Ending teen sleep struggles — is it possible? – CNN

Is it you? Probably. Your teen? Definitely. Teenagers need more sleep than adults or their younger siblings, yet they almost always seem sleep deprived.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: How can parents and caregivers tell if their teen needs more sleep versus what’s normal teen sullenness, detachment and moodiness?

Heather Turgeon: The essence of this question is that we tend to see teens through a negative lens — seeing them as moody or difficult to talk to — but these are actually classic signs of sleep deprivation. In many cases, we miss this connection between sleep loss and mood.

Nine hours of sleep per night is optimal for most teens, said Heather Turgeon, coauthor of "Generation Sleepless."Nine hours of sleep per night is optimal for most teens, said Heather Turgeon, coauthor of "Generation Sleepless."

Besides having low energy, feeling bored in school, and irritability, other signs of a sleep-deprived teen are:

• Has trouble waking up in the morning for school more than once each week.

• Sleeps more than two hours later on weekends and vacations than on weekdays.

• Falls asleep while studying, watching a movie or other passive entertainment.

• Can fall asleep during the morning hours — on the way to school or in a morning class.

• Takes erratic naps.

• Is overcommitted and overscheduled with no downtime or breaks.

If a teen is sleeping fewer than eight hours a night on a regular basis, it’s almost guaranteed that they are accumulating sleep deprivation. For most teens, nine hours of sleep per night is optimal.

CNN: Is there a way to convince teens they need more sleep?

Julie Wright: We all know that once your child becomes a teenager, you can no longer just tell them what to do and they’ll comply. What we know works best, particularly for older teens who are past the point of parent-set bedtimes, is actively listen.

Light pollution ruins teen sleep and may contribute to mental disorders, study saysLight pollution ruins teen sleep and may contribute to mental disorders, study says

Listen for opportunities to talk about sleep, based on something they care about: sports, school, relationships or how they’re feeling. Sleep affects all of these. The goal is to build self-motivation.

CNN: What are your thoughts on using magnesium and melatonin as sleep aids for teens?

Turgeon: Melatonin is a natural chemical produced by the body, and we always want to start with a person’s natural release of melatonin instead of supplements. There may be a place for sleep aids under the guidance of a doctor. You should talk to your pediatrician or a sleep specialist about this as a temporary treatment if indicated.

However, the body’s natural chemistry is strong. We see it over and over again — for the majority of people, having the right sleeping timing, routines and environment is enough.

CNN: Do athletes have different sleep needs? How can lack of sleep affect an athlete’s performance?

Wright: Sleep is game-changing for athletes. Professional athletes and Olympians know this, which is why many have sleep coaches and special rooms and protocols for getting proper sleep.

How to get your teens to sleep now that they are back in schoolHow to get your teens to sleep now that they are back in school

Athletes probably sleep more deeply because of the amount of rigorous exercise they experience, which is a good thing. They still need optimum hours. A study of high school athletes found lack of sleep was the No. 1 predictor of injuries. More than hours trained, or number of sports played, the No. 1 predictor of whether a student athlete got injured was sleeping less than eight hours a night on a regular basis.

CNN: How can a parent ensure their teen gets enough sleep when they are fighting natural sleep rhythms and an early school start time? (This was my most frequently asked question.)

Turgeon: We have a lot of empathy for parents and teens as they navigate that dilemma. Sleep is stolen on both sides of the night. The natural sleep rhythms in teens are delayed by about two hours. Then early high school start times steal sleep in the morning. We ask our teens to take a calculus exam when their brain clock is telling them it’s still nighttime.

Moving high school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later is a crucial step here, but trying to move just one piece of the puzzle won’t get to the root of the problem. We have to protect sleep on both ends of the night. Waking up on Saturday and Sunday within one or two hours of weekday wake-up times ensures the brain clock stays in sync and makes it easier to fall asleep at the right time on Sunday night. Getting five to 30 minutes of outdoor sunlight — even through the clouds, the sun is more powerful than indoor lights — first thing every morning, including on weekends, also maintains harmony with natural circadian rhythms and makes falling asleep easier at bedtime.
How to improve sleep habits to support emotional wellness, according to a therapistHow to improve sleep habits to support emotional wellness, according to a therapist

About two hours before bedtime each evening, simulate sunset in your house by turning off bright overhead lights and just have a few lamps on. This creates a prelude to sleep, which trains the internal clock to release melatonin and other sleepiness hormones.

CNN: Many parents would like later school start times, but some were also concerned about how later starts would mean after-school practices in the dark and new drivers dealing with rush-hour traffic. Is a later school start time worth those hassles?

Wright: Multiple studies show the cost benefits are worth it. A large-scale, multi-school study conducted by the University of Minnesota and the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) showed that with a later start time, teens were going to bed around the same time, waking up later and reporting fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. They were less likely to arrive late or fall asleep in class.

The good news is that analyses that have been done show a 9-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio over time after making the change to later start times. Logistical issues can be worked out, but student health and well-being should be the top priority.

CNN: How has the pandemic exacerbated teen sleep issues?

Turgeon: At the beginning of the pandemic, it was a relief for teenagers that they didn’t have to get up as early. We allowed them to move more toward their bodies’ natural rhythms. Families told us they were less stressed in the mornings. As the pandemic wore on though, more screen use and higher anxiety led a lot of kids to stay up very late.

Revitalizing your exhausted tweens and teens, post-quarantineRevitalizing your exhausted tweens and teens, post-quarantine

More anxiety and more social isolation are not good for sleep. Teens began spending a lot more time in their bedrooms trying to fill up on “Vitamin C,” which is what we call the “Vitamin Connection,” absorbed by texting friends into the night.

One of the most powerful effects of the pandemic on teen sleep was losing the outside sunlight and social cues that alert the brain and sync the internal clock to the natural day and night. Kids were spending too much time in their rooms with artificial lights and staying up later and later. Now, it’s about getting them back to the sun, social interaction, activity, darkness and earlier bedtimes that are natural and help us function at our best.

CNN: Electronics and overscheduling seem to be the two biggest factors parents point to as causes for sleep disruption. Do you agree, and what can be done to mitigate these issues?

Wright: We definitely agree that these are big factors that squeeze sleep at the bedtime side of things. And then we have too early school start time squeezing the other end. Electronics steal sleep through multiple routes. Light tells the brain to stay awake and suppresses the release of melatonin. Electronics are activating, so we feel interested, engaged, curious, frustrated, sad, angry — basically all human emotions that tell the brain to “stay awake and figure this out!” Also, games and social media create a “flow” state, which means we’re so involved that we lose our sense of time. Two hours could feel like 15 minutes in a state of flow.

The best alarm clocks of 2022 (CNN Underscored)The best alarm clocks of 2022 (CNN Underscored)

High schoolers also typically have too much homework, too many activities and pressure to add more to show on college applications. High school teachers, principals, college admissions committees, school counselors and sports coaches can all be part of the solution here — putting downtime and sleep higher on the priority list.

Michelle Icard, a parenting educator and speaker, is the author of “Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen.” She’s well rested now that her kids have gone off to college.