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The Truth About Tired Teens: Why Parents and Teens Fight Over Sleep
Icon By Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE

Most Teens are Sleep Deprived
The research is in: most teens get 25-33% less sleep than they need. Anyone not getting enough sleep has difficulty focusing, reasoning, driving safely, learning, and working.

Most researchers agree: many of the common traits of adolescence --- moodiness, impulsiveness, disengagement, and depression, even obesity --- are symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation impairs memory, so teens probably aren’t being irresponsible when they forget their books and assignments; it’s likely a symptom of chronic sleep deprivation.

According to Dr. Avi Sadeh at Tel Aviv University, “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to the loss of two years of cognitive maturation and development.” Since the effects of sleep loss are cumulative, it can impair judgment and performance within several weeks.

Why Teens Don’t Sleep
During puberty, the circadian rhythms --- the cycle of changes the body undergoes in a 24-hour period --- drastically change. This affects when teens get hungry, when they are most alert, when they want social contact, and the sleep/wake cycle. So even if teens go to bed earlier, they probably can’t go to sleep. This is why most teens are “night owls.”

In reality, teens have two sleep problems: because their brains are developing so much, they need a lot of sleep, but because of the circadian shift, they get tired later than everyone else. Yet, because of traditional school schedules, teens often have to get up earlier than everyone else. They are chronically sleep deprived.

Since teens are short on sleep during the week, they often sleep until early afternoon on the weekend. This can throw of their sleep/wake cycle even further. They are essentially fighting a losing battle with their own bodies to stay awake.

How Much Sleep Do Teens Need?
During REM sleep, the brain stores information. So the more you learn during the day, the more you need to sleep that night. Teens need about 9-1/2 hours of sleep every night, yet they tend to stay up late. Just 15 minutes of extra sleep can increase school performance. One hour more can make a dramatic improvement in teens’ overall functioning and school/work performance.

How To Help Teens Sleep?
In a perfect world, schools would adjust their schedules to accommodate adolescent development by having high school classes start later than other grades. A high school in Edina, Minnesota, did just that. They changed their high school start times to start one hour later. This boosted math SAT scores up 56 points and verbal SAT scores a whopping 156 points. Students also reported higher levels of motivation and lower levels of depression.

On the home front, you can encourage your teens to go to bed at a decent hour, even if they can’t sleep. You can also encourage teens to cut out stimulating activities late at night. Limiting caffeinated beverages, TV, video games, and phone after nine or ten can help convince the adolescent brain it’s time for bed. Also encourage quiet reading, quiet music, and other mellow activities to make the transition to sleep time.

On the weekends, be tolerant of your teens’ need to catch up on sleep, but be sure they don’t’ get their days and nights mixed up. Sleeping until ten or eleven in the morning is probably fine. Staying in bed until two or three in the afternoon may do teens more harm than good.

As with many developmental stages and the resulting parenting challenges they can bring, “This, too, shall pass.” But adults can be proactive, instead of fighting a losing battle. School administrators and parents can do their part to understand adolescent brain development and adjust schedules accordingly. By educating teens about their bodies, it will help teens self-regulate their sleep.

Get more information from Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, second-generation parent educator, president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, parenting expert to the media worldwide, and author of 100+ practical parenting resources, including the award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop at:  Permission granted for use on
Tags: Education, high school, Parenting, teens
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