The Nightmare of Adolescent Sleep

“One clear casualty of sleep deprivation is learning. That’s a tragedy—a recent tragedy.”
— Professor William Dement, Stanford University


Poor sleep impacts on every level of an adolescent’s health and wellbeing: it can make them sick, dumb, grumpy, negative, fat and depressed.

Adolescents need more sleep than pre-pubescents or adults. This is a biological need due to the massive changes happening physically and within the brain. With sudden growth spurts, particularly in boys, adolescents experience huge waves of intense lethargy.

Hormonal changes create more melatonin, which means, chemically, the body is demanding more sleep. The next big shift is with the adolescent circadian rhythm. Suddenly, they are more alert in the afternoon and evening, and need more sleep in the morning.

For approximately 75 per cent of adolescents, the body’s sleep clock shifts by up to 1.5 hours, which means they are not ready for sleep until much later at night. As our school starting times aren’t adjusting to this accordingly, our adolescents are frequently operating on much less sleep than required.

To beat the frustration of sleeplessness, adolescents will often go online to entertain themselves, connect on social networks, play games or chat with their equally wide-awake friends.

This re-stimulates them and the light that emits from screens delays the natural night-time build up of melatonin that makes them sleepy. Then, when their body is finally ready for sleep, it will be even later than the 1.5 hour difference. Is it any wonder so many adolescents can be so difficult to wake up in the morning?


The sleep deficit

Most adolescents run on a ‘sleep deficit’. This has significant negative effects on their wellbeing. Research has shown that when more is learnt during the day, more sleep is required at night. This is so the brain can process and consolidate the person’s memories.

Vital gene activities need to occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep to ensure synaptic plasticity, or the strengthening of neural connections. Basically, without deep sleep we don’t store or process what we’ve learnt while we were awake.

New spaces for learning grow every night after the existing spaces for learning have been filled. Without REM sleep, there are no new cells, and adolescents arrive at school tired and with a brain that is like a motel with a NO VACANCY sign up.

This information is critical for adolescents to know because they often think they are dumb when they don’t retain information, or fail tests when they have simply not given their brain a fair go.

The high cost of poor sleep

Many adolescents sleep with an active mobile phone and are woken by texts or social media notifications. When I have shared this information about sleep with adolescents, they often tell their friends that their mobile will be on silent for school nights. We must remember that time management is not a strength that has developed with adolescence and young people can genuinely waste hours in the middle of the night without realising it — and without their parents realising it!

The consequences of insufficient sleep in adolescents can be frightening. They include:

  • Missed school
  • Sleepiness — including micro-sleeps
  • Negative synergy with alcohol
  • Decreased creativity
  • Tiredness (decreased motivation)
  • Lower school grades
  • Irritability and low-frustration tolerance
  • Higher risk of car accidents
  • Increased anxiety and stress symptoms
  • Over-eating, and yearning for high-fat foods
  • Difficulties with self-control of attention and positive behaviour choices
  • Difficulties with focused attention, emotional stability
  • Affected regulation and cognitive emotional integration
  • Direct effects on learning and memory consolidation, and memory deficits
  • Health consequences: illness, poor skin, delayed growth and development.

Researchers have also discovered sleep deprivation can result in depression — especially among girls — anxiety, daytime sleepiness, moodiness, hyperactivity and emotional vulnerability. Other problems include a reduction in motivation to initiate long-term or abstract goals, and a decrease in persistence to want to work towards such goals.

Switching on to sleep

The influence sleep has on today’s adolescents is deep. Too many survive the crippling effects of sleepiness by consuming high caffeine energy drinks, eating high sugar and high fat foods and playing loud music. Adolescents think this is normal behaviour, but they are quite ignorant of the effects these stimulating forces have on their sleep-deprived bodies.

So what can you do to help your adolescent get a better night’s sleep? Talk to them about the consequences of poor sleep and give them some tips to build a better sleep pattern.

Tips for better sleep:

  • Avoid stimulating substances.
  • Create clear sleep boundaries before your child reaches puberty.
  • Get plenty of sunlight.
  • Avoid alcohol — especially at night.
  • Create a pattern of sleep preparation such as: shower, teeth, toilet.
  • Avoid TV and all screens (including phones) at least an hour before bed.
  • Turn mobile phones off or have them silent.
  • Use calming music or relaxation audios.
  • Try to be in bed at the same time each night.
  • Aim for eight to nine hours of sleep each night.
  • Create a calm bedroom by removing clutter and using aromatherapy.
  • Drink calming teas like chamomile or warm milk-based drinks.
  • Spend two minutes in bed breathing deeply and relaxing the body.


This article is based on an extract from Maggie’s book, Saving Our Adolescents: Supporting Today’s Adolescents through the Bumpy Ride to AdulthoodIt was originally published in Parenting Ideas magazine.


Image credit: ©️ Sasipixel /Adobe Stock –