Changes in Adolescent Sleep Patterns

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The sun was shining bright and it lit up the house. The house was alive with activity with the exception of one lone family member who was coming down the stairs. It was 10am and the teenager was just woke up.

The teenager’s parents were wondering what had happened over the past year to their daughter. She used to be up at the crack of dawn and ready to go for the day. Now, she was staying up later than her parents and sleeping as long as she could in the morning particularly on the weekend.

While the change in sleep pattern was an adjustment, the change in their daughter’s temperament was even more jarring. She used to be easy-going but has become irritable and argumentative. The parents hope that the changes are temporary.

Adolescents change in so many ways once puberty starts. While some physical changes can be easy to see, there are others that are more hidden. This includes adolescent sleep patterns which shift once puberty starts so that teens’ natural sleep time is closer to 11pm.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not acknowledge this physiological change in adolescents and still forces them to get up early to get to school. This reduces the amount of sleep that adolescents receive each night. Most do not get the needed eight to ten hours of sleep that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

The result of not getting enough sleep is a change in adolescent behavior. Adolescents have difficulty controlling their emotions which results in them lashing out at others, being irritable, and struggling to stay focused. These behaviors put teens at higher risk for unintentional injuries such as car accidents due to sleepiness and fatigue. In addition, adolescents struggle to learn new material and their grades can decline.

Another by-product of the sleep deprivation accrued during the week is that adolescents adopt irregular sleep patterns where they stay up later and sleep about two hours longer on the weekends. This irregular pattern can make it more difficult for teens to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning when they try to get back onto the regular school schedule.

Parents need to help their teens manage their change in their sleep patterns. One of the best ways is to set a regular sleep routine and stick to it. This means dimming the lights as it gets late, staying away from electronic devices, and going through a bedtime routine such as changing into pajamas and brushing their teeth. In addition, the routine should include going to bed at the same time each night, even on weekends and during vacations.

It may take some time to convince adolescents that a regular sleep routine is worth it. It is an easier argument for parents to make if they model it themselves and value sleep. If adolescents see parents staying up all night working on projects or only getting a few hours of sleep per night, they will conclude that they don’t need much sleep either. By modeling good sleep practices, parents will provide a good example for their children to follow.

The added bonus is that most parents will benefit by getting more sleep themselves. As it starts to get dark outside, think about whether watching that one additional TV show is worth losing sleep over. Get to bed and enjoy a good night’s rest.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on August 26, 2016

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