Teenagers need their sleep; this is a well-known fact. Hormonal changes and growth spurts cause teens’ need for sleep to increase to somewhere between eight and ten hours of sleep a night, or to be more accurate, every twenty-four hours.
Your teenager may not be sleeping much at all during the night. It may seem like the only time your teen is sleeping is while everyone else is awake. Rest assured you are not alone. One of the traits of being a teenager is the tendency to become nocturnal.
It’s not a modern phenomenon, it’s nature.
Parents often mistakenly blame screen time. And while being on social media or playing video games late into the night certainly doesn’t help one to sleep, the nocturnal schedules teens keep is more biological than technical.
Circadian rhythm, the internal body clock that regulates sleep-wake cycles, shifts later in teenagers, causing them to physically need to stay awake later and sleep in later in the morning.
The body’s rhythm is controlled by the hormone melatonin, which is released regularly every 24 hours, causing us to get sleepy, usually a few hours after sunset. But, in teenagers, melatonin release is delayed. Further, teens seem to have an increased sensitivity to light exposure, meaning that watching TV or playing video games at night disrupts sleep more than it would in younger children or adults.
During the pandemic, many parents witnessed a complete reverse-cycling, where their teenagers were staying up all night and sleeping all day. Clinical and developmental psychologist Marlene Major wrote about teens’ nocturnal response to the pandemic for WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
She explained that for social teens, daytime activities represented a life that had been taken away from them. Sports, school, the gym, shopping, and hanging out had disappeared. These kids were grieving the loss of everything important to them. Sleeping all day and staying up at night was their way of dealing with their pain.
At the same time, less social teens, the ones that prefer hanging out online, playing video games, thrived during the pandemic. Suddenly they were no longer the outcasts; everyone else was online all night with them.
Now that schools are reopening, teens should make every effort to get back to their normal sleep schedule. Dr. Daniel Lewin, PhD, DABSM, a pediatric psychologist and sleep specialist, addressed this issue on an episode of the Children’s National Hospital podcast Pandemic Parenting. Dr. Lewis said that while it’s fine for teens to shift their schedules later, especially if they don’t have to get up for school, they should not be sleeping all day.
The main thing, according to Dr. Lewin, is that teens stay on a regular schedule throughout the week, including the weekends. So, just like adults, teens should try to go to bed and get up about the same time each day.
This can be difficult if their school schedule begins early. Many school systems try to work with teens’ biological needs by bumping high school schedules to a later start than elementary and middle schools, but shared resources within school districts allow for only so much leeway.
Additional actions your teen can take to help them get back on a regular sleep schedule include:
1. Avoid caffeinated beverages like coffee, cola, or energy drinks.
2. Reduce light exposure at night, limiting screen time. Remove electronics from the bedroom if necessary.
3. Avoid high energy activities in the evening.
4. Avoid napping during the day.
If your teenager is consistently getting more than 10 hours of sleep and still has trouble getting up or staying awake throughout the day, they may need to see a specialist. While medical conditions causing excessive sleep are rare, they should be ruled out.
You may also need to consider if your teen is sleeping excessively due to depression or anxiety. Some behavioral signs to watch for include a lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy, missing classes, falling grades, avoiding friends or social events, lack of appetite, acting out in anger or frustration, lack of hygiene, self-harm, or using alcohol or drugs.
If your teen has become nocturnal, it is most likely a normal pattern that will eventually correct itself as they take on responsibilities that require them to participate in daily activities.