Teenage insomnia has two main primary causes: the first is changes in the biological clock (along with a lot of other new physiologic developments) that affects the sleep/wake cycle… and the other is emotional stress.
Once teenage insomnia gets established, many secondary causes come up, just like with adults — they may become dependent on caffeine to wake them up, their sleep schedule goes completely out of whack and sleep anxiety can kick in heavily. All of these, of course, just makes teenage insomnia worse than ever.
Teenage insomnia can be a cause for much concern in parents and the teenagers themselves. However, it can also improve quickly once you understand the causes and make the necessary changes and adjustments.
Sometimes teenage insomnia becomes severe, usually when the physical and emotional factors of insomnia are combined and increased. If natural treatments for insomnia don’t work and stress is building daily, medical treatment may be called for.
The Biological Clock Rebels
As kids grow into their teenage years, some unknown trigger causes them to want to go to bed very late and wake up very late, maybe around noon.
There has been speculation about what causes this change in the biorhythms… it could have something to do with the increased activity of the pituitary and hypothalamus glands, which lie very close to the biological clock, otherwise known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus. (You can read more about the SCN in this article on circadian rhythm disorders.)
It could also be the effect of hormonal changes or imbalances. No one really knows for sure what causes this type of change in sleep patterns in adolescents. All we know is that it is quite common.
Remember that energetic child who used to run into your bedroom and pretend your bed (and possibly some of your limbs) were a trampoline? Where did he or she go? Parents can grow quite alarmed when their formally early-rising child suddenly turns into a grumpy night-owl who never wants to go to bed and is nearly impossible to arouse in the morning.
Of course teenage schedules and teenage biorhythms don’t match up too well. School starts at 8:00 or 8:30, but the teenager’s body rhythms would prefer 11:00 to 11:30. And added to this is the reality that teenagers still need a lot of sleep, about 9 hours for optimal health, growth, mood and functioning. This means that they can’t go to bed late and get up early even if their circadian rhythms cooperated — they are simply too tired.
Since insomnia is defined as the inability to get to sleep and stay asleep, a simple late sleeper does not really have teenage insomnia in the fullest sense — they can generally sleep fine and put in a full 8-9 hours if allowed to do so. Usually, that schedule is just not acceptable in the real world, so it turns into real insomnia — because of the “inability to get to sleep” becomes much more of a problem when you have to get up at 7:00 instead of 10:00.
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
When this fairly normal adolescent sleeping pattern gets a lot worse, it acquires a new name — delayed sleep phase syndrome or DSPS. This is actually considered a sleep disorder rather than a true case of insomnia, because again, the teenager has retained the ability to sleep soundly for long periods of time, but the timing of the sleep gets pushed later and later.
Adults can also have DSPS, but it is far more common in adolescents. It is only when teenagers (and adults) with DSPS try to force themselves to adapt to the typical 9 to 5 schedule that true insomnia develops.
Adults with this sleep disorder are in a better position to deal with it, because they have more control over their schedules — they can work nights and sleep till noon, and can become self-employed or freelancers and follow their own path.
If teenage insomnia has been diagnosed as DSPS, it may need the help of a sleep doctor or sleep center to try to adjust to the normal 24-hour cycle. However, sometimes it just clears up on its own.
It is best not to get too stressed out over DSPS or the milder, more normal version of delayed sleep patterns, as that simply makes it harder to fall asleep. The best remedy, after trying all the techniques in the insomnia self help tutorial is patience. Make as many adjustments as possible to allow the teen to get the sleep they need. But understandthat most likely this is a temporary thing and will get better. It is best to avoid sleeping medications if possible at this age.
I will discuss the other primary causes of teenage insomnia, emotional distress and sleep hygiene issues, in the next article.