Research links parental relationship quality to a child's intelligence

October 4, 2016

The race is on. Children spend more of their time in classrooms and participating in organized activities than any other generation. As part of this frantic feat, Americans are spending around $7 billion annually on supplemental education to ensure their children do well on the highly competitive education circuit. What researchers at UNM have found is if parents can't get along with each other, then all this conditioning is moot.

"We look at family stressors such as marital aggression—parents that fight, verbally and physically," says College of Education Family Studies Professor Ryan Kelly. "It's really common, so we are looking into how it impacts the ."

Kelly's research looks at many of the issues that affect marriage such as arguments over finances, problem drinking, like depression or anxiety, and the physical relationship they have with each other including the children.

What Kelly and others noticed, is that all of these typical relationship interactions created a stressful environment for children. When looking at eight year-olds through 16 year-old children, the research indicated that when children are exposed to one or more of these stress related issues they don't sleep well.

"They become vigilant at detecting a level of threat," says Kelly. "The child starts to worry about a particular parent, their own personal safety or the safety of their siblings. These specific worries are what interrupts the child's ability to sleep."

Familial stressors are causing children to wake dozens of times a night. They might be in bed for nine hours, but are only getting an estimated six hours of sleep.

"In turn these children are tired during the day. They don't do well at school. They show symptoms of anxiety and depression because of . Beyond that, family stress creates long-term problems," says Kelly.

Some of the side-effects from not sleeping well include trouble with standardize tests and issues with academic functions resulting in lower grades. Research also indicates that children will show symptoms of depression and anxiety in addition to an increased body mass index (BMI).

"Surprisingly, these issues are related to slight sleep disruptions. We're not talking about sleep insomnia," says Kelly. "We're talking about an hour here and there. We noticed just a slight disruption, missing out on just 30 minutes of sleep per night, will inhibit daytime function."

Kelly's research also looked at the lasting effects of stress on sleep. It shows a nine year-old who has experienced familial stress at one point has the potential to experience sleep issues years later due to a lasting view of the family dynamic as stressful.

"We see 15 year-olds who were exposed to family stress at nine who still have robust sleeping problems," said Kelly. "There are interventions that parents can do to decrease family stress ultimately protecting the sleep of their children. Parents need to know arguing in harsh ways disrupts the development of their children. Heavy alcohol use is also discouraged because it can make a child feel unsafe."

Kelly advises parents that the single largest thing they can do—in addition to maintaining a clam, safe environment—is give children a consistent sleep schedule. Children need to go to bed every night at the same time, or with a 30-minute timeframe of that time period. The same applies for morning wake time as well.

"The National Sleep Foundation recommends that school age children get nine to 11 hours of sleep a night," says Kelly. "You can determine if your child is getting enough sleep by whether or not they have to wake-up with an alarm each morning and are groggy. If they are getting enough sleep they will wake-up on their own or feel ready to go once they are awakened."

No technology 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime is also key to better sleep for children. Bright screens prevent the release of melatonin, the hormone that supports sleep and wake cycles.

"Knowledge doesn't necessarily change behavior," said Kelly." We know we really shouldn't do it—argue, look at technology—but people still do. It really comes down to figuring out how to actively decrease family risk and stress. Mom and dad will better, too.

Explore further: Need kids to sleep more during the school year? Start with parents' sleep habits

Related Stories

Sleep is key to college success

August 17, 2016

(HealthDay)—It can be hard for college students to get enough sleep, and that can affect their physical and mental well-being, a sleep expert says.

Recommended for you

Mothers and infants connect through song

February 16, 2017

As one of the first records of human music, infant-directed singing permeates cultural boundaries and parenting traditions. Unlike other forms of caregiving, the act of mothers singing to infants is a universal behavior that ...

Study finds naps may help preschoolers learn

February 8, 2017

Research has shown that naps play an important role in sustaining new learning in infants. A new study from the University of Arizona suggests naptime could have a similar effect on language learning in preschool-age children.

Researchers create a song that makes babies happy

February 6, 2017

Plenty of research has looked at adults' emotional responses to music. But research with babies is more piecemeal and eclectic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of asking them what they like. Researchers know that babies ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.