It’s not laziness: Teens and their (need for) sleep

Parenting teenagers comes with many challenges and often many frustrations too as we try to understand their behaviour. 

Adolescence is characterised by a period of rapid change, a key developmental period where they shift from childhood to adulthood. Not only are adolescents trying to develop their social identity and connect with peers, but their bodies are also changing physically and, it is the life-stage in which the brain undergoes substantial and rapid change, second only to infancy.

During this life-stage, the widespread changes in brain circuitry and neural pathways parallel with deepened cognitive sophistication, improved emotional regulation and intensified social cognition. Interestingly, they also parallel with a period of change in sleep patterns (the cause of which are both psychosocial and biological).

One source of conflict between teens and their parents is often reported to be a noticeable change in sleeping patterns, for example, staying up late into the night and not being able to wake up in the morning or sleeping for hours over the weekend. It may be helpful as a parent to know that there are biological reasons for these seemingly anti-social, unnecessary, and unproductive sleep patterns.

At the onset of puberty, adolescents undergo biological changes to their circadian rhythms and homeostatic systems which in turn, alter the body’s internal clock. Circadian rhythms work by helping to make sure that the body’s processes are optimized at various points during a 24-hour period.

Due to changes in the release time of melatonin to later in the evening, making it difficult to fall asleep earlier, adolescents tend to stay up later and wake up later. The homeostatic system helps the body experience sleep pressure over the day and typically the longer the waking hours the more the sleep pressure builds. During adolescence it takes longer than during the pre-puberty life-stage to build up sleep pressure and therefore older teenagers do not feel the need to sleep until later in the evening.

Psychosocial factors do not necessarily adapt to these biological changes and can lead to sleep deprivation amongst adolescents. For example, school start times do not shift later nor do the heavy academic demands, busy-extra-curricular or social schedules reduce. As a result, many adolescents find it challenging to meet the 8-10 hours of sleep recommended for optimal day time functioning.

A research study found that two-thirds of an American Grade 9-12 student sample obtained seven hours of sleep or less on a school night and similar trends have been found around the world. Another recent study demonstrated the delicate balance adolescents need to maintain between health and academics. This study found that while those who average 8.75-9hours of sleep exhibited peak mental health, those who averaged 7-7.5hours of sleep per school night achieved the highest level of academic performance. Most of the research indicates that adolescents who report less sleep than their peers exhibit poorer performance on cognitive processes, including processing speed, working memory and executive functioning.

It is commonly known that the brain undergoes rapid development during the first few years of life. Perhaps what is less commonly known, but now widely supported, is that with puberty comes another burst of brain development. During adolescence new connections of the brains neural pathways are made in response to environmental stimulus and in preparation for a more mature brain ready for adulthood.

Particularly, significant changes occur in two of the primary brain functions, but their development happens at different rates. The limbic system, the part of the brain that perceives reward from risk, begins development in early adolescence while, the frontal lobes which include the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for controlling impulses and engaging in planning, executive functioning, and longer-term perspective, matures in late adolescence (often in one’s early twenties).

Interestingly it is these brain regions undergoing the fastest change in adolescence that are also the most susceptible to the impact of changes in sleep patterns. This is a relatively new area of interest and research which has been facilitated by the advancement of neuroimaging. Scientists have hypothesized that the relation between sleep, social cognition and emotional regulation is due to the susceptibility of a network in the brain known as the “the social brain”. It is this “social brain” that undergoes significant development during adolescence.

While we may not understand our teenager’s behaviour often and at times get frustrated by their perceived laziness and endless hours of sleep, it may be helpful to bear in mind the significant change associated with this developmental life-stage as well the biological reasons behind their “night-owl” and “slow to rise” sleep patterns. The extent to which their brains are rewiring to serve them well in adulthood is incredible and sleep is a necessity in the process. For more information, visit Bellavista School’s website.

Article supplied by Lindy Cooke, educational psychologist intern at Bellavista School.

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