It is hard to believe now, but until the twentieth century, society did not view teenage years as a distinct period of life bridging childhood and adulthood. Although now we give its due to the ordeal young bodies and minds go through, there is still a place for improvement, with sleep being one of the aspects that need closer attention.
So what is different?
We intuitively assume that the amount of sleep a person needs decreases with age. True, babies need the most, while toddlers need less, preschoolers even lesser, and so on. Following this logic, teenagers do not need as much sleep as, say, eight-year-olds. However, reality is much more complicated.
This linear notion of sleep is responsible for the myth about elderly needing less sleep than younger people. Although there are some grounds for this misconception, age is not the only factor that determines the need for sleep. There are also such things as workload, stress level, or health condition. With teenagers, however, it is even trickier to find the balance. As they grow older, parents and the school tend to expect more of them, want them to take more assignments, chores, and responsibilities.
While doing so, we forget that the process of growing up is very trying as it is. Teenagers face multiple challenges due to physical and psychological changes. All this can be very exhausting, increasing their need for sleep. The load can also induce a number of sleep disorders, to which teenagers are particularly susceptible.
Why won’t they sleep?
According to researchers, sleep disorders break into four broad categories.
- Primary sleep disorders.
These include teeth grinding, snoring, sleepwalking, night terrors (if they persist into adolescence), and many others. As they usually result from a genetic predisposition or brain injury, these disorders do not pertain to adolescent specifically. Nevertheless, they often strike at teenage years (such as Kleine-Levin syndrome, otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty syndrome).
- Sleep disorder related to another mental disorder.
As adolescence is often associated with intense emotional turmoil and struggling through an existential crisis, there is no wonder that anxiety, depression, neurosis and various psychological issues top the list of teen insomnia causes. Teens are overwhelmed with new responsibilities, as well as social and academic challenges. They feel as if their time does not belong to them anymore. They want to claim back their life, so they develop a “night owl” syndrome delaying their bedtime day after day and interfering with their circadian rhythms.
Exams, relationship problems, bullying, and other issues can also disrupt sleep, because teen’s mind goes into overdrive, making it impossible to relax. They may stay up late surfing the Internet, watching favorite shows, reading, texting, chatting, or just tossing and turning for hours, unable to fall asleep.
- Sleep disorder due to a general medical condition.
The condition may vary from the high level of blood sugar and obesity to respiratory diseases and cramps. Adolescence is the time of hormonal changes and adjustments, therefore many conditions, undetectable in children, take its toll and start affecting sleep at this age.
- Substance-induced sleep disorder.
This is also quite common. It can be as trivial, as drinking too much coffee. However, sometimes, prescribed medications are to blame, such as those used to treat asthma, high blood pressure, and heart conditions. Alcohol and drug abuse also may cause sleep problems or aggravate the existing issues.
What can we do?
The majority of adolescent sleep problems are preventable. That is why behavioral and supportive methods are the most useful for treating the disorders.
What should you do if you have noticed that your teen does not have enough rest or has difficulties falling asleep?
1. Define the initial problem and work to resolve it
Whether it is a health condition or a psychological issue, you must first find the root of the problem. Talk to your teen. Ask her what keeps her up late. Look for the signs of distress (depression, bullying, anxiety, unreciprocated feelings). If your child does not know what is wrong and the inability to fall asleep bothers her, you should consult a specialist.
2. Provide a good example
We tend to underestimate the influence of our life choices on our children. Meanwhile, adolescent sleep habits usually reflect those of their parents. Are you prone to accumulating sleep debt? Do you promise to “sleep it all out later”? Do you brag about how long you can go without sleep or joke about running “on coffee and hugs”? Do you use sleep-slighting language (“I’ll get enough of it when I’m dead”, “Sleep is for babies” and so on)? If you do, there is a big chance that your teen is sleep-deprived because he or she thinks that is how things are in the adult world.
Even if this is not the case with you, the problem is still out there. As a society, we do not respect sleep enough. Having “too much” of it is viewed as the sign of laziness. If a person needs more than average amount of sleep, we see them as physically and intellectually inert. We have all kinds of name-calling, from “sleepyhead” to “sluggard”. On the contrary, sleep deprivation is praiseworthy in our eyes. After all, it’s for the higher cause: studying, working, or even partying hard.
You might have to go some extra mile to neutralize the influence of this notion. Explain the importance of sleep for concentration and cognitive abilities.
3. Limiting TV and gadget usage in the bedroom
When it comes to gadgets, teenagers often enjoy more freedom compared to younger kids. For example, they are allowed to have TV sets and laptops in their bedrooms or use their smartphones in bed. However, sometimes they still do not have enough self-discipline, and such indulgence leads to lack of adequate rest. Moreover, emissions of blue light from the screen suppress melatonin and keep us awake at the biochemical level. This may add to preexisting sleep problems of your teen.
Therefore, limiting screen time in the evenings is a good practice. For teenagers, playing games and scrolling through news feeds can become compulsive. In this case, you may want to block the most addictive games and social networks on your teen’s iphone with parental control software. Another good idea is to create a common charging hub downstairs and make it a rule to leave smartphones and tablets there overnight. This will prevent your child from picking the smartphone up each time it buzzes and interrupts the sleep.
4. Revising schedule
Do some regime tweaking with respect to your teen’s circadian rhythms. You may want to consider a new school that starts later or is situated closer, so they won’t have to wake up too early.
If your teen stays up late reading books, drawing, studying or otherwise engaged, it might be reasonable to make some room for the activity during the day, even if it means giving up a sports section or some extracurricular classes. Sometimes teenagers are over-enthusiastic and want it all at once. Make them chose something that really matters. Explain, that additional four hours of exercises a week won’t do them much good if those hours are stolen from sleep. The key is moderation and balance.
You should also pay attention to your teen’s nourishment. It is better to reserve coffee for the morning and avoid it in the afternoon. The same goes to other stimulants, such as strong tea or sugary drinks. The best option for the evenings is a cup of tisane with chamomile, lavender or valerian.
Both teachers and parents should help teenagers to deal with psychological issues and responsibilities overload. What is more important, we must work together to make teens and young adults respect sleep and understand its importance.
This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.