Lack of Sleep and Teen Brain Development

Written by Kathie Blake, Psy.D.

Teenagers and Lack of Sleep

Teen girls that come in to my office don’t always talk. However, one thing they do say almost 100% of the time is, “I’m tired!” It doesn’t seem to matter what time or what day it is for lack of sleep to be an issue for them.

The Effects of Lack of Sleep on Teens

So, why are these teens so tired and how may it be affecting them in ways that we as parents, educators and therapists are unaware of? Sure, we know that their bodies are growing and hormones are surging, but what we may not realize is how the lack of sleep affects a teen’s brain development. This in turn affects their ability to learn and retain information, their moods, their ability to make better decisions and choices, and to cope with stress.

Sleep Cycles in Children and Teenagers

Sleep changes over the life cycle. While young children tend to go to bed early and get up early (way before mom and dad are ready to get up), teenagers are just the opposite. They naturally want to wake up late and stay up late (way after mom and dad are ready to go to bed). One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that melatonin, a natural sleep inducer, is released by the brain two hours later in a teen’s brain than it is in an adult’s. When teens are free to sleep naturally they will get 9-10 hours of sleep per night.

Causes of Lack of Sleep in Teens

This pattern is dramatically interrupted by the school system which requires teens to rise well before dawn! Because they are learning so much at such a fast pace, sleep deprivation interrupts brain functions that should be occurring at night while a teenager is asleep. One of the most important activities the teen brain performs while asleep is the “greasing “of neurons which is known as myelination. This process allows rapid communication between various areas of the brain and the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes make us uniquely human. They perform the “executive functions” of insight, judgement, abstraction, and planning. In a teen this is the last area of the brain to develop. Teens have only about 80% of full functioning in their frontal lobes until their mid-twenties. Pruning of the neuronal connections also occurs during sleep in order to eliminate neurons that are no longer needed so only the ones most used survive. Beyond myelination and pruning of brain functions, sleep is the time when learning that has occurred during the day is consolidated and organized by emotional importance. During REM sleep that occurs later in the sleep cycle the brain reenacts through dreams the information that was learned that day and further solidifies it into memory.

Suggestions to Avoid Lack of Sleep for the Whole Family

Given these facts how is a parent to help a teen get a good night’s sleep? First of all, teenagers deserve to know the facts about their brain and what happens during a good night’s sleep, so they can make better decisions for themselves. Also, leading by example can help the whole family appreciate the importance of getting enough sleep and make teens more likely to follow your advice. Here are some suggestions for the whole family for avoiding lack of sleep:

  • Eliminate any exposure to screens of TVs, computers, tablets, and smart phones one hour before bedtime. The bright LED light suppresses melatonin production which will help you fall asleep.
  • Don’t go to bed with your phone/tablet nearby in your room. Charge it in another room for the night at a designated time every night to avoid sleep interruptions.
  • Have a regular sleep schedule even on the weekend: wake up and go to bed about the same time on school nights and non-school nights. These should not vary more than an hour from one day to the next. If you are very sleepy during the day, nap for only 15-20 minutes as early in the afternoon as possible so you won’t have difficulty falling asleep at night. Also, avoid using your bed for anything except sleeping.
  • Take a hot bath or shower before bed to boost deep sleep. Then keep your room cool to your body. Sleep happens when the body cools and wakefulness occurs when the body temperature warms up.
  • If light bothers you put blackout shades on the windows. Make sure your door is shut when you go to bed. Turn your clock with the face toward the wall so you don’t check the time all night long. When you get up early on school days, open your shades and turn on your light. The early light helps to ‘reset’ your brain to wakefulness.
  • If you’re stressed, soft music or yoga right before bed helps. Avoid ‘energizing’ activities such as exercise or studying at least an hour before bedtime, as well as dealing with emotionally stimulating situations with friends or family members.
  • Eat high carb snacks and herbal teas before bed. This helps you feel warm and sleepy. Try pretzels, graham crackers, vanilla wafers, saltines, or toast. Avoid all caffeinated drinks and chocolate.

Sleep is important for all of us. For a teenager, it can make the difference in their ability to function optimally in every area of their lives!

Family Psychology Associates Can Help Teens and the Whole Family Live Healthier

At Family Psychology Associates we strive to help families with Health & Wellness and Stress Management so there is a healthy environment for everyone. We also have trained professionals that specialize in adolescents and emerging adults who are experiencing sleep or difficulties with other life skills. Call are office today to find out more about how we can help you teen and whole family enjoy better mental health.