The teenage years aren’t known for being easy. More often, they have a reputation for being lazy, moody, and unpleasant. The glow of “wonder years” or “glory days” only seems to appear in hindsight, after a few decades of adulting gives a new perspective to those who’ve already made it through high school. Today’s teens are lucky in that they’ll likely never be rapped on the knuckles for falling asleep in class. The struggle remains. For teens, sleep can be elusive, and no amount of snoozing ever seems to be enough. Fortunately, time and science have given modern teens a lot more insight into sleep. If you’re dying for more sleep as a teen or raising a restless young adult, read on. By understanding how teens sleep, you can enjoy more restful nights and awake, alert days.

Science Says So

Recent studies have come out in favor of teens with proof that homework can harm more than it helps and longer days don’t deliver more learning. Unfortunately for current high-schoolers, any real change to the structure of school will probably be implemented post-graduation. The benefit that is available to you right now is a better understanding of how and why teenagers sleep (or fail to do so) like they do.

The School-Day Structure

High school is where responsibility is built. Four years of accountability for schedule-minding, grade maintenance, and extracurricular juggling is our society’s prescription for modeling a responsible adult. The hardest responsibility for most teens is the first one – getting up early in the morning. The school-day alarm signals the end of the sleep-til-you-wake-up rhythm of childhood. It’s also the sound of significant sleep debt. Early buses and late practices make for long days and short nights. Since teens — whose bodies and brains actually need more sleep – burn the candle at both ends, a sleep deficit builds up during the week. That’s why exhausted teens tend to measure achievement by how late they’re able to sleep on the weekends. Try as they might, this cycle of depletion and efforts to “make it up” will likely continue into college.

A Biological Bonus

A rigorous schedule alone doesn’t create the phenomenon of the zombie teenager. There’s a very natural (yet largely unexplained) process at work. The staying-up-late, sleeping-in-later pattern that looks like defiance to parents and administrators can really be delayed sleep phase syndrome. As they develop into teenagers, kids undergo a natural shift in their circadian rhythms. Since few adults are likely to make an 8 pm bedtime work, this is a good thing. But this change can make it very difficult to fall asleep at an hour that makes sense with a 5:30 wake-up time. It can also make waking up feel impossible. As maddening as a teen’s sleep cycle can be for adults, it’s the teen who truly feels the effects of this syndrome. Commonly unaddressed and misunderstood, the disorder can wreak havoc on grades, productivity, mental health, and relationships. Those who understand what’s going on, however, can make positive changes. By implementing good sleep hygiene, teens can adapt to biological changes and stay awake to truly experience the best years of their lives.

Sleep Hygiene for Teens

  1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule. It might require some sacrifices at night, but this is a question of quality of life. It’s worth it.
  2. Maintain an excellent sleep space. When a teen hits puberty and starts having growth spurts, it’s likely time for a new bed. An investment in mattress shopping is an investment in ongoing wellbeing.
  3. Keep light levels low during the evening. Smartphones on the table at 9 pm.
  4. Exercise early. Nighttime sports practices and games are detrimental to healthy sleep.
  5. Kick the caffeine. Teens should understand how caffeine affects their bodies, and they shouldn’t consume it late in the day.

Successful Sleep

Delayed sleep phase syndrome may affect a lot of teens, but we can fight its harmful effects. To better understand the biological forces at work, explore treatment options, and access the science, start a conversation with your doctor. If your case seems extreme, you might consider seeking a sleep study. By creating a wider public conversation about teen sleep, we can eliminate the stigma around “lazy teens” and help American kids have a better experience during their formative years.

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