Older married couples can lose sleep when they help support grown kids, but the exact reasons for being awake at night may be different for men and women, a recent study suggests.
Most parents probably don't need a study to tell them they lose sleep over their kids, but there is plenty of research showing this happens all the time while children are young and living at home. The current study offers fresh insight into how grown kids can still contribute to sleep problems even for empty nesters, said lead study author Amber Seidel of Penn State York in Pennsylvania.
"Family interactions continue to affect us well into later adulthood," Seidel said by e-mail. "The idea that being an empty nester will eliminate the worries and stresses associated with parenting is a very limited view."
Sleep problems have been associated with a variety of negative physical and mental health outcomes, as well as relationship problems, researchers note in The Gerontologist.
For the current study, they examined data on 186 heterosexual married couples who had two to three adult children, on average.
Husbands were about 58 years old on average, while wives were closer to 57.
Men reported sleeping an average of 6.69 hours a night, while women reported 6.66 hours.
Researchers asked parents how often they provided different types of support to their grown kids including companionship, talking about daily events, emotional support, practical help, advice and financial assistance.
Husbands and wives rated how much they offered support on a scale of 1 to 8, with 1 being daily and 8 being no more than once a year.
How well each parent rated their health and marital satisfaction appeared to influence sleep, the study found.
Neither wives' or husbands' support provided to their adult child was associated with how well women slept, the study found.
But for husbands, support the men or their spouses provided to adult kids did impair sleep.
Wives' stress about supporting their children was associated with their own poorer sleep, but wives didn't appear to lose sleep due to their husbands' stress.
Husbands' sleep wasn't influenced by their own stress about supporting kids or their wives' stress about this, the study also found.
One limitation of the study is that it wasn't a controlled experiment designed to prove whether supporting adult children or stressing out about grown kids can directly cause sleep problems, the authors note. It's also possible that lack of sleep exacerbates stress, rather than stress being responsible for parents getting less rest.
Still, some parents who worry excessively about their adult children might benefit from therapy to improve coping skills or minimize stress, said Dr. Patrick Finan, a researcher in psychiatry and behavioral health at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore who wasn't involved in the study.
"Stress leads to what we call ‘cognitive narrowing,' which can be experienced as rumination and rehearsal of negative thoughts," Finan said by e-mail. "Some people have difficulty disengaging from those thought patterns when it is time to sleep, and this type of excessive worrying intrudes on one's ability to fall asleep."
Health problems can follow chronic poor sleep, too.
"When this is experienced chronically and results in chronic sleep loss with associated daytime impairments, insomnia develops," Finan added. "Unchecked, this type of insomnia is associated with myriad physiological problems, such as hypertension, inflammation, and increased pain sensitivity, as well as mental health problems such as depression and anxiety."