embarrassed about sharing the problem. It can be one of the biggest stresses in their life and the cause of teenage sleep disorders.
Social Media: Our teenagers are living in a 24-hour connected society and it’s likely that they spend more waking hours on social media than ever. A lack of control over social media means they could be connecting with the wrong people or viewing content of a sexual or aggressive behaviour.
Substance abuse: One of the biggest worries of a parent is substance abuse. Many teens will go through an experimental phase, trying drugs and alcohol, but when it goes past the limit, it can affect their life greatly.
Sleep disorder treatments
Teenagers suffering from a diagnosed sleep disorder may be treated with medication or therapy depending on the disorder and the underlying health issue.
A doctor may prescribe a sleep supplement, such as Melatonin or, medication for a health problem; there are also dental guards and breathing devices for sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, snoring and teeth grinding,
However, when a sleep disorder is caused by stress, anxiety or substance abuse, alternative therapy treatments can be more effective.
These include breathing and meditation exercises, music therapy, physical exercise, mindfulness techniques and relaxation training.
Sleep tips for teenagers
- Establish a regular bed and wake up time: establishing a daily routine will help your teenager to accept bedtime
- No screen time for at least two hours before bed
- Ensure your teen isn’t consuming caffeine or sugar late at night
- Wind down stimulating activities by early evening, so their evenings are spent relaxing
- Think about the light and noise level in their bedroom. If they are subject to excess street lighting or noise, it may be necessary to switch bedrooms or add blackout curtains or noise-reducing equipment.
- Make their bedroom a relaxation sanctuary
- Keep a sleep diary to identify underlying factors which trigger sleep issues
Ultimately, there is a fine line between giving your teenager the independence they crave for and having enough parental control to ensure they don’t come to any harm.
It’s a difficult stage of their life to start trying to establish rules around bedtime, even more so if those rules haven’t been adhered to at a younger age.
However, now more than ever, they need a level of routine and a healthy sleep pattern to be able to cope with higher academic expectations and deeper personal relationships.
All of a sudden your teenagers see their future looming in front of them, and the knowledge they will soon become young adults bears a great responsibility.
A good night’s sleep will play a key role in helping them survive these complicated years.