Self-Care Prescription: Parenting Drains Your Brain Power


Kids always come first, right? So when contributing writer and dad Steve Calechman, who has a 6- and 3-year-old, was asked by his doctor what he did for fun, he answered with a laugh. His life was so overtaken by his children that he had trouble fitting in time for himself. 

“I know that I should squeeze in something like listening to music, reading, or doing nothing. It just never tops the priority list. I feel guilty spending time or money on anything that isn’t family-related,” he wrote in an article for Harvard Health.

Most, if not all, parents are in the same boat as Calechman. And if they keep at it, “parental burnout” is not far behind. 

Belgian researchers surveyed more than 2,000 parents to look for signs of parental burnout, which is characterized by exhaustion, emotional detachment, and inefficacy. Of the mom and dad participants, 12%  had “high level” parental burnout — they experienced all three more than once a week. “The researchers noted that more mothers than fathers took part in the survey, but parents of both genders were equally susceptible,” reported New York Magazine’s The Cut

Though it is an endless source of love and joy, parenting is a drainDr. Beth Frates, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, tells Calechman. A lot of the brain power needed for parenting — such as practicing self-control and making rational decisions — requires stamina as they take place in the prefrontal cortex (or the region of the brain that handles complex cognitive tasks), she explains.

When you’re exhausted, though, you’re more likely to act on impulse. “You’ll shift into the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain that fights or flights,” said Calechman. Whenever you feel a sudden sort of panic that makes you feel like there’s no other choice than to shout at the kids to get them to do as you say, that would be your amygdala telling you to “fight.”

Accept, then, that you need a break every now and then to be a better parent, said Dr. Frates. “You can’t pour from an empty cup; with nothing there, there’s nothing to give,” she said. 

Dr. Frates said a parent’s break ideally lasts 30 minutes with the occasional day off every so often. But, five minutes can be the minimum whenever you need it. She, herself, did it with her kids. “She’d be in a chair with them in the room. They eventually understood not to bother her. She got her break and they got to witness the habit,” said Calechman.

It’s best if you don’t have your phone on hand during your break. What you’re looking for is an activity that will “transport” you elsewhere. “The main requirement is that you look forward to whatever it is to get the reward of being fully absorbed, of losing your sense of time, and forgetting that you actually have bills, deadlines, or even children,” said the dad. 

If this means for a few minutes you would be flipping through a cookbook, taking your time getting a glass of water, watering the plants, or making a quick trip to the sari-sari store then so be it. It’s a time to just breathe and, yes, be alone.


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