This article is part of a series on navigating teens stress and anxiety, a common reason for substance use. Find the full series at Stress & Drug Use: What Every Parent Should Know.
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).
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.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teens get 8-10 hours of sleep nightly. Most teens do not get this much sleep.
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.
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.
Not getting enough sleep affects every aspect of a teenager’s life:
Parents can and should help teens develop good sleep habits:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.