Got Sleep?

by Mary Mazzoni on September 3, 2011

Most teens don’t.  Not enough anyway.

How much sleep is your child getting?

Pediatricians recommend an average of 9 hours sleep per night for adolescents.

When daily sleep dips below 8 hours on a regular basis, mental and physical health is impacted. In all sorts of ways.

Our kids undergo extraordinary physiological changes during adolescence. Their lives are busy and can be quite stressful. Adequate sleep is essential for their well-being.

Why Sleep Matters

Click here for a series of short videos from Harvard Medical School about the importance of sleep for everyone (even us parents!).

Especially for Adolescents

Cleveland Clinic cites the following signs of sleep deprivation in teens:

  • excessive daytime sleepiness, inattention, tardiness
  • irritability, hyperactivity, impatience, mood swings, low frustration tolerance, or other impulse control problems
  • falling grades
  • reports of drowsy driving

Neurologist and sleep expert Dr. Helene Emsellem, states:

“For years, we’ve blamed many of these teenage characteristics on the natural maturing process or changing hormones. And while chemicals do surge through our teen’s body creating strong effects, sleep – the right amount and the right kind – has now been targeted as a key to overall success and well-being.”

Inadequate sleep can:

  • impact memory and learning
  • affect concentration, coordination and reaction time, making driving dangerous
  • affect bodily functions including metabolism, the immune system and the cardiovascular system
  • increase susceptibility to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders

A Perfect Storm for Adolescent Sleep Deprivation

Dr. Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, has studied adolescent sleep for many years.  She  explains that an interplay of biology, behavior and social factors can create a “perfect storm” for inadequate adolescent sleep.


Her studies show that during adolescence, melatonin, a hormone that affects the circadian rhythm by triggering the urge to sleep, is actually released later in the day than it is for younger children and adults.

Click here for an interactive presentation by Harvard Medical School to learn more about factors related to circadian rhythm.

So there are genuine biological factors that underly adolescent “night owl” behavior. Who knew?

Other Factors

Teens sleep more when parents set a specific bedtime.

But let’s face it – just because our kids are in bed, doesn’t mean they’re asleep.

Especially if they’ve got a cell phone, computer, ipod, or t.v. in their room. Or if they’re keyed up from the day’s events.

And the bus comes early.

If a teen finally drifts off at 11:30 pm, and the alarm rings at 6:00 am, they’ve clocked just 6 1/2 hours sleep. Not enough.

In response to teen sleep research, some school districts have pushed back middle and high school start times. Click here to read more. But these districts are few and far between.  Chances are, your teen must rise early to catch the bus.

So What’s A Parent To Do?

Tips from the Experts

Click here for a list of pointers from the National Sleep Foundation.

If your teen averages less than 8 to 9 hours of sleep nightly, consider printing out this one page list of tips so you can plan specific ways to help your child get adequate sleep.

We are Role Models

Do you remember, as a teen yourself , closely watching adults to see if their words aligned with their actions? Like it our not, our own habits have a powerful impact on our kids.

“Do as I say, not as I do” just doesn’t work.

As parents, let’s ask ourselves some tough questions.

Do we:

  • have an electronics-free, sleep-friendly bedroom environment for ourselves?
  • refrain from heavy eating and caffeinated or alcoholic beverages before bed?
  • dim lights, turn off electronics, and follow a relaxing routine an hour before retiring?
  • get enough sleep ourselves?

For years, I’ve had the habit of working on the computer late into the night. Not a good example for my daughter. To be honest, I sometimes forget that my habits impact her, as well as myself.

And changing habits is difficult. For us. And for our kids.

We’ll be more motivated and successful if we:

  • write out the reasons why we want to change the habit
  • make a specific plan
  • reward ourselves for implementing the plan
  • notice and reinforce our progress

Help Your Teen Understand

Kids need to learn about self care. The Teen section of is a great resource.  It’s interactive and engages kids in thinking about and planning for their own well-being.

Click here for the section on sleep.

Notice the “Listen” button. This narrates the text while highlighting the words being read. There is also a button for Spanish text.

And here’s a fact sheet for teens from the National Sleep Foundation.

If these resources are too difficult for your teen to understand, paraphrase them using simple language and visuals.

Set Clear Rules

If you don’t already have a clear bedtime for your teen, consider setting one. Also consider a rule related to electronics in the bedroom (especially after the set bedtime).

Click here for a very brief video called “Rules Show You Care” by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg.

Ginsberg stresses combining clear rules with clear communication of caring.  ”I’m setting this rule because I love you and I care about your health”. Kids will likely still balk at a new rule. But they need, and may even appreciate, the boundaries we lovingly set for the sake of their health.

Engage Your Teen

Acknowledge that changing habits is difficult. Help your child understand how changes in sleep habits will  improve their lives in ways that matter to them.

You may want to help your teen use the interactive Making a Change feature on the TeensHealth website. This tool is a lot like Think-Plan-Do, in a format that some kids will prefer.

Another strategy is using a sleep log.  As kids change habits and increase their hours of sleep, how do these changes impact their energy-level, their grades, their personal goals, their mood  - over time?

Clearly the benefits of increased sleep won’t be instantaneous, like flipping a switch. But taking time to notice ways their life is impacted by new habits is a powerful practice. For kids and for us.

Sometimes, because of adolescent dynamics, it’s helpful for kids to do this kind of reflection with a trusted adult mentor (like a family friend, relative, counselor, etc.), rather than a parent. Just like an adult might meet with a life coach to set and monitor personal goals.

For more in-depth suggestions, you may want to check out Snooze or Lose: 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits

When To Seek Professional Help


For some kids, a very specific positive behavior support plan, based on a functional behavior assessment, will be needed to reduce behaviors that interfere with sleep, and increase behaviors that support sleep.

Then it’s wise to seek a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) who has experience in working with families to implement sleep-related behavior support plans. The plan needs to be genuinely workable within your family’s circumstances. This means you’ll need to have candid communication with the behavior analyst.


If needed, you and your child can work with other IEP team members to consider school-related modifications that can support adequate sleep.  This could include a revised start time.

Revising the school start time should never be taken lightly because it reduces the number of instructional hours. But for some kids, while behavioral, and perhaps medical, interventions are being implemented, it may be an effective temporary strategy to increase a teen’s sleep and improve academic and behavioral success at school.


Some teens have genuine sleep disorders. Following the National Sleep Foundation parent pointers is a good first step. But if your teen has persistent trouble falling asleep, or wakes frequently during the night, it is time for both of you to speak with a physician.

DO NOT try over-the- counter remedies – homeopathic or otherwise – including melatonin supplements – without first consulting a physician.

Worth the Effort

All this is a lot to think about. The strategies we’ve discussed require effort. But adequate sleep is essential for our child’s mental and physical health and learning. Improving sleep has a big impact in every area of our child’s life.

If your child is getting less than 8 to 9 hours of sleep each night, carefully consider what steps you will take and what support you need. Begin to take action to improve your child’s sleep. And your own. You’ll be glad you did.

Your thoughts?

What strategies have you used to improve your child’s sleep, or your own?  Leave a comment. We’ll all benefit from your experience!

Photo credit: husin.sani at Flckr

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