Most parents don’t need a study to tell them that they lose sleep worrying about their kids when they’re young, but new research shows many older adults with grown children still feel the stress, as well.
The study, published in the journal The Gerontologist, also finds that the reasons parents lie awake at night may be different for men and women.
Lead study author Amber J. Seidel, Ph.D., of Penn State York in Pennsylvania, is a family gerontologist and said she got involved with the research because she believes family relationships are so important to society.
“I feel that many share this value, yet I think much of the socialization in our culture focuses on family when children are younger,” she told CBS News. “I seek to study topics that help us understand how family continues to be a central part of our lives throughout adulthood, and I encourage considering family-level influences in all situations.”
For the study, the researchers examined data on 186 heterosexual married couples who had, on average, two to three adult children. The men in the couples were about 58 years old, on average, and the women closer to 57.
The researchers asked the parents to rate the different types of support they offer their adult children on a scale of 1 to 8, with 1 being daily and 8 being no more than once a year. Types of support included companionship, emotional support, practical help, discussing daily events, advice, and financial assistance.
The parents also rated how stressful they find it to help their adult children, and how much they worry about their adult children, on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being “not at all” and 5 being “a great deal.”
Additionally, the participants reported the amount of sleep they got each night. The husbands reported sleeping an average of 6.69 hours a night, while the wives slept about 6.66 hours.
The results showed that for husbands, the support that they provided their grown children was associated with poorer sleep; conversely, the husbands slept more when their wives reported providing support for the kids. No such impact was seen on the women’s sleep.
However, for the women, higher stress about supporting their children did appear to impair their sleep. Stress levels over this issue did not appear to affect how much the husbands slept.
Overall, the study found that the giving of support itself affected the men, while stress over the support was what affected the women.
Seidel says the results may be a side effect of how involved many parents are with their grown children’s lives these days.
“Current research on young adults suggests that parents and children are maintaining high levels of involvement,” she said. “Although parents and adult children have always maintained some level of involvement, we do see an increase in what is often termed ‘helicopter parenting’ and ‘landing pad’ children.”
This trend, along with the emergence of technology like cellphones and social media, gives parents a deeper insight into what is going on in their adult children’s lives, which may lead to more cause for concern, Seidel says.
Regardless of the cause, excessive stress can contribute to sleep loss, which is associated with a host of negative physical, mental, and relationship problems.
Parents can help themselves deal with stress by developing healthy coping strategies, which may include better eating habits, exercise, mindfulness, support groups, or therapy.
“It is important to remember that having stress present in our lives is not the problem,” Seidel says. “It’s the inability to cope in healthy ways with the stress that is problematic and may lead to immune suppression.”
She also suggests that parents reflect on their level of involvement in their adult child’s life, how their child is receiving it, and whether they are enabling their child, seeking to control their child, or providing support.
The study is limited, the authors note, in that it can’t prove whether support for adult kids or stress over that support directly affects sleep. It also may be that lack of sleep exacerbates stress, rather than the other way around.
Still, Seidel says future research should continue to explore how the relationships between parents and their adult children can affect all areas of health and well-being.