Muir Wood Teen
Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services is a Joint Commission-accredited mental health and substance use disorder treatment provider located in Petaluma, California. We provide integrated evidence-based care including psychiatry, psychotherapy, experiential therapy, wellness services, and milieu therapy for adolescents and teens, and their family members.

Sleeping Disorders

Perchance to Dream

Teenagers require lots of sleep, substance abuse can interfere with that and have lasting consequences.

In a typical home on a sunny Saturday morning, when the sun is high in the sky, the teenagers of the home may be the only ones still in bed. If these sleepy teens are approached with a report of the beautiful weather outside, they might respond with only groans, grunts and complaints.

Raising a teenager like this is tough, and most parents of a child like this would claim that sleep is the last thing that’s bothering their children. Instead, they might blame sheer laziness or lack of will for the sleepiness their children show. In reality, these teens could be experiencing a normal period of brain growth that could impact the quality of their sleep. These teens might also be dealing with a very persistent sleep disorder. Ignoring sleep troubles might mean that teens never learn how to sleep properly, and they might turn to drugs and alcohol in a misguided attempt to deal with the demands that lie ahead of them.

A Deep Debt

During adolescence, teens are growing right before the eyes of their wondering parents, adding inches to their height and developing muscles in places that have always been a bit flabby. These teens are also growing new neural connections, and their hormonal systems are just beginning to come online. Adolescents are also learning a significant amount of new information in each class they take at school, and all of that data must be processed by the cells of the brain.

Since the body and the brain have so much work to do, it’s not surprising that teens need a significant amount of sleep.

In fact, the National Sleep Foundation suggests that teens need an average of about 9 hours of sleep each and every night.

However, the NSF also suggests that few teens are getting the sleep they need, as only 15 percent can claim that they get 8.5 hours of sleep on school nights.

A typical teen tries to catch up on sleep on the weekend, crashing for hours and hours and missing out on family activities in the process. It can seem lazy, but these teens are also suffering with an intensive sleep debt that can leave them feeling cranky and irritable much of the time. They’re tired, and they can’t figure out how to sleep easily when they need to do so.

Common Causes

In some cases, this sleep debt is caused by normal growth processes. Research profiled by PBS suggests that the growth taking place inside the brain tends to shift the action of a teen’s sleep/wake cycle. Instead of feeling sleepy at 9 pm, when a traditional family is heading to bed, teens feel invigorated and awake, ready to take on a new challenge or a new task. These teens tend to feel ready for sleep much later, nodding off at 11 pm or even later. That’s when they feel tired, but when the alarm rings at 6 am, these teens haven’t even approached the amount of sleep they need.

These biologic problems can be compounded by a typical lifestyle of a frenetic teen. During the late hours of the night, these teens might find it easy to connect with their peers via:

  • Email
  • Cellphones
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Each little note they read or send provides them with a ping of adrenaline, and that can also keep them awake long into the night. Some teen boys even play stimulating virtual games late at night, taking in new information and feeling a tingle of stress with each point they score. These teens might also find it impossible to sleep, simply because they’re flooding their brains with signals associated with alertness.

Teens who have complicated lives can also find it difficult to sleep. For example, a study in the journal Pediatrician found that teens who worked more than 20 hours per week tended to go to bed later than their unemployed counterparts, and these working teens also felt sleepier throughout the day. Teens like this are juggling multiple demands at the same time, trying to keep up with homework and studies while keeping an employer and the family happy. Sleep might be the thing that’s sacrificed in a whirlwind life like this.

Underlying Problems

While teens might struggle with sleep due to all sorts of common and understandable triggers that their peers might share, there are some teens who have specific and individual issues that impact their ability to sleep. Often, these issues involve mental illness.

Teens who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, find it difficult to control their urge to move.

Their thoughts tend to fly by, and they struggle to keep from acting on an impulse. When the sun sets, these problems don’t just disappear. Teens like this might still struggle to calm their minds, and they might not be able to turn off their thoughts. In a study of the issue, published in 2009, researchers found that having a childhood diagnosis of ADHD was associated with sleep disorders. The quality of sleep for people like this is impaired, and their mental health issues are to blame.

Other mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression, have also been associated with sleep difficulties in teens. In fact, the link is so strong that some physicians routinely look for underlying mental illnesses in young people who struggle with difficult sleep that can’t be explained via biology and lifestyle.

Serious Difficulties

While all teens might find it hard to drift into dreamland, teens who have serious sleep disorders have specific symptoms that go above and beyond basic daytime sleepiness.

Common sleep disorders that impact teens include:

  • Restless leg syndrome. Teens with this condition feel a tickling or tingling in their legs that can only be relieved with movement.
  • Nightmares. Terrifying and violent visions in which the teen is in peril or under threat can strike at any time during the night, and the memories might keep teens awake for hours.
  • Sleepwalking. Teens with this condition might walk, talk, cook or even drive while asleep, and they might awaken exhausted due to the work they did while asleep.
  • Sleep apnea. Snoring, and awakening due to a lack of oxygen, can interrupt sleep to such a degree that teens feel chronically exhausted.
  • Insomnia. Regardless of how tired the teen might be, sleep might never come.

The National Association of School Psychologists suggests that about 30 percent of teens have some kind of sleep disorder at some point. These teens might really find it hard to get the rest they need, and even thinking about sleep can fill them with dread. In time, they may become convinced that they’ll simply never be able to sleep normally, and they might become desperate for another solution.

Sleep and Drugs

For desperate teens, substances of abuse seem like an ideal solution. Alcohol, for example, can slow down breathing rates and allow clenched muscles to smooth and unkink. A few sips of alcohol might seem like a wonderful way to soothe a restless child into sleep, and teens who do this might tell themselves that they’re only having a nightcap for sleep, just as an adult might.

On the flip side, some substances of abuse can awaken sleepy brain cells and allow an exhausted teen to feel awake and aware, even if very little rest took place in the evening prior. Teens might lean on cocaine, Ritalin or some other stimulant in order to help them stay awake during the daytime, and they might even be praised by adults for their improved behavior, as they might suddenly be able to participate in a way that seemed unlikely before the drug use began.

Drugs of abuse can also, unfortunately, make sleep problems even worse. Alcohol, for example, can reduce the quality of sleep, causing people to wake up multiple times throughout the night. Drunken teens may be able to fall asleep, but the time they spend in bed isn’t restful, and they may awaken in the morning feeling yet more tired. Alcohol can also relax the muscles of the throat, making snoring all the more loud and likely. Ritalin and cocaine can also stay active in the body for long periods of time, meaning impaired teens might still be under the influence when they try to go to bed. These teens might need yet more drugs in the morning, since they didn’t sleep at all the night prior.

Common Treatments

An adult dealing with these situations might head to the doctor immediately, and in that visit, the adult might be provided with powerful medications that could ensure a deep sleep that persists. Sometimes, this little boost of medication is all that’s needed to adjust an adult’s habits and make long-term sleep a little easier to accomplish. For teens with sleep troubles, on the other hand, help doesn’t usually begin with a trip to the pharmacy. Since teen sleep disorders can stem from so many different sources, experts often begin with a form of training that aims to help teens learn how to prepare for sleep.

In an article in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, experts outline a program like this.

Here, teens were given access to therapies that helped them to:

  • Spend time in bright light in the morning, and dim light in the evening.
  • Reduce stress through mindfulness techniques.
  • Make the bedroom an attractive place to sleep.
  • Calm their minds before sleep by reducing stimuli.

These steps can sound so basic and so rudimentary that the therapy can seem a little silly. Here, however, researchers found that teens who had this kind of therapy improved the quality of their sleep, and these teens also reduced the amount of drugs they took in the 12 months that followed the therapy. Just learning how to sleep through the night could be enough to help some teens.

In specific cases, however, a little more work must be done before the teen can find relief. Teens who have serious mental illnesses like anxiety and ADHD, for example, need more than a few courses on sleep hygiene. Similarly, teens with advanced cases of addiction might not be able to stop their drug use, even when they’re sleeping well, due to the chemical changes that have taken place as the addiction has progressed. Teens like this need advanced therapy programs, but sleep hygiene courses might play an important role in the treatment these teens obtain.

Reaching Out to Help

for parentsIf asked, teens with sleep troubles might readily admit that they’re not getting the rest they need. For example, in a study in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that 26.2 percent of those teens surveyed said they weren’t satisfied with their sleep, and 18.8 percent claimed they had poor sleep quality. Teens like this know that they need a little more rest, and they might thankfully accept any kind of help that could allow them to get better.

Teens who are using drugs to help them sleep or stay awake, on the other hand, might not be open to discussions of sobriety. These teens might feel as though they’re using the one technique that allows them to get through the day, and the idea of leaving those solutions behind might seem ridiculous or even crazy. These teens might best be approached gently, by parents who are armed with knowledge about how addictions work and how they are treated. The hysteria that surrounds the original approach won’t be so distressing, when parents know that’s part of the thought process of an addict, and they’ll know just what to say in order to get a child into a program that can help.

If you’re ready to talk to your son about a drug abuse and insomnia problem, let us help you put the finishing touches on your plan. Our parent information package includes details about our treatment program at Muir Wood, and we even provide details about some kinds of therapy your son might find intriguing. Telling him about our equine-assisted therapy program or our therapeutic hiking trips might help him to understand that he’s going to a place he might enjoy, and a place in which he might heal. We can also walk you through the enrollment process over the phone, so you’ll be in a good position to bring your son to us when your talk is through. Please download our packet or call us right now to get started.