Catching Those Critical Z-z-z – by Mendi Baron

Girl sleeping on books

What? You mean your teen doesn’t greet you in the kitchen every morning with a huge smile on his or her face as they reach for that box of Cheerios? Nope, only in corny commercials does that scenario exist. In real life, teens, just like many adults, wake up feeling less than refreshed due to myriad sleep issues that inhibit that deep, relaxing REM stage from doing its thing. Ideally, teenagers need about 9 hours of sleep per night to function at peak performance, both scholastically and physically. The problem is getting those nine hours of quality sleep.

Young people are already at a disadvantage when it comes to getting optimum shut-eye. Their bodies’ circadian rhythm –that internal biological clock—is different from adults’ due to the production of the hormone melatonin in a teen brain which occurs later at night. This may explain why teens are night owls, taking their sleep cues from basic physiology. If they had their druthers, they would go to bed later and sleep later because that is what Mother Nature is telling their bodies to do.

And then there are the distractions. Yep, let’s face it; there are a plethora of techno toys available to engage your adolescent’s attention well beyond bedtime. While parents assume their son or daughter is snoozing away, the reality is their teenager could be gaming online, watching YouTube videos, texting friends, or binge watching on Netflix. All of these activities can cut into valuable sleep time, and stimulate their brains when they should be winding down for the day.

Physical Causes of Sleep Problems

When getting your teen to shut down their devices and get to bed earlier doesn’t seem to net any improvement in sleep quality, there may be a physical explanation for the problem. Some of the common causes include:

Restless Leg Syndrome

RLS sometimes can present between the ages of 12-20, causing the legs to jerk, tingle, or ache, negatively impacting the quality of sleep. Involuntary leg movements can disrupt the teen’s sleep, making it difficult to complete the normal sleep cycle. Stretching, hot baths, and heating pads may help provide relief.

Sleep Apnea

Although snoring in itself is common, sometimes the cause of the snoring is something more serious, such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). A severe narrowing of the airway prevents the lungs from getting enough air, so the brain will wake the young person up to catch their breath and unlock the air passage. Although sleep apnea affects as many as 1 in 10 kids, they will usually outgrow it.

Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD)

GERD is a gastric system condition that generally occurs at night, often causing sleep disturbances. The valve between the esophagus and the gut doesn’t function properly, allowing stomach acids to back up into the esophagus, resulting in irritation and inflammation. Ask your teen if they are experiencing heart burn, chest pain or a chronic cough during the night. There are many over-the-counter medications that may be helpful if this is the case.


Certain medications, usually prescribed for ADHD such as Adderall or Ritalin, can cause sleep problems. If the dose isn’t taken at the same time each day, or if the medication is taken too late in the day, the teen will often suffer from insomnia. This can also be the result of a teen using these drugs illicitly, with no actual diagnosis, causing the drug to act as a stimulant.

Emotional Causes of Sleep Problems

Chronic insomnia—having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep—in a teenager who has no physical issues may be due to emotional problems. There are many causes of emotional strife in a young person’s life, including:


Stress is the most common cause of insomnia. According to the American Psychological Association, a 2013 survey demonstrated that stress is very common among adolescents, primarily due to pressures at school. Their survey found that teens experience both physical and emotional symptoms of stress, including feeling anxious, tired, overwhelmed, and disruption in sleep habits.


Everyone occasionally experiences the blues, but if your teen is showing signs of depression it may be affecting their ability to get a good night’s sleep. The American Sleep Foundation cites their poll “Sleep in America,” which found that almost half the teens surveyed cited feelings of sadness, worry, and despair, and that those teens also tended to have sleep problems.

Family Problems or Relationship Difficulties

When there is disruption in a teenager’s core relationships, their family, their friends, or their romantic partner, it is common for sleep problems to result. Angst and worry caused by tumult in primary relationships can keep young people tossing and turning, disrupting sleep.

How to Improve the Quality of Sleep?

Parents and teens should work together to discover the underlying cause of sleep disturbances. By communicating openly, a clear cause can be revealed allowing for improved sleep quality going forward. Whether it is something as simple as not drinking caffeinated beverages after 3pm, or as serious as sleep apnea, open dialogue between the parent and their adolescent is key to making a positive change. Some basic changes in sleep habits may also result in improvements, such as:

λ Restricting the use of smart phones, computers, and gaming stations after a specified time each evening

λ Reducing noise in the house after a certain time each evening

λ Relaxation techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises can help with stress

λ Eating less sugar and avoiding heavy meals before bedtime

λ Taking a warm bath before bedtime

λ Establishing regular bedtime routines

Nurturing good sleep habits starts at birth, by keeping the child on a sleep schedule. Helping your teen sustain those routines is essential to their physical and emotional wellbeing.

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