For teens' mental health, time to have "the sleep talk ": CQU pediatric sleep expert

15 November 2022

Shifting hormones' increasing independence and harmful pandemic sleep habits are proving the perfect storm for risk of poor mental health in Australian adolescents' but parents can start helping their kids by having "the sleep talk".

CQUniversity clinical psychologist and sleep researcher Professor Sarah Blunden says because sleep is vital to mental health' improving sleep can make a huge difference for our stressed out and sleep-deprived teens.

Adolescents are Australia's age group most likely to experience mental health disorders (ABS 2021' National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing)' with nearly two in five 16–24-year-olds reporting symptoms across the 2020/21 year. At the same time' adolescents are also Australia's age group who are most likely to experience the worst sleep health.

Prof Blunden says these facts are absolutely related' and there are concerning signs that the pandemic has worsened mental health' as well as teen sleep habits.

"Adolescents need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night' but our research shows most are lucky to get seven hours' and a quarter get as little as six-and-a-half hours'" she said.

"What a lot of families don't realise' is that the physiological changes in teens' bodies because of delayed melatonin secretion' are changing their circadian rhythms.

"Teens often feel physically unable to fall asleep until midnight or even later' then are waking up for school sometimes severely under-slept.

"So no' it is not entirely that adolescent independence is kicking in when they say they not tired and don't want to go to sleep' but a genuine change in their physiological sleep patterns.

Prof Blunden says having the "sleep talk" with your teens is about understanding how to work around that' and keep sleep as healthy as possible' and therefore minimising the risk of increased anxiety and depression.

"Having a conversation with your teen about how lack of sleep might be impacting them' and options for changing schedules to maximise sleep' is an important step for better physical and mental health."

Prof Blunden' who leads pediatric sleep research for CQUniversity's Appleton Institute' recently presented a course on sleep and mental health in adolescents at the International Pediatric Sleep Association congress' with practitioners flocking to hear her insights.

The course looked at increasing rates of depression and suicide' the role of social media on mental health and sleep and how the pandemic and general lifestyle can make all of these things harder to control.

"Our teens can understand the connection between sleep and health' school work' mood – and it's very important that parents open that discussion positively' and keep it in a 'good health' conversation'" she said.

"Parents can also make rules around teens' sleep' and their social media and screen exposure at night time' to help them adapt to their changing body clock.

"I know it can be difficult to separate a teenager from their phone' but there needs to be a discussion with teenagers not at teenagers."

She also recommends supporting teens to take "power naps" during the day' rather than having big sleep-ins on weekends and losing sleep routine for the week. Sleeping on the weekend can make sleep worse in the long run!

"Adolescents who don't get enough sleep are more likely to exhibit risk-taking behaviours' moodiness' aggression' depression' clumsiness and poor decision-making' and with flow-on effects in the classroom and for learning'" Prof Blunden said.

"All of those factors will also contribute to mental health challenges like depression and anxiety."

Prof Blunden's advice to parents relying on melatonin to help kids with bedtimes has recently made headlines' with her yet-to-be-published research revealing 70 per cent of Australian parents surveyed were using melatonin to help their children sleep.

Our natural melatonin is vital to our sleep habits' but what you're getting in a bottle is not natural' it's a chemical'" she said.

Interestingly teenagers sleep patterns get later because of changes to melatonin' and melatonin is also implicated in mood regulation.

But taking melatonin to get teenagers to sleep is avoiding the problem.

"Side effects of chemical melatonin include irritability' headaches' and behaviour changes' and it even been related to changes when children experience puberty."