The Dark Side of Sleep Deprivation in Teens and Children

by Cara Batema

Imagine waking up with the sun, going to school, participating in extracurricular activities, doing at least 45 minutes of homework, squeezing in some socializing time with friends and finally getting ready for bed, just to do it all again the next day. You might be looking at the clock, wondering if there’s any time left in the 24-hour-day for sleep. Now consider a hyperactive child who’s bored to tears by the idea of sleep or an anxious child scared to go to sleep or fearful of what the next day might bring.

School-age children and teens need anywhere from 8-11 hours of sleep, but most are lucky to get seven. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 10 percent of children in the United States have sleep problems, but for children with mental health or developmental issues, the number is somewhere between 50 and 75 percent.

Why Kids Aren’t Getting Enough Sleep

There’s a laundry list of reasons why kids and teens aren’t reaching adequate sleep. Especially for teens, biology plays a huge role in sleep deprivation. All the hormonal changes taking place in the body affect melatonin production, a hormone that helps control sleep-wake cycles. Environmental factors also cause sleep deprivation in teens and children.

Your child might have a phone or tablet with them at all times. Not only are children affected by violence, bullying and other things they see online, but the light from the devices themselves suppresses melatonin and prevents your children from falling asleep. School-age children are often overloaded with extra activities and homework, which pushes bedtime later into the evening. Behavioral factors like restlessness or worry, which are common in children with hyperactivity or anxiety, contribute to child and teen sleep deprivation.

Negative Effects of Sleep Deprivation in Children

Not paying attention in class, poor academic performance and moodiness and frustration are just a few of the cognitive and emotional effects of sleep deprivation in children. Inadequate sleep, which includes not getting enough hours or having a poor quality of sleep, wreaks havoc on a child’s mood and thinking processes. These effects might be as overt as being grouchy or as subtle as acting without thinking things through.

For kids with emotional or cognitive problems, their symptoms often become exacerbated when they don’t get enough sleep. For example, kids who are hyperactive already have trouble concentrating, but lack of sleep contributes to fuzzy thinking, poor memory or inability to concentrate during class. A pattern of poor sleep also has negative implications for the future. In a study done for Academic Pediatrics, researchers found that children who didn’t get enough sleep during their early school-age years had a higher risk of poor neurobehavioral function by age 7. Sleep problems in children have also been linked to chronic disease later in life.

Steps for Better Rest

You probably know how essential it is for your child to get adequate sleep, but until school starts later in the day or teachers give less homework, it might seem challenging to make the changes needed for better sleep. If your child resists sleep, teach them that sleep is a vital part of their day rather than a boring activity. Consider if they have underlying reasons why they won’t sleep, such as worrying about the next day and address them.

Remind your teen that they must complete homework before enjoying recreational activities, and take away tablets, phones, televisions, and other screens at least one to two hours before bed. Encourage your child to do homework or other activities outside of the bedroom, so the room remains a place only for sleeping.

You might also have your children start doing a wind-down activity that prepares the body for sleep. For example, consider having them take a warm bath, read a short story or chapter of their favorite book or listen to soft music. Avoid sugar and caffeine after noon, and encourage your child to avoid naps late in the day. While it might be tempting to let your child sleep in on weekends, remember that you can’t pay off the sleep deficit on the weekends, and that extra time disrupts the sleep-wake cycle more than catches them up on rest. If you implement some of these rules and your child still has trouble sleeping, consider consulting a specialist.

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher, and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs, and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science, and health.

References:

1. Crenshaw, Wes Ph.D. Seriously, Why Won’t My Teen Sleep? ADDitude Magazine, https://www.additudemag.com/teen-sleep-deprivation-adhd/
2. Garey, Juliann. Why Are Teenagers So Sleep Deprived? ChildMind, https://childmind.org/article/teenagers-sleep-deprived/
3. Gerber, Lois MPH, BSN, RN. Sleep Deprivation in Children: A Growing Public Health Concern. Nursing Center, https://www.nursingcenter.com/cearticle?an=00006247-201408000-00005&Journal_ID=54013&Issue_ID=2525901
4. McGreevey, Sue. Study Flags Later Risks For Sleep-Deprived Kids. The Harvard Gazette, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/03/study-flags-later-risks-for-sleep-deprived-kids/
5. Sleep Problems May Affect Children’s Behavior. American Academy of Sleep Medicine, http://sleepeducation.org/news/2012/10/29/sleep-problems-may-affect-children's-behavior
6. Weintraub, Karen. Young and Sleep Deprived. American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/02/sleep-deprived.aspx