Every parent knows that kids tend to get a little wacky when they’re tired. Little kids have tantrums, and big kids and teens may be sulky or uncooperative (or also have tantrums!). After a quick nap, though, everything is right with the world again. Even though a little extra shuteye might cure what ails your grumpy child in the immediate, scientists recently discovered that lack of sleep may lead to longer-term behavior issues that parents should be aware of.
Researchers from the University of Georgia’s Youth Development Institute determined that sleep can affect how adolescents deal with stressful environments — and that kids who got adequate sleep may be less impulsive than those who didn’t.
“Stressful environments are shown to make adolescents seek immediate rewards rather than delayed rewards, but there are also adolescents who are in stressful environments who are not impulsive,” lead study author Linhao Zhang, a fourth-year doctoral student in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences, said in a statement. “We looked at what explains that link and what makes some people differ from others.” One link they found? Adequate sleep.
Using data collected as part of the National Institutes of Health Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the research team analyzed information for 11,858 9- and 10-year-olds. They found that the duration of sleep and the time it took to fall asleep, called “sleep latency,” played a significant role in how adolescents responded to stressful environments years later.
While everyone knows that tired kids tend to be a little moody, the study found that kids who got less than nine hours of sleep per night or who spent longer than 30 minutes trying to fall asleep were more likely to engage in impulsive behaviors in the future — behaviors like thrill-seeking, lack of perseverance, and not making plans before acting.
Zhang also noted that some of this lost sleep is beyond the teens’ control, as adolescent circadian rhythms begin to change before their schedules can catch up. Teens are wired to stay up later and sleep in, but early school times can disrupt these natural tendencies, resulting in poor or inadequate sleep.
“A lot of adolescents don’t have enough time to sleep, and they are sleep deprived,” Zhang said. “This study shows why it is important to promote longer sleep duration by delaying school start times or establishing routines so that adolescents know, ‘OK, after this event, I’m going to bed.’ ” (The state of California pushed back their own school start times to benefit kids in 2022, citing evidence that puberty enacts circadian rhythm changes, and that teens just don’t get enough sleep when they have to be at school too early.)