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Sleep Deprivation and Anxiety in Teens

If you asked every parent of a teenager about bedtime, most would report some conflict regarding this issue. Teens want to stay up or out late, and parents want them in bed at a decent time. Teens who stay in bed well into the next day frustrate parents who perceive this habit as a colossal waste of time. The issue of teenage sleep, however, is more important than a battle of wills between parents and children.

Sleep Requirements in Children

Newborns and infants usually require a minimum of 12 hours of sleep a day. Teens require eight to 10 hours of sleep each night to keep their minds and bodies working at peak levels. The teen brain is in a stage of rapid development and rest is crucial. To complicate matters, a widely recognized phenomenon known as sleep-phase delay was uncovered in teens in the early 1990s. It was discovered that when children become teens, their circadian rhythm (internal biological clock) shifts to a later time, making them biologically inclined to fall asleep about two hours later than they previously did.1

Sleep plays a vital role in healthy development through childhood and adolescence. It supports physical and neurobiological development, facilitates academic learning and is essential for optimal cognitive functioning.2

Teen Sleep Facts and Stats

  • A 2006 study found that only 15% of teens reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights.1
  • A 2011 systematic review of sleep data on 690,747 children and adolescents found that sleep duration has consistently decreased over the past century.2
  • A 2011 survey showed that by the time students are high school seniors, they are sleeping an average of 6.9 hours a night, a decrease from an average of 8.4 hours in sixth grade.1
  • A 2010 study found that 69% of American teens sleep less than seven hours per night.2

Underlying reasons for sleep-related difficulties in teens include maintaining highly active daily routines (e.g. school, home, social and work life), anxiety about school/peers and the demands placed on the brain and body as part of adolescent development. The average teen simply does not make sleep a priority due to physiological and emotional reasons.3

In addition, a number of studies theorize that teen sleep deprivation is tied to the rising prevalence of game consoles, mobile phones, laptops and tablets in the teen’s bedroom. Studies have linked consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol to sleep deprivation in teens. Adolescents who consume higher quantities of caffeinated drinks are twice as likely to experience sleep problems.2

Teen Sleep Research

A large number of U.S. teens are affected by significant levels of anxiety or sleeping difficulties that impair their daily functioning. There have been a number of national and global sleep studies conducted on teens, with compelling findings that underscore the importance of adequate sleep.

A small study on 50 adolescents ages 14 to 17.9 years was conducted to analyze mood, emotion regulation and hyperactivity-impulsivity in the context of several nights of six and one-half hours in bed versus 10. Teens reported on these variables once a week using a well-validated, 65-item self-report measure comprised of six subscales: tension/anxiety, depression/dejection, anger/hostility, energy/activity, fatigue/vigor and confusion/bewilderment. Secondary mood measures were derived from a validated parent-report measure. After only a few days of shortened sleep, adolescents experienced decreased energy and increased fatigue and confusion. They reported feeling less alert, less efficient and more helpless, forgetful and exhausted. The adolescents also reported increased feelings of tension, anger and anxiety, expressing feelings of being “on edge,” nervous and restless. The study confirmed that several nights of sleep restriction adversely affects adolescents’ mood and ability to regulate their emotions.4

It is known that chronic insufficient sleep and sleep problems contribute to cognitive problems and poor physical health. Researchers theorize this is caused by disruptions in an important part of the neuroendocrine system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis controls reactions to stress and regulates many body processes. A study on 84 African American adolescents with an average age of 13 analyzed variables including insomnia, daytime sleepiness and general sleep quality in context with levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Cortisol release during and after testing was higher for adolescents who reported more sleep problems and longer sleep duration, and whose parents reported longer sleep duration. The latter finding was surprising in that previous studies linked shorter sleep duration with higher cortisol levels. The study authors concluded that sleeping longer does not equate to higher-quality sleep. Enhanced and prolonged activation of the HPA axis in response to stress could contribute to several health problems, further underscoring the importance of adequate, high-quality sleep in teens.5

Teen Sleep Tips

  • Write thoughts in a journal, which can help alleviate anxiety.6
  • Take a warm bath or shower before bedtime.6
  • Keep the bedroom cool and dark.6
  • Establish and stick to a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends.6
  • Exercise 30 to 60 minutes, at least four times a week, but not within two to three hours of bedtime.6
  • Avoid the use of nicotine, alcohol and sleeping pills. Not only do these substances pose serious health risks, they can disrupt sleep.6
  • Eliminate or reduce caffeine, sugar and energy drinks.6
  • Do not go to bed hungry, but avoid heavy meals within one to two hours of bedtime.6
  • Have a light carbohydrate snack at bedtime (e.g. pretzels, cereal, crackers or bread).7
  • Take a 10- to 90-minute midday nap on weekends, which will provide rest without reducing sleep drive at night.7
  • Avoid watching television, playing computer games, using mobile phones or tablets and rigorous studying before bedtime.6
  • Learn and practice relaxation techniques at bedtime (e.g. deep breathing, progressive relaxation, guided visualizations, aromatherapy or meditation).7

If your teen is showing signs of sleep-related stress and irritability, work together on improving his or her bedtime routine. Emphasize the importance of sleep by setting a good example yourself and try implementing the above tips. Doing so may help your teen reduce levels of anxiety, function more optimally at school and avoid sleeping half the day away after an inadequate night of sleep. If anxiety is interfering with daily functioning or your teen is taking sleeping aids, it is important to consult a doctor as soon as possible.

  1. Among teens, sleep deprivation an epidemic. Stanford Medicine website. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/10/among-teens-sleep-deprivation-an-epidemic.html Published October 2015. Accessed August 24, 2016.
  2. Dimitriou D, Le Cornu Knight F, Milton P. The Role of Environmental Factors on Sleep Patterns and School Performance in Adolescents. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1717. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01717.
  3. Teens and Sleep. National Sleep Foundation website. https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/teens-and-sleep Accessed August 24, 2016.
  4. Baum KT, Desai A, Field J, Miller LE, Rausch J, Beebe DW. Sleep restriction worsens mood and emotion regulation in adolescents. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2014;55(2):180-190. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12125.
  5. Adolescents stress more with poor sleep. University of Alabama at Birmingham website. https://www.uab.edu/news/innovation/item/6877-adolescents-stress-more-with-poor-sleep Published January 14, 2016. Accessed August 24, 2016.
  6. Sleep Tips for Teenagers. Cleveland Clinic website. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/childrens-hospital/health-info/diseases-conditions/hic_sleep_in_your_babys_first_year/hic_Sleep_Tips_for_Teenagers Accessed August 24, 2016.
  7. 6 Sleep Tips for Tweens and Teens. Mother’s Circle website. http://motherscircle.net/6-sleep-tips-for-tweens-and-teens/ Accessed August 24, 2016.
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