Running on Empty: Understanding your child's cognitive fuel tank
Imagine that your brain has a fuel tank.
Imagine that this fuel tank is full of cognitive fuel, and just like a car needs fuel to get from point A to B, your brain needs a full tank of cognitive fuel to navigate from point A to Z throughout your entire day.
Now, imagine that your brain doesn’t run as efficiently as you’d like because it’s been impacted in some way. This means that the seemingly small and inconsequential cognitive tasks that require this cognitive fuel throughout the day empty your brain’s fuel tank faster — much faster — than your co-worker, neighbor, sibling, partner or friend. In addition to this, because your brain works differently, you aren’t always able to fall asleep easily, or to stay asleep through the night. This means that at the exact time your brain should be in recovery mode, re-upping its cognitive fuel for the next day’s demands, it’s still running on fumes and unable to recover and rest.
Most of us, those whom society would consider “neurotypical,” don’t have to struggle with a low or empty cognitive fuel tank. We can make it through the day without running on empty, and we’re able to refuel efficiently enough through our nights’ sleep to meet the next day’s demands all over again. Unfortunately, this is not the experience for individuals who have brains that work differently. Their brains are working harder than anyone else’s, all day long, resulting in them running low — or completely out — of cognitive fuel before the day is through.
What happens to these individuals when their brain is on empty? They experience challenging behavioral symptoms. The meltdowns, tearfulness, increased aggression, greater rigidity or intensified defiance…those are all signals that a child has no more fuel to make it through the cognitive tasks being asked of them. They’re overwhelmed, and need time to allow their brain to rest and reset.
Many parents I support have the experience of parenting a child who can seemingly make it through the school day without any behavioral symptoms, but “lose it” the moment they arrive home. This is confusing for the parent, who does not understand why this is happening, and at the same time is often blamed by teachers and providers for what’s happening at home. “She doesn’t behave this way when she’s at school…maybe you need to be more firm with her” or “She knows she would not be able to get away with that behavior at school, which is why we don’t see it…maybe you need to be more strict with her at home...” It’s an awful blame game that brings shame to the parent, while offering little in the way of answers regarding the best way to help their child settle into the evening hours of family time.
I often encourage parents to think about the cognitive fuel tank in these situations. It makes sense that if their child is lagging behind in the essential cognitive skills that are required of them to navigate the school day, they would return home on empty, resulting in even the smallest demand or request spiraling into an evening of out-of-control, incredibly challenging behaviors.
We can help kids who find themselves short on cognitive fuel in a few ways:
See the behaviors for what they are — a child overwhelmed with an empty fuel tank, who needs time to refuel — and then lead with empathy in our interactions with them.
We can actively help them refuel by making sure they have access to food and water whenever they need it, and reminding them that they need to eat (even older kids forget or don’t recognize cues of hunger).
We can proactively look for ways to add more support to those cognitive tasks that are especially taxing for our child. This will decrease their “cognitive load,” helping them preserve their cognitive fuel and make it through their entire day with fewer challenging behavioral symptoms. This includes working with the school to provide accommodations and to lighten the load in that setting (even if there are no challenging behavioral symptoms evident), so the child can conserve cognitive fuel and ensure reserves are available for the after-school hours.
To deepen your understanding of what it means for your child to have an empty cognitive fuel tank, and ways you might prevent this from happening more frequently, check out my FREE Running on Empty Handout, created with parents like you in mind.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.