Worrying about your grown kids really can keep you up at night

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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 email. "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.

8 ways sleep can solve your problems

  • If you often suffer from monthly period cramps, try to clock in more Zs. In a study done in Georgia, it was found that a lack of sleep made period cramps worse, as less serotonin is produced when we don't sleep enough, resulting to a lower threshold for pain.
  • Here's something we can't complain about. Sleeping more can indeed help you burn calories. So don't put in hours in the gym, but hit the sack an hour or two earlier for the sake of your waistline!
  • A lack of sleep causes the emotion centre of the brain, known as the amygdala to become more sensitive, hence sleep-deprived people often react more negatively to situations.
  • Your best self will definitely arise from a well-rested you. When we are sleep-deprived, we lose focus, attention and vigilance.
  • Even with excessive amounts of vitamins, you are still likely to fall sick if you're not sleeping enough. Our bodies stop reacting to vaccinations when we suffer from a lack of sleep, similar to how we always sleep to feel better after our medication when we're feeling under the weather.
  • Beauty sleep is indeed a real thing. When we are sleep deprived, our skin will suffer from inflammation and dehydration. Increased stress hormones can also arise which worsens any inflammatory skin conditions like acne.
  • Try getting a full night's sleep and you might see a difference to how you approach the everyday stressors in your life. Even with the world weighing down on your shoulders, a well rested night could definitely make anything better.
  • When we're running on minimal sleep, anything can seem more risky and daunting to attempt. With more sleep hours clocked in, you could be more willing to try out adventurous things in your life, be it in your work or downtime.

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 minimise stress, said Dr. Patrick Finan, a researcher in psychiatry and behavioural 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 email.

"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."

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