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Insomnia in Teens

Tossing and turning at night can seem harmless enough, but the inability to fall and stay asleep is a legitimate problem that causes people to take drastic measures — often involving dangerous habits with drugs or alcohol.

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7 min read

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder (i.e. chronic sleeplessness or “sleep deprivation”) that affects 60 million people in the U.S. alone, both young and old alike. It’s believed that 1 in 3 people suffer from at least occasional or mild insomnia. Whether it happens once a month or every other night, it can be a debilitating issue that drains people of energy and sends them to work or school feeling tired and tense.

Insomnia in teens can result in a number of undesirable side effects, including experimenting with drugs as a way to cope. Insomnia is increasingly common among young people, and it’s nearly as common as anxiety disorders or substance abuse, with 11% of teens meeting the criteria for insomnia.

Insomnia — whether it’s transient (i.e. a few days long), short-term (i.e. no more than 3 weeks) or chronic (i.e. at least 3 nights a week for 1 month or longer) — can have a myriad of causes. If your teen develops insomnia, it will be diagnosed as either primary or secondary:

  • Primary Insomnia – An isolated inability to sleep, not related to any other health problems
  • Secondary Insomnia – Sleep interference caused by other health conditions (also called “comorbid insomnia”)

What Causes Insomnia?

Periodic bouts of insomnia are sometimes natural responses to stress or overactive thoughts. Life events such as job loss, troubled relationships or important exams in school can prevent young people from being able to “turn off,” leading to one or several nights of sleep difficulty. For teens with severe insomnia, though, more serious issues may be involved — including substance abuse or co-occurring disorders that disrupt their thought patterns and energy levels.

Bedtime use of technology, such as smartphones, is making sleep an increasingly elusive thing for today’s young people. According to a 2015 study, 62% of kids in the U.S. report using their smartphone after bedtime, and 21% say they wake up if and when they receive a text message. Among kids who use their phone late at night, nearly 66% say it negatively affected their sleep.

Other causes of teen insomnia may include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Illness or injury
  • Hormonal changes
  • Death in the family
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Addiction withdrawal

Drugs and Insomnia

girl cant sleep

Certain drugs can directly interfere with sleep. For instance, if your teen is using cocaine, amphetamines or certain prescription pills, it can cause their heart and mind to race, keeping them awake for days on end. This is also true for caffeine, which teens can buy in just about any convenience store or restaurant.

In countless other cases, teens may turn to drugs or alcohol in order to cope with their insomnia. They may even do so in correlation with other drug habits. In any event, most teens don’t realize until it’s too late that these new habits will only add to their list of problems, rather than be a solution.

Alcohol

Alcohol and insomnia often go hand in hand. Alcohol is a depressant, and can lower both breathing and heart rate when consumed. Many insomniacs become dependent on alcohol to sleep, perhaps even drinking so much that they “black out” and risk alcohol poisoning or coma. Those who drink for other reasons can wind up developing insomnia as a result. In general, 25–72% of individuals with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) report sleep problems.

Marijuana

Marijuana is another popular so-called “sleep aid,” and teens struggling to sleep may abuse the drug for its relaxing qualities. Before long, they may become dependent on the drug and begin to see its multitude of side effects, including a withdrawal that can keep them awake and craving another fix.

Prescription Pills

Sleeping pills, such as Ambien, are prescribed to millions of patients for inconsistent or unrestful sleep. These tranquilizing drugs are extremely effective in bringing about sleep. Unfortunately, they’re also notorious for causing addiction and occasional severe side effects.

There are a number of sleep medications that your teen might be able to score from classmates or drug dealers. Taken irresponsibly and without a doctor’s advice, prescription pill abuse can be just as dangerous as using illicit drugs. Even with a prescription, tens of thousands of patients develop a dependency that can take control of their life. Combining sleeping pills with alcohol or other drugs can legitimately endanger their life.

Insomnia and Other Mental Disorders

The number of adolescents living with mental health problems is staggering — more than 21% of kids in the U.S. aged 9–17 have a diagnosable mental disorder. Mental illnesses in teens include commonly misunderstood emotional issues like depressive disorder and anxiety disorder, along with extreme maladies such as schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. These illnesses cause a patient’s mind to suffer through unpredictable and volatile thoughts while preventing them from enjoying life and succeeding in school and social settings. On top of this, it can leave their minds on overdrive when they attempt to sleep, with some disorders even causing frequent nightmares and other disturbances.

Most teen mental disorders go untreated, as the symptoms can blend in with normal growing pains and teens are likely to suppress negative feelings rather than ask for help. Not only can these problems hurt their performance in school and keep them up at night, but the longer they go untreated the more serious the consequences can become.

Around half of teens who develop a serious addiction have a mental health disorder — many of these kids will miss out on the opportunity for college, and some even resort to criminal behavior before too long. As a parent, it’s vital to spot possible signs of co-occurring disorders in the earliest stages.

Signs of Insomnia

Sleep disorders in teens can cause different experiences from night to night. Some nights, they may wake up after a few hours and then be unable to fall back asleep. Other nights, they may be entirely unable to fall sleep. It’s important to keep an eye on your child’s daily behavior and mood, investigating any worrisome signs that pop up.

Symptoms of insomnia can include:

  • Sleeping for only short periods
  • Being awake for much of the night
  • Lying awake for a long time before falling asleep
  • Feeling unrefreshed, as if they haven’t slept at all
  • Waking up too early
  • Falling asleep during the day
  • Appearing lethargic or exhausted
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Antisocial or introverted behavior

You may notice these signs grow increasingly severe, or you may notice them pop up and go away every so often. Make sure you approach your son or daughter and find out what’s wrong. Ask them to describe their sleep difficulties, and let them know that help is available if they need it.

Effects of Insomnia

sleepless teen

Prolonged insomnia can have noticeable and potentially disastrous effects in both the short term and long term:

  • Lower productivity
  • Missing or failing class
  • Getting fired from work
  • Increased risk of car accidents
  • Irritability
  • Poorer relationships
  • Inability to concentrate or process information
  • Substance abuse

Losing out on sleep can also increase hormones and brain activity associated with mood disorders and other mental health problems. Chronic insomnia is associated with greater risk of pain, depression, anxiety, diabetes and hypertension. Teens who develop severe depression or other emotional disturbances may be at risk for self-harm, suicide or violent behavior. Once drugs or alcohol enter the picture, their emotional instability is even more of a danger to themselves and others.

Treating Insomnia

While your teen’s doctor may be quick to prescribe them potent (and potentially dangerous) sleep medications, research shows that elements of professional treatment — particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — can be more effective and immensely safer ways to treat insomnia. Based on various studies, insomniacs who undergo CBT can fall asleep 20 minutes faster, be awake at night for 30 minutes less and have longer and more durable improvements to their sleep compared to patients who take prescription sleep aids.

Adding sleep aids, in many of these cases, did not improve the treatment. In fact, it even impeded treatment in some cases. Insomnia drugs to be aware of include:

  • Zolpidem (Ambien)
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • Temazepam (Restoril)
  • Doxepin (Silenor)
  • Ramelteon (Rozerem)
  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Zaleplon (Sonata)
  • Estazolam

Does My Teenager Need Treatment?

Rehab is especially recommended if your son or daughter is struggling with secondary insomnia, and has underlying health concerns that need to be addressed. If they show signs of addiction or possible emotional or mental illnesses, reach out to treatment professionals and schedule a meeting to have them diagnosed.

With the help of a treatment staff, your teen can safely detox from any substance problem, and be guided through any additional aspects of their recovery plan. If they do have a substance use disorder in addition to their insomnia, it will require an integrated treatment approach and an added degree of familial support to help them overcome the problem. Speak to one of our recovery advisors to find out what options are available for your child and for your family.

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