Why Is My Teenager So Exhausted?

The combination of changing sleep cycles and early school start times leaves many teens in a perpetually drowsy state, struggling to catch up on sleep during weekends.

I have teenagers, which means "morning" on non-school days usually happens at around 2 p.m. Although I have been known to kid them about wandering downstairs in their boxers looking for breakfast while I’m cooking dinner, I am actually okay with this.

Through no fault of their own, teenagers are completely exhausted. High school begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends around 2:30 p.m., depending on the school district. After school are practices, rehearsals, club meetings, and part time jobs, followed by several hours of homework. Factor in eating, maintenance activities, and the hormonal changes that come with puberty, and it is a wonder how most kids can remain upright and coherent most of the day.

The amount of sleep adolescents require is about 9.25 hours each night. Given that students usually rise at about 6:15 a.m., kids would have to go to bed at around 9 p.m. to get enough sleep. However, at this age sleep patterns shift to a later sleep-wake cycle, making it difficult for students to fall asleep much before 11 p.m., even if they had the time to go to bed that early, which they typically don’t.

It is well documented that students are sleep deprived, making staying alert, engaged, and focused in school difficult at best. Sleep deprivation also impacts the ability to solve problems, retain information, and deal with stress. Actually, it affects the overall performance of just about everything, including the ability to drive safely, which should in itself be enough of a reason to push back high school start times. 

This is not a new issue and the primary reason high schools do not start later is busing. School times are staggered so fewer buses are needed to accommodate students. Given this information, it is a wonder why elementary schools and high schools do not flip schedules. It makes perfect sense; little kids are naturally early risers, have no problem going to sleep early and learn better in the morning. One argument is that if school starts so early for elementary school, the kids will have to wait for the bus in the dark during winter. So it’s okay to have 9th graders wait in the dark? At least little kids have parents waiting with them, or should anyway.

Most teenagers catch up on much needed sleep during the weekends. As adults, it is hard to remember the ability to sleep 12-13 hours at a time. Most of us couldn’t sleep that long even if we had the time, but rarely do you hear a teenager say, “No matter what time I go to bed, I just can’t sleep past 7 a.m.”   It’s a combination of biologically changing sleep cycles, mismatched school schedules, and the demands on their non-school time that makes it necessary for teens to pay back some sleep debt over the weekend.

Catching up on sleep will also make them less cranky, so do yourself a favor and let them sleep.




Sue Schaefer is a student advocate, academic coach, and certified teacher. We encourage you to visit her website: Academic Coaching Associates. You may email Sue at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com.

You can also follow Sue on twitter: @sueschaefer1

Jim G. January 30, 2012 at 09:22 PM
No, I don't think I'm mixing the issues - I do think you're working too hard to separate them, though. Anyone can adapt to any reasonable sleep schedule IF the necessary number of hours of sleep are maintained. A schedule that forces someone to get up at 6:00, keeps them active for 10-12 hours and doesn't see them to sleep (not necessarily to bed) until 11:00 or later IS the problem. As others have pointed out, it's difficult to churn your body and/or brain until some hour late in the evening and then magically fall asleep; some relaxation and "down time" are needed to be able to sleep. If a teen has to catch a 7:00 bus, fit in two after school activities, study appropriately and fit in a few necessities like bathing and eating, it means they're going hard until 8-9 pm at least - add in relaxation and down time and they're down to 7 hours of sleep or less. Yes, I really do think overscheduling is the root cause of all these problems, and trying to treat the resulting symptoms is misdirected. Simply starting school later so that all activities are pushed later into the day and evening is not, in and of itself, any solution. Reducing the average child's unnecessary activity workload so that a later school start can be implemented - now you're talking about a fix.
Dolores Skowronek January 30, 2012 at 09:53 PM
FYI, here is a video of my son standing in a busy dark street (no sidewalks where I live). This is what he puts up with every morning. Do you think the passing cars see him standing in the dark? I doubt it, but what choice does he have? We have one of the earliest start times in the country and our school board refuses to change it. Here is the video: http://youtu.be/pUSWUFsh7oE
Susan Schaefer January 30, 2012 at 11:36 PM
Jim, I think what you are saying it that you don't oppose starting school earlier, but until we cut down on their time in outside issues, it' won't work. Good point. Your forgot the massive amount of homework most of them have as well. There is one other thing to consider. I see a lot of blame on the parents for over scheduling kids. While this may happen at younger ages, it happens very little in high school. Kids take part in sports and other activities because they want to, not because their parents are making them. Just taking away something they love can cause more problems than lack of sleep.
Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. January 30, 2012 at 11:59 PM
There's no need to speculate about whether starting high schools later than 7 am would help teens. Yes, Jim is correct that early start times are by no means the only factor in teen sleep deprivation (see Race to Nowhere). However, there's now voluminous evidence showing that it plays a major role, and one that can and has been changed. Even more compellingly, schools that have managed to start school later report better mood and alertness in teens, lower rates of truancy and absenteeism, and, yes, significantly more sleep per night (and, no, the kids do not just go to bed later, contrary to expectation). So, yes, we have many problems to address when it comes to the way we're raising our kids. But, no, from a health and learning perspective, there's no justification for starting high schools in the 7 o'clock hour (you could even argue that with more sleep, kids would be more efficient in getting that homework done!). The myths and emotion you see in this thread, however, are exactly why I started the petition ( http://bit.ly/tWa4dS ) for a minimum school start time and why many health professionals, sleep experts, educators, parents, and others who have worked in vain with local school systems for sane, humane school hours support this effort.
Susan Schaefer February 06, 2012 at 04:41 AM
Robert, I received you email but writers do not have control over what is on the comment board. If you find something inappropriate you may flag as inappropriate or email the editor. Sue


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