Is Your Teen a Night Owl? Developing Good Sleep Habits

“And hand in hand on the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.”

— The Owl and the Pussycat – 1871 – by Edward Lear

In a previous newsletter I wrote about how every human being has a biological clock that, among other things, generates “wake-sleep” cycles. When these biological rhythms are altered by such things as jet lag, night work, or events lasting until or after midnight it can impair normal functions.

Sleep research has conclusively shown children entering their teens require more sleep, not less. There are special challenges for teenagers with regard to sleep. Studies show that during the teen years, the body’s circadian rhythm is temporarily reset, telling them to fall asleep later and wake up later. This change in the circadian rhythm seems to be due to the fact that the brain hormone melatonin is produced later at night for teens than it is for kids and adults. This can make it harder for teens to fall asleep early. It’s one of those mysteries of the human body that doesn’t make much sense! But it’s true.

An owl

© (CC) Keven Law

Thus, at about 7:30 pm a teen feels wide awake and fully alert, unlike an adult who is starting to “wind down” and feel sleepier as the evening progresses so that at 10 pm the adult is ready to go to bed. The teenager’s “wind down” time takes place much later. Thus, if you told your teen to go to bed at 10 pm, she or he may end up staring at the ceiling until 1 or 2 am just counting sheep with no avail! Don’t despair; there are strategies you can use to help your teen get the optimum amount of sleep.

As we have more ways to stay connected at night, we’ve seen an exaggeration of the night-owlism in teenagers”

— Sleep Physcian, Helen Emsellem

The shifting of the internal clock toward much later sleep coincides with a time when adolescents are busier than ever. There is the pressure to do well in school with all the exams at this time and it’s harder to get by without studying hard. Teens also have other time demands: sports, jobs and social activities. Our society, however, sets times for early morning classes for the convenience of adults. In the US, some schools have experimented with later starting times and the results showed that there was a positive impact. Teachers found that students “seemed to be more engaged in what they were doing, they seemed to he more focused”.

The National Sleep Foundation says that sleep is food for the brain. During sleep, important body functions and brain activity occur. Skipping sleep can be harmful — even deadly, particularly if you are behind the wheel. You can look bad, you may feel moody, and you perform poorly. Sleepiness can make it hard for teens to get along with their family and friends and lower their scores on school exams, or impact their sports performance. Remember: A brain that is hungry for sleep will get it, even when you don’t expect it. When people do not get enough sleep, they are more likely to have an accident, injury and/or illness. Added to all the above—computers, televisions and electronic games in the bedrooms all seem to conspire to delay bedtime.

If your teen falls asleep after midnight and still has to get up early for school, he/she will miss a couple of hours of sleep a night. Over time this can create a serious sleep deficit. Dr William Dement, MD, PhD is the world’s leading authority on sleep, sleep deprivation, and the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. He compares sleep debt with credit card debt. He explains:

“The choice is either to live your life getting less than eight hours of sleep a day with a huge sleep debt, and to be tired all day long, to live as a zombie. Or you can choose to decrease your sleep debt to a very low level, and then to get your eight (or so) hours of sleep every night, and to be full of energy, wide awake, performing at your peak, and feeling optimistic and cheerful.. It is somewhat analogous to having a huge credit card debt and paying the bill each month with nearly all the dollars going to pay the interest on the debt. Or, to maintain a very low or zero credit card debt such that you pay only the bill each month only for goods purchased.”

Tips Parents can Use to Help their Adolescent Get Adequate Sleep:

Biology and school schedules are out of parental control. At Secondary School teens are taught languages, mathematics, Science and English, but little is said about what they spend one third of their life doing! You, as a parent can help to educate your teen on sleep.

You could start with the National Sleep Foundation’s quiz at the end of this article to check your teen’s understanding of what happens during sleep and why he/she needs more sleep.

Talk to your teen with compassion and understating, not as a lecturer, and explain how they need to aim for 9 hours of sleep each night. Show them this diagram below about how they can get into a vicious cycle of sleep and accrue “sleep debt”.

Review their schedule to see how sleep can fit into it. For example, energy levels usually decrease in the afternoon. When they come home from school, they could take a power nap that lasts under an hour, which can help them remain alert over the next six to eight hours. Do avoid naps later in the day, which can interfere with bedtime. According to Tel Aviv Professor Avi Sadeh, “A good student may actually benefit more from an extra hour of sleep than an extra hour of study”.

Prepare for the next day. The best time to do this is when they get home from school after they have had a snack and possibly a short power nap, but before they do anything else. They can start by making their lunch, laying out their uniform, showering, packing up their school work, which would be based on looking at their calendar on their wall to determine what is needed for that next day (e.g. PE kit, or certain homework that is due). Not only is this an invaluable habit for your teen (especially those with ADHD), but this allows your teen to extend their sleep time in the morning and is more likely to get them to class on time. You may need to use an incentive to help him/her learn this discipline.

Establish a bedtime routine. A sleep schedule is the key to establishing sleep habits that will last a lifetime. (A bedroom curfew sometimes works). Your teen needs to go to bed and get up at relatively the same time each day.

Get rid of technological distractions. It is imperative that there is no TV, video games, mobile phone, Instant Messenger, computers or stereo after a certain hour. The exception—soft music or books on tape in a dimly lit room. Unlike reading, which requires light in the room, books on tape permit the room to be dark, and the quiet voice can function as “white noise” that can help prevent stray worries from keeping a teen awake.) If you find this as an on-going power struggle, you must as a family use collaborative problem solving skills together and make this a cardinal family rule, or get help from a professional.

Learn time-management skills. Many teens have poor judgement about how long assignment will take, and end up staying up very late to complete assignments. Use clocks and beepers to help keep the teen on track. On their calendar your teen should write the dates of projects due, tests and presentations, which your teen needs to prepare for in good time to avoid all-nighters!

Review the number of activities they do. Dr. Mary Carskadon, a leading sleep researcher has a 12 hour rule in her laboratory. “We don’t allow people to come into work within 12 hours of their last shift. We should think of kids as shift workers. Many of them go to school a full day and have part-time jobs or school activities that tie them up until late at night. By limiting activities within 12 hours of the start of school, they would have time to complete schoolwork and get to bed at a reasonable hour.”

Keep the lights dim at night as bedtime approaches (sending a natural signal for melatonin “to get sleepy”) and then make the bedroom dark as possible. Eyeshades might be worth a try at bedtime if the room cannot be darkened. There needs to be bright light in the morning (open curtains or bright artificial light). Some families have purchased the litebook at which helps the brain react as if it’s a bright sunny day in July. There is also a sunrise alarm clock called the body clock that helps to wake up people in the morning.

Sleep in on the weekend, but not too late. Teens need to replenish their “sleep debt” on the weekend, but those who stay up very late and “sleep in” past noon on the weekend have the greatest problems. Waking in the afternoon simply makes falling asleep at a reasonable hour on Sunday night nearly impossible — and on Monday morning the cycle begins again.

Transform the atmosphere in the bedroom into a soothing, peaceful welcoming place for sleep. Smells can help some teens to get to sleep. The use of essential oils can be used singly or combined with a mixture of mandarin, chamomile roman, or lavender. They can be used in bath water, rubbed on the skin with massage oil, or put in the water of the humidifier. The oils should be used judiciously as some children have sensory issues and we want to prevent an overpowering smell. Sometimes taking a few drops of flower essences are helpful at night time such as Passion Flower. Last summer I stayed at a B&B on the island of Gigha where I learned a lot about the healing power of flower essences, especially orchids:

Use relaxation methods. Start with breathing deeply and slowly. Then have your child scan his or her body from head to feet. Start with relaxing the top of the head, then the eyes and neck, and move down to the toes. This technique diverts attention from an over-stimulated mind. Your teen might hopefully fall asleep before they even get to their feet!

Keep a notebook and pen by the bed with a small lamp that can be easily switched off so that when they have trouble getting to sleep, they can write down anything that is running through their mind and let it go.

Well, no debt collector is going to knock on your door and ask your teen to give them the sleep debt they owe, but here are some resources which may help to raise your “night-owl.”

The Book Dead on Their Feet: Teen Sleep Deprivation and Its Consequences (Science of Health) By Joan Esherick

This is website on Adolescent sleep:

Dr. Helene Emsellem has a book entitled Snooze… or Lose! 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits.

My next article in this series on Good Sleep Habits will be written for parents/adults.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:

It’s loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but will still keep

A quiet bower for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

— John Keats – Endymion

Image: A statue of woman asleep


  1. During sleep, your brain rests. (T or F)
  2. You can learn to function normally with two or three hours less sleep than your body actually needs per night. (T or F)
  3. Teens go to sleep and wake later because they are lazy. (T or F)
  4. Although you may not get enough sleep during the week, you can catch up on your sleep on weekends and still have healthy sleep habits. (T or F)
  5. Boredom makes you feel sleepy, even if you have had enough sleep. (T or F)
  6. Resting in bed with your eyes closed cannot satisfy your body’s need for sleep.(T or F)
  7. Snoring is not harmful as long as it does not disturb others or wake you up.* (T or F)
  8. Most people do not know when they are sleepy. (T or F)
  9. Turning up the radio, opening the window, or turning on the air conditioner will help you stay awake while driving. (T or F)
  10. Sleep disorders are mainly due to worry or psychological problems. (T or F)
  11. Everyone dreams every night. (T or F)
  12. Driving after being awake for 18 hours puts you at the same level of risk for a crash as someone who is legally drunk. (T or F)

Answers: 1. F, 2. F, 3. F, 4. F, 5. F, 6. T, 7. F, 8. T, 9. F, 10. F, 11. T, 12. T

*snoring may be a sign of sleep apnea.

Thanks for taking the time to read this Monday’s Motivational article.

Please feel free to send me any comments or your own stories you wish to share, or post your comment to the site by leaving a comment below.

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