Adolescent Sleep: Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

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For this podcast, focusing on adolescent sleep, we are joined by celebrated neuroscientist Dr. Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain and a speaker at a February 2022 live stream event, The enigma of adolescent sleep: misunderstood science and effective intervention.

Dean sets the scene by exploring whether there is a typical teenage sleep pattern and if so, how this compares to an adult sleep pattern.

Dean then provides insight into the impact that the stereotypes of teenagers as being lazy, staying up all night, and being a bit delinquent can have, as well as what aspects of the science around adolescent sleep are misunderstood.

Dean also explains how we should be supporting our adolescents who naturally might sleep at different times to us, and shares an insight into what societal and policy changes could be implemented to support adolescent sleep.

Dean talks to us about the impact of insufficient sleep on behaviour, ability to study, and on mental health; exploring the comorbidity with sleep problems and anxiety and depression, as well as whether the relationship between sleep problems and psychopathology is bidirectional.

Furthermore, Dean shares his advice to people with adolescent children who struggle with sleep, to those who work with children and young people, as well as to young people themselves. This includes tips for getting to sleep, and what point you should call for professional support to help a young person who’s struggling with their sleep.

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Dr. Dean Burnett
Dr. Dean Burnett

Dr. Dean Burnett is a celebrated neuroscientist and author. After completing his PhD in behavioural neuroscience at Cardiff Psychology School, he spent many years tutoring and lecturing for a postgraduate psychiatry programme. Alongside this, he was a prolific science writer and communicator. Following the successful publication of his debut book The Idiot Brain, Dean is now a full time author, and regularly writes about mental health and issues around it.


Jo Carlowe: Hello, welcome to the In Conversation podcast series for the Association for child and adolescent mental health or ACAMH for short. I’m Jo Carlowe a freelance journalist with a specialism in Psychology. Today I’m interviewing celebrated neuroscientist Dr. Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain and a speaker at a February 2022 live stream event, The enigma of adolescent sleep: misunderstood science and effective intervention. Adolescent sleep will also be the focus of today’s podcast.

If you’re a fan of our In Conversation series, please subscribe on your preferred streaming platform. Let us know how we did with the rating or review and do share with friends and colleagues. Hi, Dean. Thanks for joining me. Can you start with an introduction?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Yeah, I’m Dean Burnett, Dr. Dean Burnett, to give you the full title. Generally referred to as the neuroscientist and author. Well, I don’t actually do much in the way of neuroscience research these days, haven’t for a while. I’ve been a lecturer since 2012. And I’ve always wanted to talk about it rather than actually do it because I wasn’t especially good at that the second one. Yeah. So I’ve been many years a lecturer, I’m in a psychiatry programme in all aspects of mental health from a postgraduate level, like all aspects of fundamental science and the management diagnosis, treatment, and so on. But at the same time, started a sideline in writing about it and the blog for The Guardian which proved to be very popular. Got a book deal out of it, which proved to be more popular than anyone expected, and that’s pretty much what I do now. I write about stuff that goes on the brain for anyone who wants me to do that and talk to people like yourself about it as and when required.

Jo Carlowe: Thank you. We’re talking about adolescent sleep today. Is there a typical teenage sleep pattern, and if so, how does it compare to that of adults?

Dr. Dean Burnett: I think to say typical obviously, it’s one of those words I will use but with the caveat of tremendous individual variation, you will have lots of external things which will affect it, life events, exam schedules, these will throw the sleep. But typically, teenagers tend to not go to bed but become sleepy later. So a typical adult sleep cycle– so we start to feel tired around 10 o’clock, if you go by a basic UK day/night cycle thing. And before they become teenagers, child will sleep a lot more because they fall asleep earlier, get up later, because they are growing and they need more sleep. Whereas when you’re a teenager, your pattern can be shifted.

So whereas your typical adult might be tired by 10 o’clock, see that’s the parents, then a teenager will probably feel sleepy around midnight because their circadian rhythms get pushed out of whack for various reasons, which we’ll go into. But also, they tend to need more sleep because the fundamental issue with adolescent sleep, which will probably come up from the age of nine years old is that there’s more going on in fundamental biological sense adolescent brain because all the development that’s happening inside it than in an adult brain, which has done all that. And sleep is when our brain sort of does all the housework, maintenance, whatever you want to refer to it as, the basic self-care, and showing up all the mechanisms. And therefore, teenagers need more sleep, annoyingly to both them and anyone who is in charge of them, at different times. Teenagers have quite markedly different sleep demands, compared to the average adult.

Jo Carlowe: So when you hear parents say things like, to their teenage kids, if you’d only go to bed earlier, you’d be able to get up in the morning, as though it’s a matter of choice, are you saying it’s really not a matter of choice?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Yes. I mean, I get what the parents are saying. I mean, it makes logical sense to say, well, if you’re not going to sleep, then go to bed earlier. Because obviously, we have school when they’re teenagers. So you have to get up by a certain time. And if you go to bed earlier, you’ll get more sleep. I mean, it makes, on the surface, it makes perfect sense. Yes. But, again, that’s not how a teenage sleep cycle works.

So, you can tell a teenager to go to bed at 8 o’clock. And even if they’re completely obedient, which again, is rare, they will go into it. They could just lie in their bed. And they will just be staring at the ceiling for like four hours. Because you can go to bed. But that’s not the same as going to sleep. If you’re not tired enough, you haven’t got the fatigue, if the melatonin is not flowing through your system, you won’t be sleepy. You won’t be able to sleep. It’s not something you just turn on and off. I know some parents can. They’re just constantly tired. But, a teenager is not like that. So, yes, it is a misunderstanding. It’s easy to say, go to bed earlier. But you can’t make them go to sleep earlier. And that’s where I think the problem lies. Because then you’re just telling the teenager, go to your room and lie down in the dark for an extra four hours, achieving nothing. And so, that’s not a tantalising prospect for your average adolescent.

Jo Carlowe: No, not at all. I’m also wondering what sort of stereotypes, these stereotypes of teenagers as being lazy, staying up all night, being a bit delinquent. I mean, what’s that– what’s the impact?

Dr. Dean Burnett: A lot that will have stemmed from the things that are happening in your teenage brain in that it’s all to do with maturation. It’s not about making the brain different. It’s making it more efficient, in a sense. Because when you’re a child, you’re absorbing so much. You– everything you’re experiencing new, new connections are forming in your brain. Because you’re a small child. The fundamental systems say, that’s a new thing. And that’s new information. I might need that. I’ll save that. I’ll save that. I’ll save that. The things kids can young children can pick up so much stuff, mind boggling, sometimes, the stuff they can just retain and regurgitate later.

My son watches a lot of YouTube videos. And I get them explained to me in exquisite detail far more often than I would like, which is very nice. He’s nine. But then, when you– your childhood is that your brain is doing that. When you hit age 12, 13, it means essentially, your brain is actually quite clogged. And there’s all these connections, which are how the brain stores information, forming new neurological connections, new synapses. Most of those are useful. But they are taken up space and resources in the brain. And they are interfering, are causing more connections, more traffic, more activity, which we don’t need. When you’re a child, you pick up all the stuff. But do you need to be able to remember in precise detail the shopping trip on a wet Saturday afternoon in February? You don’t. It was boring. You learned nothing from it. You just sat in a trolley like you do hundreds of other times. It’s useless information.

So when we are– we hit adolescence, that’s what’s happening. Your brain fundamental systems are going through, right, don’t need this. Don’t need that. Just keep the stuff which is regularly used or it has significant emotional perspective. And get rid of the rest. And that’s what your brain is doing. But it means different parts of the brain mature at different rates. Because the more fundamental parts are far more straightforward, simple, in the neurological sense. Whereas more higher function stuff like thoughts and reason are really complex, recently evolved things.

So, the fundamental parts of your brain, when you’re a teenager, become mature, more efficient, more powerful, before the parts of your brain, which are meant to control and regulate those. They still work. But they’re not as good at it. Hence, teenagers can be more prone to their emotions. They feel them more strongly. Because the part of the brain which takes the edge off isn’t up to speed yet. And they can– all this change going on inside them will– that’s a big part of why the sleep cycle gets thrown off, because all this different stuff is happening. And you spend more time during the day building up this and letting that happen. And then you sort of need some time to unwind. So you end up falling asleep later and later. But also, the part of your brain which responds to novelty and pleasure, that’s been matured. So all the childhood stuff, which teenagers normally like is– that doesn’t have the same impact anymore, because their brains change. They need to find new stimulation. So, novel things, like high-risk things, they go out looking for new experiences. And a lot of these go against what the parents want.

So parents go from being guardians, protectors, sources of safety, to being like wardens or people are barriers, which is preventing us from doing what they want to do. Because one other part of the fundamental brain changes mean we crave more independence as a teenager. We want more autonomy, control, something our brains feel like, because of the way our society works. You can’t have it. Because you’re still little. You’re 13. You’re not allowed to go out and explore the next thing and so on. So there’s lots of reasons for all these different classical teenage behaviours, I guess.

Jo Carlowe: Are you saying, though, that these brain changes, this sort of pruning some parts and expansion of others, is that happening later at night?

Dr. Dean Burnett: It’s a big part of it. Hormones will be a big part of it, too. Because it’s all one very convoluted system. And obviously, teenagers have a lot of hormones flowing through their body, particularly with sexual and physical development. And the sleep cycle, circadian rhythms, is governed in large part by hormones.

By melatonin, primarily, because that’s the stuff you can get in the shops and things, but other things, too. And it’s a strangely delicate system, because it has to be. Because sometimes you have to change sleep cycle. You go on an airplane, fly to a different country which has– where it’s midday when you think it’s 8 o’clock, then you need to adjust your sleep cycle. Or if an emergency happens, you need be able to wake up, and wake up quickly. So it’s– in an elementary sense, it makes sense that our sleep isn’t sort of rigid and firmly set. Because that was bad.

All this is happening during the waking hours for a teenager. All their brain’s going and experiencing all this stuff, as well as operating as a normal brain. And it’s sort of like the process in our brain, which cleared away all the cellular debris from neurological processes. These sort of shunt things away and clear out the system. Because otherwise, all this cellular waste clogs up the mechanisms. But when your brain’s still working out as a brain, as while you’re awake, it’s harder to do that. It’s like trying to repave a road while cards are still using it.

So it’s night time, when we’re asleep, when we aren’t perceiving the outside world and try to think of things, that’s when the real bulk of the maintenance can be done. So, it’s happening to us anyway. But when they sleep, that’s when all right, we’ve got loads to do now. So things are shut down. Let’s get all this done while we can. And because teenagers had– their brains are changing as well as existing, doing brain things, they need more time to do all– clean up all this mess, to shore up all the new connections, to get rid of the resources freed up by getting rid of the old ones. And hence they would, logically, need more sleep, but also at different times, because there’s so much confusion going on.

Jo Carlowe: That’s really helpful. That makes great sense. Dean, what aspects of the science around adolescent sleep are misunderstood?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Might not be the science necessarily, but the way sleep is understood by adults in general. And, we were all teenagers. It’s just logically how it works. But even then, you have sort of a rose-tinted view of your own youth compared to what teenagers probably going through now. At the time, you might have been quite an unhappy teenager or sort of frustrated by so many things. But you look back and think, oh, I was young. I was carefree. Our brain does that. It’s called the fading affect bias. Negative memories tend to fade faster than positive ones. So, over a long enough time, we are just left with nothing but positive memories of long ago in our past. Whereas, we should have a lot more sort of negative things offset that.

But, I think a lot of adults misunderstand that the whole thing about teenagers needing more sleep. I don’t think that’s really appreciated enough in that, you see so many parents like, oh, they’re in bed all the time. They’re so lazy. Yeah. It’s the conflation of needing more sleep with laziness. And I think in one of the books I’ve written, I mentioned that a lot of parents of teens seem to see teenagers sleeping as equivalent to eating.

You only need this much food. If you eat more and more, that’s gluttonous. That’s greedy. It’s unhealthy to eat more and more than you need. So they try to stop them doing it. If you don’t– you need to wake up because you’re missing the best part of the day. You need to wake up. You can do stuff. It’s healthier. It’s unhealthy to sleep for so long. But it’s actually more like breathing. It’s more like oxygen. And teenagers are doing a lot more work. So telling teenagers to get out of bed because they’ve been lazy it’s like telling someone who’s just run a marathon, stop breathing so much. You don’t need that much oxygen. That’s just gluttonous. It’s not. They– their bodies– they just– they’re doing things which require a lot more breath, a lot more intake of oxygen. And it’s not greedy to want that, for your body to just demand that. And that’s where I think the main misunderstanding comes from.

The sleep is so much more essential to our good functioning than I think most people appreciate. I think because it’s seen as inactivity. Your body is at rest. It’s not doing anything. People think, oh, it’s just– it’s low energy. It’s just– it’s a neutral state. Maybe physically, but neurologically, it’s actually a far more active process. There’s a lot going on, the sleeping brain. Some people have done scans and studies and found that the sleeping brain there’s barely any less active than a conscious brain. It’s just doing different things. It’s like behind the scenes, the shop fronts closed. But everyone’s ones in the back stocking things up. I think people don’t quite grasp that. They think sleep is low energy laziness or an indulgence, which is not the case for adolescents.

Jo Carlowe: Given all this, then, how should we be supporting our adolescents who naturally might sleep at different times to us?

Dr. Dean Burnett: I think just a general sort of being aware of that and taking into account when interacting with the teenage offspring that you have for them. Because there are so many cliches about teenagers– like, they are grumpy, moody, irritable, and uncoordinated, forgetful, lazy, sloppy, all these things. But all those usually quite good indicators of insufficient sleep. That’s what someone is like when they don’t have the required amount of sleep to keep their brain and body in top physical condition. So, just being aware that teenagers actually do need more sleep, they’re not being self-indulgent. But obviously, when– as is often the case, when you’re a parent dealing with a teenager, there’s a lot of friction. There’s a lot of hostility both ways. It’s a fundamental part of development. You are sort of reassessing, re-evaluating your parent-child relationship. It’s challenging. It can be perceived by a lot of parents, I think, as teenagers staying in bed as a sign of defiance, a sign of rebellion, rejection, or just being actively antagonistic towards you by not getting involved with family. But that’s– I mean, there might be some of that involved. But at a fundamental level, they do genuinely need that sleep.

And there’ve been some studies in the States where they actually– I think it was teenagers’ classes in school, they were started at 10:00 AM, not 9:00 AM in order to allow the teenage students more time sleeping. By and large, the results were really encouraging. The grades went up, behavioural problems went down. Everyone just– it’s become a nicer place, because the teenage students weren’t constantly battling against levels of sleep deprivation that they otherwise would, which makes you grumpy and angry and hard to focus and uncoordinated. There’s limited amounts that adults can do. And that– you can say teenagers need sleep all they want. But they’ve also got to go to school. It’s the law if they’re 14-15.

Jo Carlowe: Absolutely. And I was going to ask you whether you thought there should be some societal or policy changes.

Dr. Dean Burnett: Sixth form colleges especially, which are set up specifically for teenagers, if they could perhaps have a different schedule. What’s stopping them from starting at 10:00 AM, 10:30, 11: 00 even, if they want do only do afternoon classes? Because when I did A levels, it wasn’t like a 9:00 to 5:00 or 9:00 until 3:00 where school lessons is. It was like four lessons a day. And that was fine. And yeah, I think sort of just being– implementing that officially, making that an actual political stance would be helpful, I think, so when you hit 13-14, your school day starts later. I mean it would– based on the evidence we’ve seen so far, it would be helpful. It would stop a lot of poor exam results or behavioural issues, because you’re acknowledging the needs of an adolescent brain. I mean, we have things in place for them. You can’t drink or anything. And they can’t do– telling teens what they can’t do. There’s a lot of laws about keeping them in line, keeping them in check. Whereas, changing the law to accommodate them in some way might actually be a very helpful step forward.

Jo Carlowe: I mean, you’ve talked about the impact of insufficient sleep on behaviour and ability to study. What about the impact on mental health? I know some studies suggest a comorbidity with sleep problems, with anxiety, depression. So what’s the impact on young people?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Yeah there’s lots of different ways you can– they say sleep is such an important thing. But it also has many and varied purposes, many better functions. It helps us clear away cellular debris. It helps us shore up the connections of the brain. It helps us connect memories to existing memories and so on, and so on. There’s a lot going on when we’re asleep. And it has a lot of purposes in terms of why it’s so evolutionary important. So many species do sleep. When you think, would that be helpful? I mean, even things like dolphins and migratory birds, they sleep half a brain at a time, because they have to keep going. They can’t stop because they’ll fall into the sea or they’ll drown. It’s not safe for them to sleep properly. But they still need sleep. It’s so fundamentally important.

But I think the mental health side of it, that’s a really big part of it. Adolescence is a particularly precarious time for mental health, anyway, because of all these changes going on in the brain, because you are so much more exposed to powerful, often negative emotions. Because there are a lot of stressors in the teenager’s life. And it’s very common for adults to say oh, you haven’t anything to be stressed about. You haven’t got a mortgage. You haven’t got a job. I mean, objectively, that’s fair. But being a teenager, you’ve never had anything like that. This is still the most stressful time in your life.
You’re told by adults everywhere you have to do these exams or you never have a career. That’s a lot to take on. And you’re dealing with all these physical changes going on. Your own body is starting to rebel against you. And it’s really quite upsetting. It’s really weird. And no one can help you through it. It just– you’ve got to endure. You’re getting bigger. You have growing pains can happen, as well. You’ve got all this stuff. And you suddenly become aware of sexual drives and needs, but at a time when you’re actually more physically uncoordinated. And you’ve got acne and things. So it’s a very cruel trick of evolution to make you more interested in romance and sexuality than ever at the time when you’re at least– least set up to do something about it.

Subjectively, they have no concept of– well, they’re aware of, they never had to do anything more important. But still, it’s very stressful. And because the brain is in so much a state of flux, the brain’s ability to handle it is compromised, as well. It’s lesser. So, young teenagers tend to be more prone to anxiety because the powerful emotional systems which cause fear sort of come online. But their brains haven’t worked out how to deal with that yet. And towards the later part of adolescence, depression seems to be more of an issue, because the brain’s learned how to deal with these serious fears, like of talking to a girl. If you’re a teenager like myself, I was. Or when you’re dealing with these feelings, processing them, being able to put them into some sort of context, is kind of debilitating for the brain. And because the teenage brain has so much going on in it, it has fewer resources to keep mental health good and strong and healthy. And that can be compounded by lack of sleep. Lack of sleep, insufficient sleep, it just takes more from the brain. And when it already has less to give, that can have some severe impacts. And like I say, depression is linked to lack of sleep, or lack of good REM sleep. Because it seems like the brain is sort of fixed in place and can’t get out of this rut. And sleep helps it do that. So it could be a cause. Could be an effect. It’s hard to say. But yes, sleep a mental health very heavily intertwined.

Jo Carlowe: Is the relationship between sleep problems and psychopathology bidirectional? So in other words, does poor sleep increase a young person’s risk of mental health difficulties? Or do mental health issues cause poor sleep?

Dr. Dean Burnett: It can be both, yeah. That’s a very good point. Because, I said, sleep is– has so many different roles. So if you’re not getting enough sleep, then your brain has less chance to streamline these new connections and keep your emotion system in check and dealing with all the build-up of chaos and things like that. So yeah, it becomes so a self-sustaining system whereby don’t get enough sleep, your brain hasn’t got as much ability to deal with the stresses of adolescent life. So it builds up again, then you’ve still can’t enough sleep. There’s a feedback loop going on there.

But also, it can be that way around in that if you have an anxiety issue, where you can’t stop thinking about something which is– scares you or you’re nervous about, this sort of thing will prevent you from becoming sleepy. Because stimulation is a big part of why sleep gets delayed. And when– if you’re an adult, if you’re doing a very long drive, and say, you have to set off at like 11:00 at night, and you weren’t back until 3:00 in the morning, you can do that. Whereas normally you’d be asleep by now, but you can just like keep your coffee wraps or some Red Bull or whatever you’ve got. But you can focus and keep at it until what do you need to do is done and catch up later. Whereas the adolescent brain is more keen on finding things that stimulate it and excite it and things like that. And that will push back sleep later and later. But if you’ve got an anxiety issue, it’s quite common in early teens, like I said, and that’s– your brain is constantly fixated on that thing. I’m going to meet this person. I’m going to do this exam. I can’t sleep. I’m too stressed. And it’ll become– again, then the mental health issue will have an effect on sleep and reduce low end sleep, which then makes the problem worse. Because your brain has less ability to deal with anxiety, and so on so on. So yeah, it does work both ways.

Jo Carlowe: Given that, that there seems to be some inevitability that teenagers will go to sleep late, have trouble in the morning, and given that schools do start when they start, what advice do you have for people with adolescent children who struggle with sleep, for those who work with children and young people, and even for young people themselves, if they’re listening?

Dr. Dean Burnett: I think for the– the most obvious thing which comes to mind, like I say, in the context that there’s not really a lot of options in terms of increasing the time they can sleep, is it to make use of what options you do have. And which I would say, if your adolescent child wants to sleep in on the weekend, then let them. And I know it’s new. Quite a lot of parents would be like, no. They must get exercise. They must be healthy. They must do stuff for the family. Yes, it’s perfectly normal and reasonable to want these things for your teenage child. But in many ways, that letting them sleep more is probably the lesser of two evils as far as your concerned. Yes, they miss out on important family stuff. But they are getting what their brain literally needs, biologically. If it’s holiday time or weekends, don’t do the classic parent thing, just kick their door 8AM, say, come on. Curtains open, missing the best part of the day. [GRUNTING] So, I think when you have the opportunity, let them to at least extent, let them set their own sleep schedule.

Don’t force one on them. Because you’ll be doing it from an adult perspective. And your idea of what sleep is needed, or what represents a good, healthy amount of sleep, it can be very different to what the reality is for your teenage child. Because they are going through a different thing. Generally, right now, their brains are fundamentally different to yours. They’re doing different things. They need different things.

Jo Carlowe: So from a neuroscience point of view, are you saying there is the possibility to– a sort of catch up effect? So if you’re having to get up during the week, but you lie in at the weekend, that is going to be beneficial with all this sort of brain ordering that’s going on?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Yeah. I mean, it won’t be– it won’t be enough. That’s just the way it is, I’m afraid. Because in the ideal world, we’d all get the exact right amount of sleep we need every night, or even daytime, if you’re in shifts, or whatever it is. But it varies from person to person. Some people can get by on five, six hours. Fine. Some people actually do need eight. It’s all biological difference, individual difference, developmental differences. No, it’s a broad spectrum of what you need. But it’s quite common for most people to have periods where we get insufficient sleep.

Everyone who’s ever been a parent, you know that. You’ve experienced long periods of not getting enough sleep, because tiny children have no concept of you needing sleep. So when you go for long periods without sleep, if you have more sleep all of a sudden, then your brain does catch up. And a lot of it’s to do with shoring up connections, clearing away all the waste your brain generates. The more sleep you have, the more chance it has to do that.

So it will be helpful. It will sort of address the balance a bit. Maybe not completely. But if you don’t get enough sleep anyway, getting more is going to be helpful.

Jo Carlowe: And any tips for getting to sleep? You mentioned technology, numerous articles that will tell you not to be using your devices late at night.

Dr. Dean Burnett: Yeah. And I do think there’s a lot of scaremongering out there about devices and stuff. But the stuff like this is actually– it makes neurological sense. So neuroscientifically valid, because I say, one thing that keeps your brain awake, keeps it ticking a bit, keeps the conscious part going, is stimulation. And our brain likes novelty. It likes excitement. It likes social connections. So things like social media offer all this– the constant, never ending, persistently refreshing stream of social interactions. These things they are very engaging and very stimulating. That’s why they’re so popular and so dominant and so powerful. If you know when you’re going to go to sleep, if you said, I want to be in bed by– I want to be asleep by 11:00, then ideally, you should put your device away by 10:00, say. Because your brain will have time, then, to sort of wind down.

It’s a complex process. Melatonin builds up. And you become more fatigued. It’s not like a switch, unless you’re extremely tired, which can happen. But things like books are OK. Because they are far more passive. You’re just staring at words. And your brain’s working. But it can get tired doing that. And it’s not as sensory stimulation. It doesn’t grip your attention forcefully like a device or a TV show or something like that.

Jo Carlowe: Dean, at what point should one call for professional support to help a young person who’s struggling with their sleep? And what form is that help likely to take?

Dr. Dean Burnett: It’s really hard with mental health conditions. Because there’s no clear dividing line between well and unwell for most people. It’s like– it’s like a broken leg. There’s a lot more grey area. When a child or teenager is unable to, in any way, unable to function because of their lack of sleep because, they are like, I can’t. I’ve tried. When all the obvious options have been checked– they do put the device down, they do avoid stimulation, they aren’t doing anything, they aren’t taking any stimulants and stuff, if I did observe good sleep hygiene, as they call it, then, yeah. Then that would be a time to sort of get some fresh– I mean, just go to the GP or call one of the many and various health lines available. And interventions don’t need to be particularly drastic. I mean, melatonin is quite common. It’s the sleep hormone. You can just take a spoonful out, or one tablet. People are kind of averse to giving their teenage children medication like that. I know. I understand that.

But melatonin is something that’s in their brain anyway. And it’s not like it’s sort of [INAUDIBLE] big pharma substance. It is the sleep hormone, what our brain releases when it’s– throughout the day. And when it goes dark, then it becomes more– pushes out more. Then we become sleepy as a result of it. So, that’s usually the go to, melatonin. It’s not like it knocks you out. But it can sort of tip the– tip the balance a bit in favour of sleeping. Because your brain lacks this hormone or has insufficient levels of it, then it just tops those up. And then, the sleep cycle, the circadian rhythms, can kick in. But then, of course, then becomes– if that’s still not working, then seek to your professionals.

There are more powerful tranquillisers which are available. But these aren’t a go to option for anyone. But sometimes, if you completely lack in sleep and have no way to get around that, then it it’s worth considering. Because you may not like it. But constantly having no sleep with your teenager is probably worse than any sort of effects that these medications might have.

Jo Carlowe: Dean, is there anything else that feels important to mention on the topic of adolescent sleep?

Dr. Dean Burnett: I do think it’s probably worth flagging up that for parents of teenagers, it’s a fraught time. It’s a difficult time. But a lot of the classic points of contention between parent and teenage child, I mean, a lot of those can be traced back to lack of sleep. Like I said, it makes you more irritable. It makes you less patient. It makes you more uncoordinated and can’t remember things and you can’t focus and stuff. And a lot of these things are what parents have a go at teenagers about. You don’t do this. You don’t do that. You don’t do X-Y-Z. And when– if you’re a parent who is complaining about what your teenager is doing, but also you’re depriving them of sleep when they are looking in for it. You are sort of making them feel bad. You’re actually perpetuating the problem you’re railing against. If you think the teenager’s sleeping more just to annoy you, that’s probably not the case. And it might do you– be beneficial for your relationship to let them, neuroscientifically speaking, at least.

Jo Carlowe: What else, Dean, is in the pipeline for you, personally?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Many things. I’ve got a talk at the Royal Institution coming up in May, I think, where I’m talking to teenagers about this sort of stuff, which will be fun. Currently editing my fifth book, called Emotional Ignorance, about my– I tried to write a book about emotions, then realised I didn’t know anything about them. And that was before the pandemic when my father passed away during lockdown. So it’s about my journey through that. So that will be an eye-opening one, I think. It’s pretty– some quite powerful stuff in there, I think, personally.

Jo Carlowe: When will the book be out?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Currently scheduled for early 2023. I’m sure I’ll be mentioning that if you follow me on any main platforms. I’ll be flagging that up well ahead of time.

Jo Carlowe: And Dean, finally, what is your take home message for those listening to our conversation?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Teenagers do need more sleep, for various good, valid, bio-physiological reasons. It’s often lumped into the selection of annoying teenage behaviours. But that’s unfair. Adolescents are going through some tremendous internal upheaval, especially in their brains. And sleep is when all that’s dealt with. So, teenagers generally do more sleep. They’re not being annoying. They’re not being lazy. They’re not being self-indulgent. It is something they genuinely need. And unfortunately, we’ve sort of overlooked that a lot and build up a society with rules that often prevent it. So any chance they have to get more sleep should be embraced rather than discouraged, would be my general point to make for anyone listening to this.

Jo Carlowe: Brilliant. Such an important message. Dean, thank you so much. For more details on Dr. Dean Burnett, please visit the ACAMH website,, and Twitter @acamh. ACAMH is spelled A-C-A-M-H. Let us know if you enjoyed the podcast with a rating or review. And do share with friends and colleagues.


Really helpful- should go out to all schools/colleges and parents!

Very helpful and informative talk on an ignored issue…another reason not to put the clock forward but if anything maximise light in morning time, not the evening time.

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