School Stress: Why Your Teen Needs a Good Night’s Sleep

This is the 11th post in our weekly fall School Stress series, a back-to-school toolkit for parents on how to best navigate their teen’s stress and anxiety — explored in our documentary BREAKING POINTS

teen sleep is necessary for stress
Teenagers are living life at full speed — growing, learning, studying, exploding with hormones, learning to drive, gaining autonomy and coping with daily pressure and stress. It turns out that they need more sleep than adults to stay healthy and safe – and cope with stress.

To learn more about why sleep is so important for teens and how parents can help them get the rest they need, we reached out to Janet K. Kennedy, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, founder of NYC Sleep Doctor and author of The Good Sleeper: The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby (and You).

Why is sleep so important for teens?
Sleep is an essential bodily function for everyone. But for teens especially, it’s the body’s time to repair the damage of the day, regulate hormones, consolidate memory, solidify learning, and restore energy so they can wake up and do it all over again the next day.

What the recommended amount of sleep for teenagers?
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teens get 8-10 hours of sleep nightly. Most teens do not get this much sleep.

Are there certain hours that are optimal for a teen’s bedtime and wake time?
Teenagers’ body clocks are skewed later than that of children and adults. Some teens have trouble falling asleep before 11 (or even later), which makes it hard to get enough sleep and get to school on time.

How does lack of sleep add to a teen’s stress level?
Lack of sleep increases levels of adrenaline and cortisol, making us feel wired, edgy and stressed. That physical stress combines with the psychological stress of homework, social stress, overscheduled extracurricular activities, pressure to perform, and looming responsibilities of adulthood that can feel overwhelming. And stress hormones make it harder to fall asleep, creating a cycle of sleep debt that is hard to break out of.

Are there other consequences for teens for not getting enough sleep?
Not getting enough sleep affects every aspect of a teenager’s life:

  • Poor memory and concentration leads to poor retention and performance at school.
  • Response time is impaired and car accidents are more likely.
  • Hormones triggering poor food choices and metabolic changes cause weight gain.
  • Irritability contributes to family and/or social conflict and can lead to more serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
  • Immune function is lowered and risk of colds or flu is increased.
  • Acne gets worse.

How can parents help set the stage for their teens to get a good night’s rest?
Parents can and should help teens develop good sleep habits:

  • Screens should be OFF and preferably out of the bedroom at least one hour before bed. This is important because screens keep kids (and us) plugged in to the day’s work and social activity. We have to train ourselves — and our kids — to unplug. Phones, tablets and computers also emit blue light that suppresses the brain’s release of melatonin, delaying the body’s sleep signal. This is especially important for teenagers because their melatonin release is already on the late side. Delaying it further can cause insomnia and sleep deprivation.
  • Limit caffeine and eliminate super-caffeinated drinks designed to keep you awake. The body can take hours to metabolize caffeine. And even if someone is able to fall asleep after drinking caffeinated beverages, the stimulant effect interferes with deep sleep and makes sleep less restful.
  • No napping in the evening. Naps — and especially late naps — derail the body’s sleep clock, making it harder to get the consolidated nighttime sleep that is so important.
  • Don’t oversleep on weekends. Sleeping much later than normal and taking long naps on weekends makes it harder to get the sleep you need. The body works best when it has a consistent rhythm. A cycle of weekday sleep deprivation and weekend oversleeping keeps the body in a state of stress and fatigue. As unpleasant as it sounds, it’s best to get up around the same time each day, even on weekends. It’s usually fine to sleep an hour later on weekends, but more than that can lead to Sunday night insomnia, setting up the cycle of sleep deprivation for another week.

Are there certain routines or tips that are helpful for good sleep?
Bedtime routines help signal the body to slow down and get drowsy. Start by unplugging from technology one hour before bed. I recommend reading for pleasure before bed because it distracts the mind away from daily stresses and allows the body to take over with fatigue. But don’t read on a tablet. An e-reader without apps is fine as long as it doesn’t have a backlight. Real books are best.

The sleep environment is also important. The room should be dark and relatively cool (68-72 degrees). Try not to do homework in bed. It’s better to keep the bed a peaceful place free of stress.

Any recommendations for when your teen just can’t fall asleep?
If your teen can’t sleep, it’s best to get out of bed and do something else for a while. The body releases adrenaline when stressed and that keeps you awake. You will get to sleep faster if you get up and distract yourself until fatigue takes over. Reading is a great way to distract the mind from the stress of insomnia. Coloring and drawing are also helpful. If you get very anxious, leave the bedroom and watch TV for a while until you feel more relaxed. Then read until you can’t stay awake. Trying to sleep when you’re stressed and anxious just makes matters worse. Distract yourself and let your body take over when it’s ready.

Some teens like to stay up late to study — because it’s quiet and there aren’t as many distractions. What are your thoughts on this?
Late night studying is fine as long as it doesn’t lead to sleep deprivation and the teen maintains good sleep habits. Here’s why that’s hard:

  • Schools tend to start early and late night studying means less sleep — and sleep is an essential part of learning.
  • If late night studying is a result of procrastination, it’s more likely to interfere with sleep because stress levels are high.
  • Studying in bed leads to unintentional dozing which fragments sleep.
  • Late night studying often leads to oversleeping either the next morning or on weekends. That stresses the body and creates more sleep problems.

Our film BREAKING POINTS explores the behavior of some teens who abuse prescription stimulants to stay up and study and cram for exams. We know this behavior is risky, but how does it impact sleep habits?
Stimulant abuse wreaks havoc on sleep. Staying awake artificially leads to a crash at odd times. That disturbs and distorts the body clock, creating a kind of jetlag that can take days or more to work through. As mentioned earlier, stimulants also affect sleep quality even when they wear off enough to allow sleep.

What’s the best way to tackle sleep the day after a teen pulls an all-nighter? Nap? Early bedtime? How does that work — do they need to make up the missed hours of sleep?
The best way to handle this is not to pull an all-nighter at all. Sleep is necessary to transfer learned information into memory. Test performance is much better when studying is followed by sleep. And even if a person can cram all night and regurgitate the information successfully on a test the next day, the information will essentially disappear. It won’t be stored and it won’t be available to the person in the future.

But let’s say that a teen defies all common sense and stays up all night. That sleep is essentially lost. The body will recoup some of the lost sleep over subsequent nights, but it won’t recover all of it. And making up for lost sleep during the day can throw off the whole schedule, causing insomnia at night. It’s important to stay up until a normal bedtime, no more than one hour early. It’s best to get the body back into a normal schedule as soon as possible.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Emphasize that sleep is essential to transfer learned information into memory.
  • Screens should be off and preferably out of the bedroom at least one hour before bed.
  • Help your teen limit caffeine.
  • Avoid napping in the evening, and don’t oversleep on weekends.
  • Be sure they aren’t doing homework in bed, so that their bed is truly a place for rest and no stress, and so that they don’t unintentionally doze while studying, which interrupts a healthy sleep pattern.
  • Talk to your teen about the dangers of abusing stimulants to cram or stay awake.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed or have a question about your child’s drug or alcohol use, call our toll-free Helpline where you can speak with a trained and caring, master’s-level support specialist at 1-855-DRUGFREE (1-855-378-4373).
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Bring BREAKING POINTS to Your Community

Host a screening of BREAKING POINTS, a documentary film that takes on the issue of study drugs and how they intersect with school stress. The package includes a Screening Guide with discussion questions and other bonus materials.

Breaking Points film

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