Understanding adolescent sleep: does your teen wake up tired?

 Lack of sleep is a national epidemic for today's teens and the consequences are serious. When it comes to helping students engage with their education and concentrate at school, one of the most important things parents can do is ensure their children get quality sleep. Sleep is essential for good health, and good mental health in young people. During sleep, the day’s learning is consolidated to long-term memory, necessary brain development continues, concentration improves, and according to clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller, “Getting enough sleep is one of the most powerful ways we can protect ourselves against depression. The structures in the brain that support the most powerful antidepressant – serotonin, are built and rebuilt between the sixth and eighth hour of sleep”.

While the evidence is clear on the need for quality sleep, the practice isn’t always easy, given the busy lives our teenagers lead and the social and physiological changes they are experiencing during adolescence.

The science of sleep is actually quite complex, but in a nutshell, when the sun goes down and darkness occurs, your body’s pineal gland becomes active. It produces melatonin, which is released into your blood. Sometimes, we refer to melatonin as the ‘sleep hormone’, because following its release (usually around 9pm in adults) we begin to feel less alert, and sleep becomes inviting. For many of us, this might involve nodding off on the couch after dinner! The level of melatonin in your blood stays elevated for up to twelve hours. For us adults, this means that around dawn we start to wake up and we are good to go (albeit with a cup of coffee!) by the time we need to start work.

Unfortunately for teenagers, their brains are wired differently. Melatonin in teenagers typically isn’t released until much later in the evening – 11pm or even later. As a result, they are resistant to early bedtimes, and become difficult to wake (a.k.a. ‘cranky monsters’) in the morning. Combine this with the fact they require far more sleep than the average adult – somewhere between 10 and 11 hours – we have a recipe for chronic sleep deprivation.

With our students present at school for almost the equivalent hours of a full-time job, plus commitments to study and homework, sports, music, debating, chess club, Kokoda training, part-time work, and maintaining a social life, it’s little wonder that sleep can end up bottom of the priority list.

While our children and families all have differing needs and expectations, I’m hopeful that we can start positive conversations around adolescent mental health, and the need to put quality sleep at the top of our priority list.

Tips to help your teen get better sleep:

  • Bed time routines are just as important for adolescents as they are for babies – helping your child to find a routine that works for them can include a cup of camomile tea, a warm shower, ten minutes of quiet reading (a real book – not online!) or a chat with mum or dad about ‘what went well’ in their day. 
  • Consistency is key – teens need to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Those big weekend sleep-ins don’t help – in fact, they only serve to disrupt sleep cycles even further!
  • Avoid screen time at least thirty minutes before bed. The light from smart phones, tablets and laptops tricks our brains and bodies into staying awake longer – melatonin is released even later when we are exposing ourselves to this kind of light.
  • Leave phones and other devices outside of the bedroom – it can help to have a family ‘charging point’ in the kitchen or living room
  • Try Mindfulness apps (such as Smiling Minds), which have short mindfulness sessions which can help teens relax and prepare for sleep (just make sure that once you are done, you remove the smartphone from their room!)
  • Establish good study habits so teens aren’t ‘cramming’ or pulling all-nighters the evening before an exam. Particularly for students in the middle years, setting boundaries with study is beneficial. If your student is regularly studying or completing school work late into the evening, please chat with their teacher to assess how this can be better managed.
  • Reduce light in the evening, and in the morning open the curtains and expose your child to natural light to help with waking up.
  • Role model good sleep behaviour. Are you putting your own device down well before bed-time? Make sleep a priority in your household.

You can find further information on adolescent sleep issues here:

Quality sleep for mental health is a topic I’m incredibly passionate about – please feel free to email me or drop in to the Heads of House office if you’d like to chat further about any sleep-related issues!

Lauren Norbury