Considering family dynamics, parental chronotype and parental personality is an important part of my sleep coach assessments. This helps me to consider what parental factors may be affecting children’s sleep and the degree of patience and tolerance parents may have for managing their child’s sleep issues. It enables me to provide individualised support to the families I work with, which caters to their specific circumstances.
Family dynamics are the patterns and interactions we have with different members of our family and these dynamics affect us from birth. Family dynamics include family alignments, hierarchies, roles and the characteristics and patterns of interactions within our own family. Every family has a unique set of dynamics, which impacts on how we behave as individuals and how we interact with others. Family dynamics can be affected by culture & ethnicity, religion, class, extended family, dynamics of previous generations, trauma, parenting styles, personalities of family members etc.
Family dynamics play a part in family resilience as they have an influence how we parent, how resilient we are as a family unit and how we access and utilise support. Important aspects of family resilience include family cohesion, family belief systems (including religion), family coping strategies, the living arrangements of families and the flexibility of family members’ roles.
Positive family relationships can provide resources to help us cope with stress, engage in healthier behaviours, and enhance our self-esteem, leading to higher well-being and more effective parenting. However, poor family relationships can take a toll on our well-being and may impact on our parenting ability. Relationships within the family, underpinned by family dynamics, play a primary role in shaping children’s sleep as children’s sleep-wake behaviours are embedded in the family unit.
Parental Biological Chronotype
Biological chronotype refers to sleep-wake behaviour, i.e. preferred bed times and wake times known as “morningness” and “eveningness”. Some people are early risers so get up early and go to bed early (larks) in contrast to people who get up late and go to bed late (owls). Larks usually feel refreshed soon after awakening and have their peak cognitive performance in the morning. Owls need more time to feel refreshed after awakening and they have their peak performance in the late afternoon or at night.
There also appear to be sub-groups known as bears and dolphins. Bears tend to be at their best during the day when it is light (often between the hours of nine and five) and dolphins, which make up about 10% of the population, are likely to sleep lightly and suffer from insomnia and easily fragmented sleep.
Babies and young children are overwhelmingly larks but chronotype changes significantly throughout the life span. A study which looked at those changes found a general pattern of movement from morningness to eveningness starting with a slight turn towards eveningness during the toddler years and a strong turn to eveningness around the age of 9, peaking around the age of 16. A parent with an eveningness chronotype might well find themselves struggling with the early rising of a lark baby/young child whereas a parent with a morningness chronotype is likely to find themselves more in tune with their child’s waking pattern. The parent who is naturally an early riser will wake up more refreshed than the owl parent whose natural circadian rhythm has been disrupted by the early rising.
Personality can be described as “the characteristics or blend of characteristics that make a person unique”. Personality traits describe, relative to other people, the frequency or intensity of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Scores on a personality test are neither inherently good nor bad – a particular level on any trait might be neutral or irrelevant for many things, be helpful for accomplishing some things and not helpful for accomplishing others. One way of looking at personality is using a five factor model which organises personality traits in terms of five areas. The five factors are as follows:
- Extraversion; Individuals who are high in extraversion are outgoing and tend to gain energy in social situations; being around other people helps them feel happy and energised. People who are low in extraversion (or introverted) tend to be more reserved and have less energy to expend in social settings. Social activity can feel draining and introverts often require a period of solitude and quiet in order to “recharge”.
- Agreeableness; Individuals who are high in agreeableness tend to be more cooperative and empathic while those low in this trait tend to be more competitive and have less interest in other people’s problems.
- Conscientiousness; Individuals who are highly conscientious tend to be organised and mindful of details whilst those low in this trait don’t like structure and schedules.
- Neuroticism; Individuals who are high in this trait tend to experience mood swings, anxiety and irritability whereas those low in this trait tend to be more emotionally resilient.
- Openness; Individuals who are high in this trait are curious about the world and other people and eager to learn new things and enjoy new experiences whilst those low in this trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with more abstract thinking.
Personality traits are very relevant to how we respond to our children. For example:
- If you are an introverted parent you may need to build in some space and time on your own in order to recharge your “batteries” so you can manage the demands of children who require energy, closeness and attention.
- If you are a highly conscientiousness parent you might find that the lack of routine with a new baby makes you edgy and uncomfortable, because you can’t get other tasks completed, so you might need some reassurance that your partner will “take up the slack”.
- If you score highly in both the neurotic and conscientiousness traits you might be more susceptible to higher levels of anxiety, as you encounter the inevitable stresses and strains of being a parent and an inability to keep to strict routines and deadlines; so you will need to find ways of managing that anxiety.
- If you are low in the openness trait you might be more comfortable with a clear structure to how you meet the needs of your baby, relying more on structure and routine than being alert to and responding to your baby’s cues and you might need support to trust in a more intuitive baby led way of responding.
Being able to understand what makes us feel comfortable or uncomfortable helps us to identify the stresses and strains that can impact on our mental health and identify strategies to cope with everyday life, including our parenting and how we manage our children’s sleep.
Andershed, A.K., 2005 (2005) An Introduction to Morningness-Eveningness. In: In Sync with Adolescence. Longitudinal Research in the Social and Behavioral Sciences An Interdisciplinary Series. Springer, Boston, MA
Breus, M., 2006. The Power of When: Discover Your Chrontoype and Maximise Your Potential. Random House.
Duffy, J.F., Rimmer, D.W. and Czeisler, C.A., 2001. Association of intrinsic circadian period with morningness–eveningness, usual wake time, and circadian phase. Behavioral neuroscience, 115(4), p.895.
El-Sheikh, Mona, and Ryan J Kelly. “Family Functioning and Children’s Sleep.” Child development perspectives vol. 11,4 (2017): 264-269. doi:10.1111/cdep.12243x
Kalil, A., 2003. Family resilience and good child outcomes
Lang, F.R., John, D., Lüdtke, O., Schupp, J. and Wagner, G.G., 2011. Short assessment of the Big Five: Robust across survey methods except telephone interviewing. Behavior research methods, 43(2), pp.548-567.
McCrae, R.R. and John, O.P., 1992. An introduction to the five‐factor model and its applications. Journal of personality, 60(2), pp.175-215.
Randler, C. and Schaal, S., 2010. Morningness–eveningness, habitual sleep-wake variables and cortisol level. Biological psychology, 85(1), pp.14-18.
Randler, C., Faßl, C. and Kalb, N., 2017. From Lark to Owl: developmental changes in morningness-eveningness from new-borns to early adulthood. Scientific reports, 7, p.45874.
Thomas PA, Liu H, Umberson D. Family Relationships and Well-Being. Innov Aging. 2017;1(3):igx025. doi:10.1093/geroni/igx025