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For Teens, Sleep Is a Family Affair

By Esther Entin, MD

As children morph into teenagers, their sleep patterns change. They begin to go to bed later on school nights and awake earlier for school. Between their schoolwork, late-night socializing, and this shift in their biological clocks, many, if not most, teens suffer from a consistent lack of sleep.

It is not uncommon to see dazed teens yawning at the bus stop in the early hours.

This lack of sleep affects their ability to feel good and perform well academically, socially, and emotionally.

Dysfunctional adolescent sleep patterns are often the precursors to poor sleep habits in adulthood. And overtired teens are subject to a host of problems — impaired decision-making, depression, bad behavior, obesity, and academic failure.

Teens' changing bodies are part of what keeps them up late at night. But their social and family ties also affect how much and how well they sleep, according to a new study. The results may give parents some ideas about ways to help their sleepy teens get a better night's rest.

Teen Sleep Is Different

Adolescents have different sleep cycles from younger children. Their bodies are more comfortable staying up late and sleeping late. When they try to make up for sleep lost during the week by sleeping later on the weekends, it can just push their body rhythms further away from the sleep schedule they need to follow during the school week.

The changes seen in teens’ sleep patterns are mainly the result of changes in their physiology, the way their bodies work, particularly alternations in the daily rhythms of melatonin, the hormone that increases one’s feeling of sleepiness as it builds up over the course of a day.

Melatonin levels are lower in teens at mid-puberty, and researchers have suspected that the hormonal changes occurring at this point in teens' development cause changes in the body's 24-hour clock which regulates physiological activities, including changes in sleep behaviors.

Some researchers have even suggested that high school should start one to two hours later than currently to accommodate this cycle shift.

Social Relationships Can Help Tired Teens Get More Sleep

The hormonal shifts that accompany puberty and disrupt the body's biological clock are an often-overlooked cause of teens' sleep problems, but other factors are also at work. The study just published in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior finds that teens' social relationships with parents and peers also play a role.

Social relationships have a profound effect on a person's health and healthy behaviors. When people are part of supportive social networks of friends and family, their health is improved — they have lower heart rates, better blood pressure, and reduced stress.

Many studies have shown that supportive social ties are linked to healthy sleep among adults, while stressful social relationships cause sleep disruption. Could this be true for adolescents?

The Study

University of Cincinnati sociologist David Maume examined the social factors present in the lives of nearly 1000 teens, first at age 12, and then again at 15 (sixth grade and ninth grade). He found that social relationships — school, family, and peer influences — had a big effect on teens’ sleep habits.

The study is an effort to pinpoint the social influences that affect, for better and worse, how much sleep a teenager is likely to get.

The researchers looked at whether a teen had a regular bedtime, how many hours they usually slept on a school night, and whether they experienced sleep interruptions, or worries which made it difficult to fall asleep.

Family factors, such as whether parents were married or divorced, how much parental support and supervision teens received, as well as the family’s economic status, school problems, the amount of time spent on homework, and after-school jobs were also considered.

The Findings

The average number of hours teens sleep decreased from more than nine hours per night in the sixth grade to less than eight in the ninth grade. These older teenagers also reported more nights of disrupted sleep. The study offers a snapshot of both the kinds of factors that make it more likely that teens will get enough sleep and those that make it more likely they will be sleep-deprived.

What helps teens sleep better:

  • Parents who set consistent bedtimes and monitor teen behaviors and activities
  • Friends who offer social support and who value academic achievement
  • Feeling connected to one's school
  • Improving economic stability in the family.

What reduces teens' sleep:

  • Heavy homework loads
  • Feeling little connection to school
  • Contentious, conflict-ridden social ties
  • Inconsistent bedtimes
  • Parental divorce or separation; changes in the makeup of the family
  • After-school jobs (Teens’ work after school affects sleep by making it necessary to complete assignments late at night.)

Viewing teens' lack of sleep in purely physical terms makes it a medical issue and can lead parents and healthcare providers to inappropriately seek purely medical solutions, such as medications, for sleep, the researchers concluded.

How Parents Can Help

The study's findings suggest that family life and personal relationships appear to have a big effect on how well teens sleep. Parents and physicians who see disrupted sleep as simply an inevitable consequence of puberty miss an opportunity for more successful interventions in which they can help teenagers get the sleep they need.

“…[A]lthough teens may sometimes resent the intrusiveness of parental supervision, teens also acknowledge that parents are their primary and most influential source of information and guidance on the importance of and the need to get adequate sleep,” Maume writes.

If a teenager is not getting enough sleep, it is important to look at social, academic, and family situations connected to the teen's life before prescribing a sleep aid. Parents should do what they can to encourage sleep, limiting screen time and perhaps making their teen's room cellphone-free after 11 pm. Modeling good sleep hygiene is also helpful.

Getting a good night's sleep is a major health benefit. Teens who sleep well are less likely to be obese, to abuse drugs, or have behavior problems. The long-term health benefits are enormous. Helping your teen get the sleep he or she needs does not necessarily require that you make yourself unpopular. Sleep is its own reward.

December 17, 2013





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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.