The Metamorphosis of the Teenage Night Owl

Last week on Parenthetical we talked about healthy eating habits. This week we focus on the importance of sleep for your teen’s physical and mental health. Teens, especially, need your support and help to figure out how to get enough sleep.  This week’s post explains why.

By mrhayata on Flickr
By mrhayata on Flickr

Hormonal changes and brain development affect more than your teen’s romantic interests and their ability to argue. Chemical changes in adolescence also produce a change in teens’ sleep patterns. (No you are not imagining it!) During adolescence, the body adjusts its circadian rhythms (sleep and wake cycles) causing teens to be unable to fall asleep until later at night and then sleep later in the morning. Ironically, teens need more total sleep overall than adults. The typical teen needs nine to ten hours of sleep per night, whereas the average adult needs seven to eight hours. This explains your child’s ability to sleep half the day on weekends. She is actually catching up on lost sleep from the previous week.

Teens that seem to be overreacting emotionally or behaving in emotionally inappropriate ways may be sleep deprived. Lacking full maturity, teenage brains need extra energy to regulate both emotion and thinking. Without enough sleep to restore this energy adolescents may have trouble regulating emotions – as teens have difficulty simultaneously thinking and controlling their emotions. Sleep deprived teens who experience an emotional stressor at school or at home will have difficulty recalling information or accessing knowledge. A tired teen is more sensitive to snubbing by a friend and more likely to do poorly on a test.

Changing sleep patterns create quandaries for parents and schools. Middle school and high schools generally start too early to allow for the sleep needs of the average teen. Sports, activities and academics can consistently keep your teen awake too late at night.  Although schools are increasingly contemplating later starting times, you may have to actively advocate for your child’s sleep needs.  Help your child to back away and prioritize. As the parent you may have to choose between what is deemed “responsible behavior” and the health needs of your child. As in all aspects of parenting careful balance will be required. Keep in mind that this change in sleep pattern and needs is temporary in terms of your child’s lifetime. With age, growth, and maturity it will resolve itself.

As a parent, you can do some things to help your child establish healthy sleeping patterns and get enough sleep to function emotionally, socially, and thrive intellectually.

  • First, try to help your child maintain a regular schedule. Even if your child cannot fall asleep until later, help your teen establish and maintain a regular bedtime and bedtime routine to avoid stimulating his/herself to stay up later and later.
  • To help you child be able to fall asleep according to a bedtime routine, encourage your child to avoid caffeine, large late night meals, or activities that stimulate rather than relax (e.g. video games, possibly some kinds of music, conversations with friends, exercise, television).
  • Finally, you may need to help your child prioritize sleep. If the choice is between sleep and more studying late at night – encourage your child to choose sleep. Researchers have discovered there is an interactive process between learning and sleeping. Individuals process information while they sleep moving it from short term to long term memory. Sleep deprivation saps intelligence for teens and has a substantially negative impact on performance whether it’s test taking or driving.

Does your teen’s schedule fit his or her sleep patterns?  What do you do to help your teen get enough sleep?


Article by Becky Mather

Becky is an Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of her work centers on parenting education and adolescent development. She and her husband are the parents of two young adults and a pre-adolescent. Becky is a Certified Family Life Educator.