How to Understand the Teenager in Your Life

Elizabeth Saenger, PhD

Teenagers may appear to be an alien species when it comes to wild activities, social media, and a tendency to go back to sleep when you want them to get up for school.

However, the instinct to press Snooze is actually part of being an adolescent. It is as natural as the hormones that deepen your son’s voice, or give your daughter curves.

That is because we are creatures of our inner clock. Our desires about when to go to sleep, or get up, are influenced by the workings of the suprachiasmatic nuclei in our hypothalamus, which form the body’s dominant inner clock, ticking differently depending on age.

While every individual has a characteristic chronotype, with preferred times to sleep, wake, work and eat, chronotype shifts latest during adolescence. That’s why you may be ready for lights out by eleven, while your teenager doesn’t even think of going to bed until after midnight.

Other factors contribute to the teenage shift in the inner clock:

  • Children begin to release much less melatonin when they hit puberty, and the melatonin they do release enters the bloodstream later in the evening. This timing pushes back a realistic bedtime.
  • Sleep pressure builds more slowly in teenagers during the day. Sleep pressure is the interest in sleeping, possibly due to the buildup of adenosine, which regulates diverse neurons.  This process begins as soon as you wake up, and continues throughout the day.
  • Teenagers are more sensitive to evening light, which encourages them to stay awake. At the same time, they are less sensitive to morning light, which pushes the inner clock’s signal for bedtime earlier. The combination is a double whammy.

All this suggests the schedule for students attending high school is not optimal, since they are forced to go to morning classes during their biological night.

Avoid Groggy Teen Syndrome

How can you help your teen with a mismatched schedule? Letting teens sleep until noon on the weekend is not the answer. Lost sleep cannot really be made up, and worse still, rising at noon will only push back the time your teen feels ready for bed from “late” to “even later.”

Fortunately, chronotherapy offers a solution. Your teen can:

  • try to go to bed fifteen minutes earlier tonight, and then repeat this adjustment tomorrow, and the next night, and the next, until an ideal bed-time has been reached.
  • get some sunshine or bright indoor light upon waking. When light hits the cells at the bottom of the retina, they send a message to the inner clock to say it’s day. This reinforces the teen’s circadian rhythms.

More on Chronotypes

Chronotypes drift over the lifespan, but each individual has a different typical chronotype. Is this inherited? How can you find out what your chronotype is? Why would you want to know? Find out more at Chronotypes: Owls, Larks, Hummingbirds, and More…