ete* was actually looking forward to his senior year, especially after his entire junior year was COVID disrupted. He was certain that even with college applications, his overall schedule would be more manageable this year. He was looking forward to being back in person with his friends, and hoping to enjoy senior events. However, as the year progressed and college applications’ deadlines loomed large, Pete realized he was feeling overwhelmed and fatigued. Soon, he was staying up late to finish essays. Pete’s parents noticed his lack of sleep, which was leading to an increase in stress, and at times, depression. They thought it might be beneficial for Pete to talk with a professional for additional support and resources and Pete said ok.
At Outreach Teen & Family Services, Pete met with a counselor who discussed sleep hygiene, or the practices that people utilize to achieve proper sleep patterns with the goal of feeling well rested throughout the day. Pete had never heard of sleep hygiene. The counselor explained the connection between sleep and emotions. “If any of us have a poor night’s sleep, we’re more likely to experience negative emotions, including crankiness, anger and depression.” The counselor reminded Pete that sleep is not only important as rest for the body and mind, but moreover helps humans process and cope with the events of the day. Therefore, poor sleep can make individuals more susceptible to mental health symptoms.
The Outreach counselor worked with Pete to identify his current sleep patterns, assisting him in recognizing areas for improvement. Based on some experimenting at home, Pete realized that he felt most rested after nine hours of sleep. This meant going to sleep every night at 9:30 p.m. and waking every morning at 6:30 a.m. Maintaining a regular sleep pattern, even on the weekends, is the most effective way of feeling well rested. Many teenagers stay up late on weekends, sleeping in late in an attempt to “catch up” on sleep. Pete was able to address some of the barriers in sustaining a sleep routine throughout the weekend.
The counselor discussed the use of cell phones and other electronics with Pete, explaining that the particular light emitted from electronics suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle of the body. The counselor suggested “tuning out” one hour prior to bedtime. As expected, this was particularly difficult for an active and involved senior, enjoying his final year of high school. But he agreed to resist the temptation, and establish a bedtime ritual or routine that included spending more time in dim light and reading twenty minutes prior to bedtime every night. Other suggestions included avoiding caffeine before bedtime and not napping after school.
After involving Pete’s parents in several of the sessions and discussing common sleep difficulties for both adolescents and adults, the counselor shared the unique sleep needs of adolescents versus those of adults. Adolescents naturally need more sleep in their state of growth. Their sleep-wake cycle also shifts such that teens do not naturally feel tired until later in the evening and therefore are naturally inclined to wake later in the morning. This information helped Pete’s parents better understand his needs while helping the entire family to develop healthier sleep patterns.
*Pete represents a typical Outreach client. Details do not correspond with any specific case to protect client anonymity.
Outreach Teen & Family Services  is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer programs to youth ages 5 to 21, parents and families, in a welcoming, supportive environment. This column is partially underwritten by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.