Adult Children: Your Parents May Still be Losing Sleep Over You

Not getting enough sleep can cause problems for anyone, but one would think that aging parents with adult children would be, to some extent, exempt from that particular problem. However, a recent study published by BYU Gerontology professor Jeremy Yorgason found that parents continue to worry about their children, even to the point that it affects their sleep.

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“The topic of sleep is receiving more and more attention these days as biological factors are linked with many other aspects of life, including social factors,” Yorgason said. “Parents don’t really ever stop being parents in many ways, and so feeling stress about their children will likely have an impact on their physical and emotional processes (which may show up in sleep). Of the 186 heterosexual married, remarried, or cohabiting couples interviewed, only 10% of husbands age 40 to 60, and 6% of wives reported not worrying at all about their children.” They found that husbands’ worrying more frequently about their adult children was associated with less sleep for husbands, but not for wives. They also found that when husbands provided more frequent support to adult children, it was often more need-based than it was for mothers. “Support may be more taxing for fathers, making it more difficult for husbands to get a sufficient amount of sleep as a result of the time and energy demands related to giving such support,” they said.

Such findings may be highly relevant to those adult children, who may still find themselves needing their aging parents, even as they take care of their own younger children. “On the one hand,” Yorgason posits, “such support can be viewed as a benefit for adult children. As support sometimes reflects [the] needs of adult children, the concerns the parents have around the child’s need might be the source of less sleep. That is, adult children may be able to count on middle-aged and older parents to be available for support during difficult times (Merz, Consedine, Schulze, & Schuengel, 2009). On the other hand, because poor sleep quality is linked with physical and mental distress (Meerlo, Sgoifo, & Suchecki, 2008; Smagula, Stone, Fabio, & Cauley, 2016), such caring by older parents may take a physical and psychological toll.”

Adult children might be both heartened and worried by these results. At the least, they can inform their interactions with their aging parents so that their sleep patterns are taken into account. Yorgason e has a study in the process of publication which found that sleep affects marital interactions because a lack of sleep puts a spouse in a negative mood. Yorgason is also writing up how sleep may affect communication and problem solving within a marriage.

Jeremy B. Yorgason is an Associate Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. He received his PhD from Virginia Tech in marriage and family therapy. He also completed a graduate gerontology certificate at Kansas State University, and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Gerontology Center of Penn State University, with an emphasis in mental health and aging. Dr. Yorgason is a member of the Gerontology Program faculty at BYU. His research interests are in the area of later life family relationships, with a specific focus on health and marriage. His current research efforts focus on later life couple relationships in context of the effects of daily health stressors, managing multiple chronic illnesses, and on grandparent/grandchild relationships. He is also starting the Couple Relationships and Transitions Experiences study (CREATE), which explores how recently married couples manage minor and major life transitions.

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