Stages, Tweens & Teens

Natural Night Owls and the Struggle for Self-Control

Ever wonder how your grumpy, sleepy teen functions at school in the morning? According to a new study published in the December 2016 issue of Pediatrics, perhaps not too well.

Along with lots of other changes that happen during puberty, most teens develop a “circadian-based eveningness chronotype” (aka, they become night owls) that has them needing to sleep in each morning. When that naturally shifted rhythm—late to bed, late to rise—is disrupted by an alarm clock and that pesky school schedule, their self-regulation is affected. That means students have a harder time managing cognition and emotion necessary for problem solving and impulse control. Researchers further explained that impaired self-regulation is associated with adverse effects on health and functioning, with long-term implications, including an increased risk of obesity, emotional difficulties, and poor school performance.

Interestingly, the study, which looked at some 2,000 7th -12th graders from Virginia, found that it wasn’t a general lack of sleep that affected the teens’ behavior, but rather when they had to rise; the disruption to their circadian-based evening chronotype that had their bodies craving sleep in the morning caused the adverse effects throughout the day. 

“Simply put, when the body is asked to eat, interact, and think at times that are not synchronized with circadian timing, the results can be detrimental,” said Sujay M. Kansagra, M.D., of Duke University Medical Center, in a paper released by the AAP to accompany the research study.

The study authors did say that further studies should seek to characterize objectively both sleep duration and circadian timing to shed a clearer light on their contribution to self-regulation.

Dr. Kansagra, meanwhile, posed this question:

“In its current form, the timing of grade school education… cater[s] to a morningness chronotype. Those with an eveningness chronotype must conform to this timing. Is it fair to educate and test students when their clocks are out of sync with the school day?”

Leslie Penkunas is the editor of nola family magazine.


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