I thought it would be best to write this post when I myself was sleep-deprived… which I am. I have a statistics midterm tomorrow, and I stayed up too late at night worrying about it. Today I’m irritable, drowsy, unable to concentrate, and have a headache. If I stopped and put my head down, I would drift off immediately.

Sound familiar? We all know what it’s like to be short on sleep. Whether we’ve been parents, students, or simply had too much to do, sometimes it’s a fact of life. And as we all know, adolescents are studying, texting, working, or playing World of Warcraft late into the night…

Many seem to think that adolescents need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, just like adults. This is a dangerous misconception. Even adolescents who are no longer gaining in height are still rapidly developing- particularly their brains, which won’t stop developing until their mid-twenties. Teens need approximately 9-11 hours of sleep a night.

When I mention this to teens, they usually laugh at me. I can’t blame them. Teenagers today are going to school, working, involved in sports or other hobbies, maintaining friendships and romantic relationships, preparing for their adult future, posting on Facebook, exchanging text messages… Who has time to sleep that much?

To make things worse, adolescents are hard-wired to go to bed later (around 11 pm or midnight) and get up later (around 9 or 10 in the morning) than adults; but our society, and for the most part our schools, aren’t wired that way at all. Your teen may not feel sleepy at 9:30 pm, but that alarm will go off at 6 am the next morning just the same.

Some teens tend to make up for their lack of sleep during the week by sleeping in 14-16 hours on weekends. This can be a valid way of compensating for a week or so of scanty sleep. When we don’t sleep enough, we accumulate what is known as “sleep debt”; we “owe” our body a certain amount of sleep.

When a teen crashes for what seems like an inordinate amount of time, they are simply repaying their bodies and minds with necessary shut-eye. Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t something a teen can do week after week without starting to suffer the consequences of sleep deprivation. Accumulating and paying off sleep debt may work for a little while, but eventually their bodies will start to rebel. In the long term, there’s no shortcut to sleep, and no quick fix for a lack of it.

Teens that don’t get enough sleep are at risk for a host of problems. All of the symptoms I have today- irritability, drowsiness, inability to concentrate, headache- can become chronic complaints.

In addition, teens who regularly don’t sleep enough may have behavioral problems, trouble controlling their weight, slipping grades, more frequent viral infections, and issues with decision-making and self-control (which adolescents aren’t famous for, anyway.) Teens who drive have a higher risk of falling asleep at the wheel, with all the terrible consequences it can bring.

Eventually, the decision to get enough sleep rests on your teen- you can’t sleep for them- but you can help.

  • Encourage them to set a regular bedtime at least nine hours before they have to get up in the morning.
  • Help them find a relaxing activity to do in the hour before going to bed- listen to calm music, take a hot shower, or read.
  • If they can’t stay off the computer or cell phone after the lights are out (this is a really common issue), discuss turning off the computer at bedtime, or leaving the cell phone in another room.
  • Help them avoid more than occasional caffeine (no caffeine is fine too!)
  • Discourage naps that last more than 30 minutes during the day; they can disrupt their sleeping at night.

If they truly cannot sleep after all of this, and you can see them suffering, take them to see a doctor. They may have insomnia, depression, sleep apnea, or another medical condition that is keeping them from getting a restful night’s sleep.