The Real Walking Dead: Sleep Deprivation in Teens

When our children are small, sleep and sleep habits are at the forefront of our minds. When will our baby sleep through the night? Is our toddler going through sleep regression? We keep track of sleep disruptions and naps because we know how important sleep is to our children. But as our children get older, parents tend to forget that sleep is just as crucial to teens and young adults as well. 

Sleep deprivation in teens has been linked to depression, anxiety, stress, and more. One of the parts of a teen’s life it disrupts the most is school. It makes a teen unable to concentrate and take in information, interrupting the entire learning process. Because of this, parents have a responsibility to intervene and make sure their teens are getting enough sleep.

How sleep deprivation in teens affects school

Everyone knows how many hours a teenager is supposed to get: 8 to 10. But how many do they usually get? According to the National Sleep Foundation, only around 15 percent of teens report getting the minimum amount of sleep. That means more than 4 out of 5 teens are sleep deprived.

Sleep deprivation in teens is running rampant across the US, but what are the effects in school? Well, if a teen only gets 7 hours of sleep during the weekdays, they’ve accumulated 5 to 10 hours of “sleep debt” by the weekend. Sometimes that “sleep debt” can be made up during the weekend, but oftentimes it cannot, leading to a downward slope into sleep deprivation. Even if they take naps after school, this messes with their circadian rhythm–making it even harder to fall asleep at the correct time.

A sleep-deprived teen often has trouble focusing, staying alert, learning information, taking tests, solving problems, listening, and more. These are all things students have to do during the school day, which means sleep deprivation in teens directly affects how teenagers perform academically.

While it is natural for a child’s sleep patterns to change during adolescence, there are some signs and symptoms to be aware of when it comes to sleep deprivation:

  • concentration difficulties
  • mentally ‘drifting off’ in class
  • shortened attention span
  • memory impairment
  • poor decision making
  • lack of enthusiasm
  • moodiness and aggression
  • depression
  • risk-taking behavior
  • slower physical reflexes
  • clumsiness, which may result in physical injuries
  • reduced sporting performance
  • reduced academic performance
  • increased number of ‘sick days’ from school because of tiredness
  • truancy

What causes sleep deprivation in teens?

As teenagers’ brains continue to develop, sleep is more important than ever. It is important to understand what can cause sleep deprivation in teens. And while there can be many reasons your teen isn’t getting enough sleep, here are a few to be aware of: 

  • Hormonal changes: During adolescence, hormones shift teenagers’ internal clock forward by about one or two hours, which causes them to feel tired one or two hours later. But even though their internal clock has changed, their school schedule does not. Teens who had no issues waking up for school in elementary school may now be struggling every morning because they have lost those hours of sleep. 
  • Screen time: It is no surprise that smartphone and tablet use can have an effect on a teenager’s sleep patterns. Many teens spend their evenings scrolling through social media or binging shows late into the night. This unhealthy use of screen time can lead to teens staying up late at night and losing even more sleep than normal. There is also evidence that the blue light from screens can actually affect the quality of sleep that teens get. So, even if they are able to fall asleep at a regular time, it will not be a restful sleep. 
  • Physical health: Sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome or sleep apnoea, can affect how much sleep a teenager gets. Teens who struggle with chronic pain or illnesses such as diabetes may also find that their sleep is compromised. 
  • Medications: Many prescription drugs can interfere with sleep, such as certain antidepressants and medications for asthma or blood pressure. Many over-the-counter medications, such as some pain medications, allergy and cold medications, and weight-loss products, contain caffeine and other stimulants that can disrupt sleep.
  • Mental health: Teenagers who are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD may also have issues with their sleep patterns. For example, people who are experiencing depression may also be at risk for developing insomnia. Or on the flip side, teens with depression who struggle with sleep may find that their depression symptoms are triggered or worsened. 

Fitting sleep into your teen’s schedule

As a parent, there are a few things you can do to help combat sleep deprivation in teens and fit those z’s into your teen’s schedule:

  1. Set Healthy Boundaries: Teens are transitioning from childhood towards adulthood, but they’re not quite there yet. Teenagers still need rules and boundaries to help keep them healthy and safe. This includes setting healthy boundaries around their sleep. For teens who are prone to staying up late watching TV on the couch, setting a time for them to head to their room in the evening can help them break their late night habit. Teens who spend their nights scrolling through social media may need rules around social media and technology use, like turning their phones in every night by 10 pm. By removing the temptation to log on or scroll, you can better set them up for a good night’s sleep. 
  2. Create an Evening Routine: Once you have created some boundaries to help create better sleep habits, you can start setting new evening routines with your teen. That can be as simple as putting up their phone, taking a shower, and reading a book before bed. Having an evening routine begins to train their body and mind that they are getting ready for sleep. 
  3. Make Sleep Friendly Environment: Creating a relaxing, quiet environment can help your teen get their best night’s sleep. This could be putting up black out curtains if they have large windows that let in a lot of light. This could also be creating a cozy bed area with comfortable pillows and blankets that can help them relax. Some teens may also enjoy comfort items like a weighted blanket or a lavender scented eye pillow. All of these things can help your teen relax and prepare for a restful night’s sleep. 
  4. Allow Time to Sleep In: As discussed earlier, during adolescence your teen’s internal clock shifts, which can cause them to fall asleep later. But even though they’re tired later in the evening, they are still required to get up early for school. This can begin to put them at a sleep deficit. On the weekends, allow your teen some extra time to sleep in. Of course, you don’t want them sleeping in until the afternoon which will make it difficult for them to fall asleep that night. But even allowing an extra hour of sleep on the weekend can help them feel more rested. 
  5. Avoid Stimulants: Adolescence is also a time when teens are beginning to discover sodas, coffee, and energy drinks. Some may begin relying on caffeine or sugary drinks to give them energy to complete their homework or a boost before their sports practice. But these stimulants can stay in their system long after homework or practice is over. One study showed that six hours after a caffeinated drink, half of that caffeine is still present in your body. It can take up to ten hours for caffeine to completely clear out of the bloodstream. 
  6. Get Moving: If your teen has difficulty falling asleep at night due to an overactive brain or overall restlessness, try encouraging them to be physically active during the day. Research has found that just 30 minutes of activity can make a difference in sleep quality at night. And while researchers are not sure what the exact mechanism that links sleep and exercise, they have seen that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep we get. Slow-wave sleep refers to deep sleep, where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate.

Asheville Academy can help

Asheville Academy, a residential treatment center in a traditional school setting for girls 10-14, helps teen girls struggling with anxiety, depression and other emotional and behavioral issues. If your daughter’s worries about going back to school are more than just normal fears, consider sending her to Asheville Academy, a therapeutic boarding school. With a caring staff and a clinically based program, Asheville Academy can help your daughter feel comfortable with school.

In our supportive, nurturing environment students learn to advocate for their needs, recover and overcome from setbacks, and build impulse control as they become more mature and resilient. Students build their confidence through incremental progress, positive psychology which reminds them of their strengths, and activities that allow students to challenge themselves in a safe environment.

For more information about how Asheville Academy can help your daughter, call 800-264-8709 today!