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Help for Tired Teenagers: Tips for Parents

Adolescents are notorious for staying up late and being hard to awaken in the morning. If your teenage son or daughter is no exception, it's not necessarily because he or she is pushing the limits or fighting the rules. This behavior pattern actually has a physical cause and can be modified to improve your adolescent's sleep schedule.

Most adolescents need about 9 hours of sleep a night to maintain optimal daytime alertness. But few adolescents actually get that much sleep regularly thanks to factors like early-morning classes, extracurricular activities, homework, part-time jobs, social demands, and use of computers and other electronic gadgets. More than 90% of adolescents in a recent study published in the Journal of School Health reported sleeping less than the recommended nine hours a night. In the same study, 10% of adolescents reported sleeping less than six hours a night.

Sleep-deprived teenagers are more likely than their well-rested peers to report the following risky health behaviors:
  • Drank alcohol
  • Drank full-sugar soda at least once per day
  • Had been in at least one physical fight
  • Had feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Participated in 60 minutes of physical activity fewer than twice in the preceding week
  • Seriously considered attempting suicide
  • Smoked cigarettes
  • Spent 3 or more hours each day on the computer
  • Used marijuana
  • Was sexually active

Although this might seem like no big deal, sleep deprivation can have serious consequences. Tired adolescents can find it difficult to concentrate and learn, or even stay awake in class. Too little sleep also might contribute to mood swings and behavioral problems. Another major concern is drowsy driving, which can lead to serious — or even deadly — accidents.

Everyone has an internal clock that influences body temperature, sleep cycles, appetite and hormonal changes. The biological and psychological processes that follow the cycle of this 24-hour internal clock are called circadian rhythms. Before adolescence, these circadian rhythms direct most kids to naturally fall asleep around 8 or 9 p.m. But puberty changes an adolescent's internal clock, delaying the time he or she starts feeling sleepy — often until 11 p.m. or later. Staying up late to study or socialize can disrupt an adolescent's internal clock even more. The good news is that your adolescent doesn't have to be at the mercy of his or her internal clock.

Tips to help your adolescent develop better sleep habits:

1. Adjust the lighting. As bedtime approaches, dim the lights. Then turn off the lights during sleep. In the morning, expose your adolescent to bright light. These simple cues can help signal when it's time to sleep and when it's time to wake up.

2. Curb the caffeine. A jolt of caffeine might help your adolescent stay awake during class, but the effects are fleeting — and too much caffeine can interfere with a good night's sleep.

3. Don’t use meds. Sleeping pills and other medications generally aren't recommended. For many adolescents, lifestyle changes can effectively improve sleep.

4. Keep it calm. Encourage your adolescent to wind down at night with a warm shower, a book or other relaxing activities. Discourage stimulating activities — including vigorous exercise, loud music, video games, television, computer use and text messaging — an hour or two before bedtime.

5. Know when to unplug. Take the TV out of your adolescent's room, or keep it off at night. The same goes for your adolescent's cell phone, computer and other electronic gadgets.

6. Nix long naps. If your adolescent is drowsy during the day, a 30-minute nap after school might be refreshing. Be cautious, though. Too much daytime shut-eye might only make it harder to fall asleep at night.

7. Stick to a schedule. Tough as it may be, encourage your adolescent to go to bed and get up at the same time every day — even on weekends. Prioritize extracurricular activities and curb late-night social time as needed. If your adolescent has a job, limit working hours to no more than 16 to 20 hours a week.

In some cases, excessive daytime sleepiness can be a sign of something more than a problem with your adolescent's internal clock. Other problems can include:
  • Depression. Sleeping too much or too little is a common sign of depression.
  • Insomnia or biological clock disturbance. If your adolescent has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, he or she is likely to struggle with daytime sleepiness.
  • Medication side effects. Many medications — including over-the-counter cold and allergy medications and prescription medications to treat depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder — can disrupt sleep.
  • Narcolepsy. Sudden daytime sleep, usually for only short periods of time, can be a sign of narcolepsy. Narcoleptic episodes can occur at any time — even in the middle of a conversation. Sudden attacks of muscle weakness in response to emotions such as laughter, anger or surprise are possible, too. 
  • Obstructive sleep apnea. When throat muscles fall slack during sleep, they stop air from moving freely through the nose and windpipe. This can interfere with breathing and disrupt sleep. You might notice loud snoring or intermittent pauses in breathing, often followed by snorting and more snoring. 
  • Restless legs syndrome. This condition causes a "creepy" sensation in the legs and an irresistible urge to move the legs, usually shortly after going to bed. The discomfort and movement can interrupt sleep.

If you're concerned about your adolescent's daytime sleepiness or sleep habits, contact his or her doctor. If your adolescent is depressed or has a sleep disorder, proper treatment can be the key to a good night's sleep.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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