Sleepy Teen? Read On

You have a teenager in the house. He’s 15. Great kid, popular, happy, fun to be around. Problem is, recently, with several months of school under his belt, he is sleepy too, all the time, falling asleep in front of you at the dinner table.


Excessive daytime sleepiness is increasingly prevalent in our society. Certainly social and academic pressures represent a potential cause. I’m constantly astounded with what so many parents now expect of their children: all the activities, sports, school projects, social outings . . . it is all just so different compared to when I was young:  everything is more, crazier, faster, more wired (or wireless), more complicated. My wife and I get caught up in that as well, I’m afraid, and though we do our best to maintain a reasonable balance to our children’s lives, their after-school hours remain dominated by what feels like an endless cascade of commitments: tae kwon do, basketball, skiing, adventure guides, student council, math olympiad, latin root class, on and on. For the most part our boys enjoy these activities and participate with relish, but I really do wonder how they’re going to find the time for additional activities or expanding interests as they get closer to high school, not to mention that all-important, precious time that should be spent with family.  Back in the day, we kids had time and space to relax, even laze from time to time. Time is just such a precious commodity now for us all.

Our planet’s population continues to grow, and subsequently so do the challenges for our children, who now must compete with a huge army of peers for a limited number of scholarships, college placements, internships, jobs, and resources. It thus seems natural–crucial, even–to push your kids to do more, accomplish more, dig deeper, become exposed to more things to give them a leg up in an increasingly competitive world. However, there’s still only 24 hours in a day. So what time is often easiest to sacrifice? You guessed . . . the time usually allocated for sleep.

Adults typically need 7.5-8 hours of sleep per night to feel fully rested during the day. Teens often need more sleep than adults, such as 9 hours per night. Teenagers need proper amounts of sleep like adults do, obviously, and in fact in many ways they need their sleep even more than adults do, considering they are still growing and developing. The effects of chronic sleep deprivation for a teenager can completely wreck one’s quality of life: daytime sleepiness, tendencies to fall asleep in class, lethargy, headaches, poor academic performance, depression, social withdrawal.

There’s another important cause of daytime sleepiness in teenagers, and it’s related to their sleep schedules. Here’s a scenario many of you will know well: Sunday night your teen has terrible difficulties falling asleep, and then finds it bloody impossible to awaken early the following morning for school. There is sleepiness all day long Monday at school, and for one or two additional nights there are residual difficulties falling asleep early, compounding the sleep deprivation. You pull your hair out as you cajole and shove your teen out of bed to get to school on time. Finally Friday night comes ’round, but your teen stays up until 1 a.m., and sleeps in like the dead until noon. This happens again Saturday into Sunday, and the cycle repeats itself, with another sleepless Sunday evening. Sound familiar?

Leaving the biochemistry out of it for now, here’s the reason why this occurs. We as humans are generally creatures of habit when it comes to sleep. Our internal body clocks are designed for us to do and feel things at certain times to coincide roughly with the 24-hour period. Our circadian rhythms dictate and regulate the timing of various inner biological processes, such as when we become sleepy or when we feel awake and alert.  When it comes to sleep, many of us have a natural tendency to become drowsy just slightly longer than every 24 hours (which can help explain why many prefer to go to bed later at night as opposed to earlier).  We are usually able to stay on the 24-hour clock because of the environmental cues (like daylight) and social cues (such as work) that “entrain” us to running our sleep every 24 hours. However, adolescents are particularly susceptible to this tendency for a delay in their bedtimes, leaving them prone to feeling awake at night and making it very difficult for them to get out of bed early for school. Things then are made worse when they allow themselves to go to bed very late on weekends and sleep in on weekends, because when Sunday night rolls around it becomes very difficult to fall asleep early. This is called delayed sleep phase syndrome.


So, parents, though this routine of trying to get your kid to bed at night and then fighting with them to wake up in the morning gets old quickly and can drive you bats**t crazy, in many ways what you’re seeing is the manifestation of normal adolescent brain biology, essentially a clash between teen physiology and our fast and furious society’s modern expectations.  I mean, if teens didn’t have to awaken at 6 a.m. to get ready for school, but instead could awaken whenever they please, this wouldn’t be nearly as big of a deal, right?  In this real world of ours’, though, it’s still a problem that needs to be addressed:  countless report cards, interpersonal relationships, and family dynamics have been affected negatively by delayed sleep phase syndrome particularly in recent decades.  And if there is pre-existing sleep deprivation due to all the other stuff your teen does after school, this only compounds the problem, worsening daytime sleepiness and all of the sequelae from it.

There are a couple of recommendations that can help.  One is something your kid is guaranteed not to like:  wake up around the same time every morning, including on weekends.  This is generally much easier for adults than it is for teens, but if you don’t sleep in by 3-5 hours on weekends any longer, you will naturally become drowsier sooner at night (including Sundays), making it easier to achieve more sleep and awaken in time for school; you’re essentially then forcing your body clock into regularity, which can then improve the insomnia and total sleep time at night.  The key, however, is persistence, which sometimes can be lacking in some kids.  When I am counseling my teenage patients with delayed sleep phase, I basically become their coach, working to help them understand that they can do it, that they will do it, for the sanity of everyone around them, including themselves.  The other helpful management tool is bright light therapy, such as with a light box (2000-2500 lux) early in the morning, and the avoidance of bright light in the late afternoon to evening.  Certain medications may be useful in severe cases, like melatonin or modafinil, but these are teenagers we’re talking about, and my clinical practice has generally been to try to do things as naturally as possible in this setting.

Take-home message today:  help your teen get proper amounts of sleep by examining his or her bedtime schedules and discussing openly what could be modified to make everybody happier in the house.  As with everything else within the realm of parenting, love, communication, and the constant quest to understand are cornerstones in helping your adolescent achieve good sleep.

There will be more to say regarding circadian rhythm disorders in future posts.  It’s time for dinner now, though, so ’til next time . . . sleep well!


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