Ignore kids' bedtime protests secure in the knowledge that an early lights-out decreases their risk of developing depression and anxiety as adults.
When asked how lack of sleep affects emotions, common responses are usually grumpy, foggy and short-tempered. However, not getting enough shut-eye, especially when young, can lead to far more serious consequences.
Candice Alfano, a clinical psychologist at the University of Houston, says children who experience inadequate or disrupted sleep are more likely to develop depression and anxiety disorders later in life. Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the study seeks to determine the precise ways inadequate sleep in childhood produces elevated risk for emotional disorders in later years. "In particular, we are interested in understanding how children appraise, express, regulate and later recall emotional experiences, both when sleep is adequate and when it is inadequate," said Alfano, director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston (SACH). "We focus on childhood, because similar to problems with anxiety and depression, sleep habits and patterns develop early in life and can be enduring."
Their findings reveal that inadequate sleep impacts children's emotional health not only by creating more negative emotions, but also by altering positive emotional experiences. For example, after just two nights of poor sleep, children derive less pleasure from positive things, are less reactive to them and less likely to recall details about these positive experiences later. When their normal nightly sleep habits are adequate in duration, however, these emotional effects are less apparent.
"Healthy sleep is critical for children's psychological well-being," Alfano said. "Continually experiencing inadequate sleep can eventually lead to depression, anxiety and other types of emotional problems. Parents, therefore, need to think about sleep as an essential component of overall health in the same way they do nutrition, dental hygiene and physical activity. If your child has problems waking up in the morning or is sleepy during the day, then their nighttime sleep is probably inadequate. This can result for several reasons, such as a bedtime that is too late, non-restful sleep during the night or an inconsistent sleep schedule."
"There are multiple emotional processes that seem to be disrupted by poor sleep," Alfano said. "For example, our ability to self-monitor, pick up on others' nonverbal cues and accurately identify others' emotions diminishes when sleep is inadequate. Combine this with less impulse control, a hallmark feature of the teenage years, and sleep deprivation can create a 'perfect storm' for experiencing negative emotions and consequences."