Teens' Sleep Quality Diminished Due to COVID-19-Related Worries

young teen with insomnia

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study notes that teens’ sleep quality diminished during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Mental health experts say teens’ worries moved from situational anxieties to general anxieties and concerns that seemed overwhelming.
  • Parents should be aware of their teens’ sleep habits and offer suggestions to help them get the rest they need.

Research shows that adolescents’ mental health has been severely impacted by dealing with COVID-19. Anxiety, depression, and distress are just a few of the issues they have experienced.

Further exacerbating these issues, a new study shows many teens are also dealing with problems falling asleep. Published in the Journal of Adolescence, the study found that teens’ sleep quality has been diminished due to concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Study

Researchers with the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) studied 30 teens with a median age of 14. The participants, based in Queensland, Australia, were already part of an ongoing longitudinal adolescent brain study where they were asked general questions about sleep quality.

Because the study started prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers were able to compare sleep-related information received from the teens both before and after the disruption of COVID-19. They were also asked specific COVID-related questions during a 12-week lockdown time frame, from April until June 2020. Responses were supplied on a self-reported questionnaire.

Additionally, participants received neuroimaging testing during the pre-COVID period, allowing researchers to examine their brain's white matter. The researchers note that white matter integrity has been associated with anxiety, depression, and sleep quality. The ability to measure it, coupled with the teens’ responses to the survey, gave researchers a look into the impact of the pandemic on sleep patterns.

“We found that sleep quality had become worse during COVID, and those who had difficulty falling asleep, as well as having a specific brain marker—of white matter integrity—prior to COVID, reported higher levels of worry associated with COVID,” explains Dan Hermens, PhD, a professor of youth mental health and neurobiology at USC and senior author of the study.

Results showed that despite the opportunity for more sleep during the lockdown, these teens were plagued with greater difficulty sleeping. Even though the study does have a small sample size, it provides a helpful look into the difficulties that teens are experiencing.

Teen Stressors

The teen years are naturally full of stress. In fact, the physical, mental, and emotional changes that teens experience often increase anxiety and stress. But, dealing with COVID-19, takes these anxieties to another level.

Olivia Chante Frazier, LPC, NCC

It’s a domino effect. The lack of sleep creates other concerns.

— Olivia Chante Frazier, LPC, NCC

“The impact I have seen has shifted from situational anxiety to more generalized anxiety," says Olivia Chante Frazier, LPC, NCC, and CEO of Transform You, LLC. "For teens, that seems overwhelming. Those overwhelming feelings begin to be internalized, which often emerges in behavioral reactions."

Plus, most teens do not have the proper skills to manage anxiety at that heightened level, she adds. Consequently, their intensified worries can creep not only into their everyday life but also impact their ability to fall asleep at night.

“It’s a domino effect. The lack of sleep creates other concerns," Frazier says. "Teens may be too tired to implement the skills needed to manage their symptoms. Their hormonal changes in addition to the impact of world events become so overwhelming that they can choose unhealthy coping skills."

The important thing is for teens and parents is to figure out how to manage it all and get a good night’s sleep in the process. Sometimes this involves implementing healthy coping strategies for the stress they are experiencing.

Parents can help by giving their kids ideas on how to deal with that stress. For instance, they can make time for fun, avoid over-scheduling, and try to engage in positive self-talk.

Getting Quality Sleep

To help teens cope with overwhelming feelings and emotions and get better sleep, parents need to be aware of how teens are handling the stressors in their lives. This begins with observing their teen's behaviors as well as asking open-ended questions.

Dan Hermens, PhD

If a child is displaying signs of a lack of energy, worry, rumination, low mood, irritability, trouble concentrating, [and so on] then a parent should ask them about their sleep.

— Dan Hermens, PhD

“If a child is displaying signs of a lack of energy, worry, rumination, low mood, irritability, trouble concentrating, [and so on] then a parent should ask them about their sleep,” notes Dr. Hermens, who also is leading the Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study at USC’s Thompson Institute.  

Parents also should hone in on how long it takes their child to fall asleep. More than 30 minutes could be a red flag to further explore.

Also, ask if they feel like they are getting a good night’s sleep, whether they are experiencing nightmares, and if they are feeling restless or uncomfortable. All of these questions can help paint a clearer picture of the next steps to take. 

If a teen is having trouble getting a good night's rest, there are a number of strategies that teens and parents can use to improve sleep, such as darkening the bedrooms with shades and curtains, using a sound machine to limit noise, and avoiding screens before bed. It's also important to keep phones and other devices out of the bed.

Sticking to a regular bedtime routine as well as engaging in physical activity during the day also can improve sleep at night. And if worries continue to be an issue, there are a number of things that can be used to lessen these concerns.

For instance, faith-based activities may help redirect teens’ focus from worrisome thoughts; and mindfulness exercises, like meditation or breathing techniques, are helpful as well. Teens also may find that talking to a therapist can be cathartic for examining and dealing with emotions.

Remember, the inability to fall asleep and have a restful night can have a detrimental impact on an entire day. Helping teens sleep well can lead to a more positive impact and outlook, despite ongoing stressors.

What This Means For You

The teen years can be full of worry and anxiety. Adding fears associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown exacerbates those feelings and can lead to trouble sleeping. Try to offer reassurance and hope to your teen. Show compassion and patience regarding their feelings, and provide suggestions on ways to cope like utilizing mindfulness techniques, sticking to a bedtime routine, and limiting screen use before bed.




4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Jamieson D, Kannis-Dymand L, Beaudequin DA, et al. Can measures of sleep quality or white matter structural integrity predict level of worry or rumination in adolescents facing stressful situations? Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. J Adolesc. 2021;91:110-118. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2021.08.002

  3. Hysing M, Pallesen S, Stormark KM, Lundervold AJ, Sivertsen B. Sleep patterns and insomnia among adolescents: a population-based study. J Sleep Res. 2013;22(5):549-556. doi:10.1111/jsr.12055

  4. Owens J. Insufficient sleep in adolescents and young adults: an update on causes and consequences. Pediatrics. 2014;134(3):e921-e932. doi:10.1542/peds.2014-1696

By LaKeisha Fleming
LaKeisha Fleming is a prolific writer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of formats, from film and television scripts, to magazines articles and digital content. She has written for CNN, Tyler Perry Studios, Motherly, Atlanta Parent Magazine, Fayette Woman Magazine, and numerous others. She is passionate about parenting and family, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues. Her book, There Is No Heartbeat: From Miscarriage to Depression to Hope, is authentic, transparent, and providing hope to many.Visit her website at www.lakeishafleming.com.