Ten sleep tips for teenagers.
Written by: Dr Giselle Withers and Siobhan Williams
Are you a teenager struggling with insomnia, looking for ways to get some decent sleep? Perhaps you’ve always had trouble sleeping, or maybe it started recently and you’re wondering why you can’t sleep anymore, and what you can do about it.
Sleep problems are common during adolescence, with around one in ten young people having trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking unrefreshed. In this article you’ll learn about the common causes of sleep problems in teenagers and what you can do to sleep better.
What are the common causes of sleep problems during adolescence?
Hormonal changes during puberty
Along with the obvious physical changes you can see during puberty, many changes are occurring inside the body, particularly within the brain. One of the hormones produced at night time to help us get to sleep is called melatonin. During adolescence this hormone can be released up to a few hours later in the night than for children and adults, which can change the internal body clock or sleep/wake cycle. This is why many adolescents don’t feel sleepy until much later in the night and are not ready to wake up until later in the morning. Trying to go to bed too early before you are sleepy will make it very hard to get to sleep. Similarly, getting up before you’ve had the recommended 8-10 hours sleep can mean you’re not getting the sleep you need. Of course, this is a problem if you need to be at school by 8.30am, so we have some tips on this later.
We’ve probably all been guilty of this at one time or another, but did you know that spending time at a computer or reading on your phone too close to bedtime could make it harder to fall asleep? The light from these electronic devices has been found to delay the release of melatonin, the hormone we mentioned earlier. If getting to sleep is already a probelm for you, then too much screen time at night will only make this problem worse.
Stress and anxiety
Adolescence is a time of rapid change and many teenagers find it difficult to adjust to this new stage of life. As you gain more independence from your family, and have more responsibilities, you’ll have lot to more to manage on your own. For some people, the transition from primary school to secondary school can be stressful. Changes friendship groups are common, and there can be more pressure to perform well in your subjects or sports. It can also be hard to understand or accept all of the physical and hormonal changes occurring in the body, and the affect this has on your identity and sexuality. Navigating all of these changes at once can be overwhelming and can sometimes lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, worrying and rumination (over-thinking) that goes with stress and anxiety are also common causes of insomnia.
Why is it important to address sleep problems during adolescence?
It is important to get help for your sleep difficulties as early as possible to minimize the impact it can have on your life. While it might take a while to get your sleep on track your effort will be worth it.
Sleeping better can:
- improve your ability to focus and concentrate on your studies to help you get better marks.
- Improve your memory, so you can remember more of what you learn!
- Help you feel better, which can reduce the risk of you falling into patterns of feeling down and unable to cope with problems you might be facing in your life.
One of the leading adolescent psychologists in Australia, Dr. Andrew Fuller, has said that “Getting enough sleep is one of the most powerful ways we can protect ourselves against depression”. So, learning good sleep habits now, will help you to have a healthier and happier future.
So, what can you do to improve your sleep?
Tip 1: Avoid screens (e.g., computer, phone, tablet) about two hours before going to bed
Tip 2: Be aware of the signs of sleepiness (yawning, sore eyes, mental fogginess) so you can stop what you are doing and head to bed.
Tip 3: In the morning, spend some time outside or by the window to get some sunlight. You could go for a walk or sit outside when you eat your breakfast (if the weather is ok!) or sit by the window in the colder months.
Tip 4: Do some physical activity or exercise every day, preferably outside. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress, improve mood and help you sleep better. If you’re not a “sporty” person, then a brisk walk for about 15-20 minutes is enough to give you these benefits. Walking or riding a bike to school is a great option.
Tip 5: Go to bed when sleepy and get up a little later if needed. A somewhat radical idea that has been suggested by major health organizations within the US, is for high school to start later, giving teenagers more time to sleep in. A number of secondary schools across the world have trialed later start times, and found that students got over an hour more sleep each day and were less sleepy in the classrooms. You can read more about this here. While this may not be realistic at your own school, it might be worth talking with your parents and teachers about your options for starting school later on some days, to help you get some extra sleep in the morning.
Tip 6: Learn relaxation skills to help you wind down at night time. To help reduce the effects of stress on your sleep, finish your homework or study, and stop using email or social media a couple of hours before bedtime. Instead of watching drama-based movies or TV, find ways to relax the mind and body (e.g. use deep breathing exercises, listening to music or reading a book). Relaxing the body and calming the mind is a key skill to getting good quality sleep.
Tip 7: Talk to your GP if you are not sleepy until very late at night and are finding it very difficult to get up in time for school in the morning, as you may have a delayed sleep/wake cycle (or delayed sleep phase syndrome). Some people with this problem can benefit from taking an evening supplement of melatonin, but this would need to be discussed carefully with your GP.
Tip 8: Avoid any caffeinated drinks or snacks after lunchtime (e.g. Coca Cola, coffee, tea, energy drinks, chocolate) as they stimulate the mind and body making it harder to fall asleep.
Tip 9: Try not to sleep in longer than an hour on weekends. Sleeping in for an extra hour on the weekends is fine, but a long sleep in will affect your sleep/wake cycle. If you are really sleepy during the day it can be helpful to have 15-20 min nap in the afternoon or go to bed a bit earlier in the evening.
Tip 10: Use mindfulness-based techniques. If you are caught in a cycle of insomnia (i.e., worrying about sleep is keeping you awake) mindfulness can teach you how to let go of trying to sleep, settle down rumination (overthinking) and to release the tension and stress causing wakefulness. Practice a mindfulness meditation such as Mindfulness of Breath. You can download a free meditation here.
To learn more about sleeping well, check out our online course “A MINDFUL WAY TO HEALTHY SLEEP”. The course will teach you the life-long skills of mindfulness and other CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) strategies scientifically proven to improve sleep. Find out more here.
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About the contributor to this article
Siobhan Williams is a guest writer at A Mindful Way and is a co-author of this article. She is a registered psychologist with a Master of Clinical Psychology degree from the Cairnmillar Institute. Siobhan completed research on the use of mindfulness training to improve sleep and mood during adolescence, the results of which she presented at the Australian Psychological Society congress in 2016.