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

Chivas Sandage January 28, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Thank you, Susan, for your clear & to-the-point article on this issue. The various arguments against switching start times fail to prioritize the central concern of educators and parents: our teenagers' academic experience and success. Rather than use extracurricular activities as a trump card, perhaps later start times for practices, rehearsals & clubs could be considered?
Hillary Sibille January 28, 2012 at 05:04 PM
Another problem comes from teens' reliance on heavily caffeinated drinks, like coffee, espresso and Red Bull-type soft drinks. As a teacher, I've seen kids messing with caffeine all too often, resulting in even poorer sleep habits.
Jim G. January 28, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Stephen Kay touched on the real problem, I think: school has become subject to scheduling to leave students the maximum amount of time for other things - primarily sports. I hope to live long enough to see the de-emphasis of grossly overscheduled children and the resulting distortion of the things that ARE important - sleep, school, just plain "playtime" instead of 2-4 hours of regimented activities nearly every day of the week.
Diane Clokey January 28, 2012 at 06:02 PM
The extracurricular problem could be solved on a state-wide level, if every school changed their schedules, then school-related activities could simply happen later. Given the research, we should be having that conversation. I actually think the bigger obstacle is the child-care issue. Families who cannot have a parent home at 2 in the afternoon often rely on older siblings to be home when the younger ones get off the bus. No district is in a financial position to double or triple the number of buses they currently have --- and that's what it would take to get multiple age groups home at around the same time
Ronni Newton January 28, 2012 at 08:07 PM
This issue has been talked about in West Hartford for years, and you're right, Diane, the extracurricular problem needs to be looked at on a state-wide level since afternoon sports contests would have to be scheduled later to avoid having some students miss school. But even if that could happen, fields need to be made available for the youth sports leagues that practice outdoors in the spring and fall, after the high schoolers are done for the afternoon. At least in West Hartford, there aren't enough fields for everyone to practice at the same time. There aren't any fields with lights, so practices need to finish before it gets dark. Child care is also a major issue for many families, as is the fact that many high school students work in the afternoons, and getting out of school later would cut into that as well.
Susan Schaefer January 28, 2012 at 08:50 PM
Yes, I am aware of the issues with sports fields and extra curricular activities. Although I fully support youth sports, extra curriculars and part time jobs, the health of our kids has to come first, followed by academics. Child care is a big issue and huge changes would have to be made, but as with most things, where there is a will, there is a way.
Susan Schaefer January 28, 2012 at 09:05 PM
If anyone is interested, there is a national petition supporting legislation for high schools to begin no earlier than 8:00am. To review and sign... http://signon.org/sign/promote-legislation-to?source=c.em.cp&r_by=1520974
Christine January 29, 2012 at 02:24 AM
This is an excellent article! I worry so much about my son's sleep schedule and am delighted at the resources and petition you have provided. Thank You Susan!
jaydee January 29, 2012 at 02:33 AM
Academics first, sleep next, the rest is fluff. Younger kids starting earlier makes sense. Working parents can appreciate getting the younger kids to school earlier so they can get to work on time. After school programs and sports at school for younger kids is a no brainer. Parents can car pool. Middle school kids present the biggest issue, but HS kids are beginning to drive and are far more independent and don't rely on parents for getting them to and from school. There are buses in any case. They can get themselves to school after parents leave for work. The rest of it can take care of itself. Sports can be started at 3:30-4:30 or 5:00 and that gives them the rest of the evening to study. This is not rocket science and daycare is an issue no matter how you cut the hours it's never an 8 hour academic day. My kids need more sleep. Judi D.
richard barringer January 30, 2012 at 02:43 AM
Poor babies! Generations of teenagers before today's pampered masses somehow made it by following the same schedules. Somehow, these people fought their way through the Great Depression, put down Hitler, and created the longest period of continuous prosperity in the history of the world in the postwar period--including putting men on the moon. Wake up! We're raising a generation of pansies who wilt in the face of adversity. Want them better rested? Get them off of their mobile media--66% of 8-18 yo. kids own cellphones;76% own ipods; the avg kid spends nearly 2 hrs a day using these devices. Is it any wonder that the apologists of today's pampered youth are also driving the movement to eliminate homework? Such an intrusion on their "personal time!" Perhaps too their lack of energy is diet-related--ever see what the avg teenager eats these days? Could it be that by the time these kids hit high school they grow weary of the regimented social activiites mapped out for them by super-parents since they were 5 years old? The petition for a nationwide mandate on not starting high school before 8 a.m. is just plain stupid--another foolish example of social engineering.
Andrew Ziemba January 30, 2012 at 04:16 AM
A large difference between the generations prior to the current one is as follows. 1) A very large percentage of kids now in school are drugged up on one thing or another. Big surprise they are all messed up in more ways than one. 2) Kids in this generation do not have any responsibility. They have been raised to have zero respect for authority, zero respect for their parents, their peers, or for themselves. Again, this leads to countless problems. You don't need to be a childhood psychologist to see this. 3) Most (seriously i'd say over 90%) of them eat diets which are absolutely terrible and lack even simple proper nutrition. This problem is further inflamed by the fact that schools ARE NOT ALLOWED to produce healthy meals in their cafeterias - basically because of GREED, UNIONS, and LOBBYISTS who determine school policy which generally the UNION (who cares more about THEIR WAGES AND BENEFITS THAN THE KIDS AT SCHOOL) who has massive control over this. Compound this with the fact that the majority of kids literally DO NOT have a family because mom and dad are probably BOTH full time employed trying to make ends meet... Yes, compound that with the above mentioned and you soon realize that there are no opportunities (minimal at best) to teach kids about proper nutrition FROM THE PARENTS. Also, its less likely to have a nice home cooked nutritious meal. The breakdown of families in this country is MOSTLY responsible, followed by school "authorities"
Andrew Ziemba January 30, 2012 at 04:22 AM
Blame whoever you want for the breakdown in families - we don't have to go all hardcore political in this thread... but understand, just to elaborate on the #1 I mentioned. A kid is a little rowdy? They throw him on Ritalin. If he is a little bit quiet they put him on Prozac because they think he is depressed. If he has trouble concentrating they put him on Klonopin. Parents need to wake up to the fact that the Pharmaceutical industrial complex has taken over this country and it is NOT good for the youth of this nation. People really need to grow up and get serious and do something about it. Recently a school charged a 6 year old with sexual assault for accidentally tagging another 6 year old on the leg/groin. Look at the society that we live in today and ask yourself. How would YOU behave if you were growing up in this insanity? God have mercy on the children who have been betrayed by generations before them who did not care as our country has gone down the crapper.
Catherine thomas January 30, 2012 at 01:07 PM
It appears that we are lumping together many things and not looking at the science behind sleep with respect to teenagers. This is real. It was brought home to me personally through my 15 year old son with cerebral palsy. He does not play video games, use cellphones or social network and he is not over scheduled or on any medication. I am fully responsible for what he eats and he is a healthy eater. I dictate bed times as well. Up until the age of 13, Nicholas went to bed at 9:00pm and got up at 7:00am - like clockwork. Then something changed. I could put him to bed at 9:00 but he doesn't go to sleep until 11:00pm. However, he still requires his 10 hours of sleep so rousing him earlier has been a major problem. He is a textbook example of the validity of circadian rhythms in teenagers and all of the studies throughout that document how many hours of sleep our children need in order to be happy and successful. Look at the start times in other countries. Look at the start times when you were a teenager. I am 55 and my school day started at 8:55am. We were able to have sports and after school clubs. The early start times were dictated not that long ago as a means to save Transportation money when local authorities became strapped for cash. It seems that for the health and safety of our children, we need to return to the reasonable start times of the past.
Andrew Ziemba January 30, 2012 at 02:06 PM
If the department of education was not so flawed, and "education" in this country was not a BUSINESS as it is today, but rather a service as it should be, to provide the most effective, cheapest service, we would offer a sliding schedule of classes. Sadly government can never provide a better service than the free market. The ultimate solution to the problem concerning school hours and scheduling conflict would be to abolish the department of education, in favor of a free market capitalist platform where much like college, you could select the classes and the hours that best suited your child as well as his/her/your schedule. With this however, many people would cry foul because they would get what you pay for rather than getting what everyone ELSE pays for. We will never have this system of "education" because of the unions, as well as those who thrive on jobs that have no place in our current public schools like special education and talented and gifted programs as well as government subsidized food programs in cafeterias. Once ALL of the nonsense is flushed down the toilet where it belongs, we can have a truly free, flexible, open, transparent, streamlined, simple, and most importantly effective process to educate our children. But as long as people insist and demand that they can get MORE than what they put in in tax dollars, the unsustainable, poorly run, union controlled, socialist system will continue to let down our children.
Voice of Reason January 30, 2012 at 02:43 PM
While we adults are debating politics, millions of teenagers in this country are suffering. Sleep isn't a luxury; it's a basic biological necessity, and the school hours we've allowed for the past few decades make adequate sleep impossible for most teens (even teens with good habits & strict parents). The research is crystal clear on this issue (see StartSchoolLater.net). And whether we like it or not, schools have to be regulated on all sorts of counts, ranging from lunch hours to desegregation to the basic requirement to provide kids with12 years of free public ed in the first place. Shouldn't that mandated education be at times consistent with basic needs like safety & health?
Jim G. January 30, 2012 at 03:02 PM
Voice, you can ignore nearly all of the political soapboxing above as irrelevant to the discussion. I maintain that the problem is NOT school hours - neither duration nor start times. Nor is it widespread consumption of caffeinated drinks and the like, nor any of the other issues raised, which I see as symptoms, not cause. The cause which underlies all these problems is the sheer overscheduling of kids today - some of them put in longer days than their working parents, with almost nothing that could be called free time. What suffers is their rest and sleep time; what happens are adaptations to lack of sleep, like depending on energy drinks. We need, as a society, to pull back from this insane idea that our kids have to be martialed, marched, engaged, instructed, occupied and entertained every waking minute. We need to stop forcing them, individually and collectively, into multiple activities that exhaust their time and ultimately exhaust them.
Andrew Ziemba January 30, 2012 at 03:49 PM
Exactly. Parents need to have more control over how they schedule the lives of their children because more often than not, parents know what is better for their children than the state or local officials. Political Soapboxing lol. Well if that's what you want to call talking about issues that are very relevant in society today and that are ignored because it is unpopular to talk badly about anyone even if they are 100% at fault. I will always call out a greedy, polluted, corrupt organization or individual who is undermining the success of our society through lobbying and throwing an entire generation of unknowing children and parents under the bus in the name of "better education for our kids"
Jim G. January 30, 2012 at 04:53 PM
Call it what you like, AZ, but your posts are always tiresome, short-sighted libertarian dogma without the slightest connection to real-world issues. Simply waving a Ron Paul brand magic wand and saying "getting rid of all this stuff will make the US perfect" accomplishes nothing of use; You have to have workable solutions to replace all this government oppression and interference you so detest. Schools should get rid of special education? Really? Who does that "serve" and what's your proposed alternative solution? Or are the needs of disabled students and their parents just supposed to vanish with the wave of that wand?
Andrew Ziemba January 30, 2012 at 05:56 PM
Spoken like a troll. Present absolutely no information to the discussion, just spew personal attacks. It's like going out to eat and ordering a cheeseburger and having to pay for 3 hotdogs and 2 milkshakes. Who in their right mind pays for a service that they do not want/need? Absolutely nobody. Only in government does this phenomenon exist. Why would someone who does not have kids want to pay to educate kids that aren't theirs? Don't want to risk having a child with mental disorders? Don't have kids. Don't want to risk having your house swept away by a hurricane? Don't live in Florida. Don't want your house to flood? Don't live in New Orleans. Don't want to have a problem feeding your family? Don't have 10 children. Just a tidbit of exciting information I learned firsthand from one of the bus drivers for Canton Public Schools. I was surprised to see not one, or even TWO adults monitoring the bus, but rather THREE grown adult supervisors on the bus. One of them (paid by tax payers of course) was on the bus to monitor ONE kid because he has an Asthma problem. Need I say more? Why don't you bring some facts to the discussion or at least defend the position you take rather than trolling me. Say something like "we spend more and more each year on education and it keeps getting better and better each year!" or "The more we pay our teachers the harder they work!" *rollseyes*
Jim G. January 30, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Disagreeing with you is not trolling, AZ. It's a hallmark of your stripe of poster that the slightest deviation from total agreement is taken as trolling, personal attacks, dissembling, etc. I guess it stems from traveling in such a narrow groove that there's no room for any breadth of thought. Your reply is otherwise exactly what I expected. Libertarian utopias are always for those who qualify for utopia... never mind anyone who doesn't measure up. Anyone who doesn't meet this Randian/Paulian/Libertarian ideal just isn't worth worrying about and can be dismissed as having made poor choices... poor choices in birthplace, poor choices in parentage, poor choices in getting in the way of natural disasters, poor choices in DNA... Maybe one day I'll meet a real Libertarian who is completely self-made and owes nothing to the country, society and community that supported, shaped and enabled them. Until that day, on which we'll all be ducking flying pigs, I'll maintain my long-established opinion that the libertarian, anti-tax, anti-government crowd is entirely made up of tiresome, short-sighted, selfish dogmatists. I'll go back to ignoring your posts along with everyone else, a position I should have maintained in the first place. The thread has been hijacked by your dogma long enough. Sorry, folks. Please continue the useful part of the conversation.
Megan Bard (Editor) January 30, 2012 at 08:00 PM
Stay on topic, please.
Dolores Skowronek January 30, 2012 at 08:09 PM
My 16 year old son is a really good kid who is currently working towards his Eagle Scout Badge. He is dedicated, hard working, and struggles with the 7:10 start time at his high school. He is many things - but not a pansy. We are good parents and make sure he gets to bed early without access to electronics. It doesn't help because he lays awake until 10:30 or 11:00 every night. He can't help it, his biology is changing and his sleep patterns are shifting. He is sleep deprived, and I promise you that his early start time is impacting his health. I have researched the issue, here is what I found: http://greenfieldsleep.pbworks.com/w/page/15769273/Journal%20Articles
Jim G. January 30, 2012 at 08:19 PM
There's no question that adolescents and teens have enough natural issues, adapting to their physical and mental growth, that they and parents should do everything possible not to add to the problem. Sensible family policies about sleep, relaxation time, eating (especially together, a proven cure for many family/individual problems) and a balance between essentials and extras are a must.
Susan Schaefer January 30, 2012 at 08:53 PM
Jim, my friend, you are mixing the issues. While over scheduling is indeed a problem, it has nothing to do with sleep cycles. Even if teens do nothing after school but relax and sip herbal tea, they will still not be able to fall asleep early enough to get in a good 9 hours before having to get up in the morning. And before you start with me on the 9 hours of sleep, teens need as much sleep as toddlers due to the rapid physical changes they experience. I encourage you to take a look at www.startschoollater.net or any of the studies on teen sleep cycles.
Catherine thomas January 30, 2012 at 09:17 PM
Thank you for bringing the discussion back to the necessity for sleep in our teenage population. It is imperative that the school boards nationwide take this important topic and act on it with the implementation of sane start times. I have had input from people around the world on this and they all look aghast when i tell them what time my son must get up for school. (Australia, France, England, Italy, Canada, China). No one can believe such a policy for all children. Somehow it has so become the norm here that we debate and find rationalizations that make these policies seem perfectly fine. I can imagine the same debates over the child labor laws. Stand on a dark street at a bus stop with your local teens for a week at 5:45 am and perhaps it will change the viewpoint.
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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