8 Nov 2018

How to help your teenager get enough sleep

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 8 November 2018
teenage boy sleeping

Photo: Flickr user Dan DeLuca / CC BY 2.0

How much sleep do teenagers really need and why do they feel the urge to stay up so late?

Teenagers need more sleep than adults and their circadian rhythms are actually different, says parenting expert Nathan Wallis.

On average, a teenager's body clock moves forward around two hours so, effectively, we can think of Kiwi teens as operating on Sydney time – "they're two to three hours out from the rest of us."

Nathan Mikaere-Wallis

Nathan Wallis Photo: Nine to Noon

Wallis gives a couple of examples of how different hormone levels affect teenage body clocks.

"If your kid used to have enough melatonin to fall asleep at 11pm – [as a teenager] they don't have that same amount until 1am.

"If they don't have enough cortisol to wake them up in the morning at 730am – [as a teenager] they don't have that same amount until 9:30am."

As a result, teenagers aren't the most receptive to learning first thing in the morning, and often more wakeful and productive when they're heading home from school between 3pm and 5pm, he says.

Some schools overseas start the school day later.

In New Zealand, Wellington High School did a trial in which students could choose an 11-to-5 school day instead of a 9-to-3 school day and had some good results, Wallis says.

In general, teenagers need more sleep than adults, so don't worry that your teen sleeping more is a sign they're dropping out of life.

"How you're sleeping as a teenager has no relation to your work ethic as an adult."

teenage Asian girl in bed with phone

Photo: 123RF

Is "catching up on sleep" in the weekend effective?

Research says this won't work long-term, but you could conceivably "catch up on sleep" you've missed in the second half of the week on a Sunday, Wallis says.

If your teenager seems to be repeatedly hiding out in their bedroom as an escape from people and/or life, this could be a sign of depression so investigate that, he says.

Teenagers usually aren't able to manage their own circadian rhythms, Wallis says, and those with bedtimes regulated by their parents generally do better.

Explaining to them why they need to get sleep and nagging them to go to sleep won't be effective – instead, focus on helping them wind down in the evenings so they'll have enough energy to get up for school the next day, he says.

What can you do to help your teenager wind down at night?

Screentime not all the time

Lack of sleep can have a major effect on mental health and too much time on devices has been linked to anxiety and depression, Wallis says.

Ideally, set rules as soon as your kid gets their own device as of course, it will be harder to remove freedoms they've already been given.

At least two hours a day off screens is best for a kid's mental health, he says.

"If they've always had two hours without that, that seems to sort of shield them from being in this risk group for anxiety and depression.

"Maybe have a thing where all their electronics are plugged in at 9:30pm so even if they are staying up till 11:30 they've got a couple of hours to wind down."

You may need to compromise, as Wallis did, and let your kid watch television for the two hours before bed instead.

"[TV is] still electronic stimulation, but it's less stimulating then video games and social media."

Lights down low

Dim lighting will help a teenager wind down, and parents can help out by covering lights up, shutting curtains or even getting them a sleep mask, Wallis says.

"The more light there is in the room the less melatonin you produce and melatonin is whats sending you to sleep."

If your teenager seems to have a chronic problem getting to sleep, melatonin supplements from a doctor work for a lot of people, he says, but watch out for long-term dependency.

More advice on parenting teenagers from Nathan Wallis: