Jenna, 15, appeared to have it all. She was at the top of her class academically, excelled athletically and was well liked by peers. But she grew anxious and felt lethargic; she began to isolate herself from others and acted detached even when she was present.
Her parents didn't know what to do, until they realized Jenna often went to bed after midnight and woke early to study. Getting less than six hours of sleep a night was mentally depleting their daughter.
As parents, we want to encourage success, but in a healthy way. Sleep is key to attaining this goal. Teens may not understand how much rest they need and why sleep is essential for their mental and emotional health.
Why sleep is important
Teens need eight to 10 hours of sleep each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet less than 10 percent of teens sleep at least nine hours a night.
Amy Duncan, a mom of four from Nashville, sees this problem with her kids, Rueben, 16, and Judith, 14. "My teens stay up the latest of anyone in our family and are the first ones to get up," she says. Involved in sports, church activities and tough academic schedules, her teens average only seven hours of rest a night.
Beyond the more obvious symptoms, such as grumpiness, impaired memory and physical performance, not getting enough sleep can affect a teen's ability to make healthy decisions. In adolescence, the chemical and biological changes in their bodies lead them to desire risk-taking and sensation-offering experiences, such as the thrill that comes from quickly accelerating while driving a car. The lack of sleep decreases a teen's ability to understand cause-and-effect or think through choices.
It can also lead to a teen's inability to adjust to or recover from challenging life events — such as a difficult math class or a painful relationship, says Sissy Goff, director of child and adolescent counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville. "Because of how the teen brain is developing, impulsivity and irritability are at an all-time high," says Goff. "This, compounded with lack of sleep, can increase the moodiness."
Additionally, too-little sleep in adolescents increases the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. It's also linked to a higher risk of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety.
Healthier sleep habits
While we can't make the busy demands of everyday life dissipate, we can employ strategies to help teens obtain more of the sleep they need.
It's no surprise that using electronics (television, video games or devices that allow texting, internet surfing or social media) can be a major culprit when it comes to delaying bedtime and preventing teens from winding down at night. Some teens spend too many night hours talking, texting, Snapchatting, Instagramming or tweeting friends. The constant stimulus from screens makes it harder for them to fall asleep or sleep deeply, Goff explains.
To counter that, set parameters around technology and evening routines. "We require our 15-year-old son to leave his phone in our room each night at 9 p.m.," Danielle West, a mom of three from Atlanta, says. "This allows his brain to rest. It also removes the temptation to check ESPN online or text friends."
Goff suggests creating a central plug-in station in the parents' bedroom (or another location in the home). It gives technology- and activity-free downtime for the teen's brain. "This allows for creativity, thoughtfulness about their own lives and the space needed to discover and foster their own sense of faith," she says.
Biological development also can make bedtimes challenging as teens' circadian rhythms begin to naturally change and they don't feel tired until later at night. Parents can help adolescents by initiating nightly habits, such as a cup of hot herbal tea before bed or spending a few moments together reading or in prayer. Unwinding at night is a process, so teens should tackle challenging homework earlier when possible.
Finally, don't underestimate the power of setting a positive example. We, too, need to get enough rest so our teens can see that sleep is an essential part of living a healthy life.