It never feels good to blow your budget and go into overdraft. Yet, going into overdraft on your “brain budget” may be worse – much worse – than not balancing your finances.
Neuroscientist, psychologist and author Lisa Feldman Barrett refers to your brain budget as the delicate balance between energy inputs and outputs associated with your brain. Energy outputs relate to activities that deplete your brain budget (expenses). Energy inputs relate to activities that replenish your brain budget (savings). And as your brain health is a key driver of your mental and physical wellbeing, being in balance (or surplus) is crucial.
When we think about all the things our brains are responsible for, we usually only scratch the surface of its responsibilities. Most of the brain function is associated with running the “infrastructure” of your body, things like balancing chemicals and managing your organs.
The things we most commonly associate with our brain function, such as thinking and emotions, are secondary. Because they’re secondary, they also receive secondary attention. Your brain directs energy to keeping you alive (regulating your body’s main functions) before it permits you to spend energy on luxuries such as cognition and emotions.
This is why it can be so difficult to remain patient when we’re sleep deprived. Or why we tend to be more impulsive when stressed. When we stretch our brain budget too far and go into deficit, our brains restrict the energy available to things like cognition.
Just like when you want to buy something expensive it’s better to have money in the bank than to put it on credit; if you want to use your brain for high level executive functions (which we often do), you are going to want your brain budget to be in credit.
What Does It Look Like To Go Into Brain-Budget Deficit?
When we go into financial overdraft, we incur interest costs. When we go into brain-budget deficit, we similarly incur costs. These costs are felt emotionally and physically. They present emotionally as stress, anxiety and depression. And they present physically as metabolic illnesses.
When your brain is frequently overdrawn and not replenished, it moves into deficit and you feel stressed. When stressed, your body releases a hormone (cortisol) that gets glucose into your blood stream as an evolutionary function to prepare you for a big expenditure. This increases your heart rate, further taxing energy from your brain. This cycle of stress continues to draw more energy from your brain’s limited supplies, leaving less and less energy available for cognitive and executive functioning.
The more this cycle perpetuates, the more stress is felt, and the more likely the expression of metabolic illness in the body.
What Does This All Mean For Our Kids?
We want the best for our kids. We also ask a lot of them. We want them to be focused, do well in school, regulate their mood, maintain healthy relationships and make good decisions. Yet we rarely take account of their brain budget!
Young lives are taxing on brain energy. They need to spend up big on their physical (growth of their bodies and organs) and emotional (stressors, relationships, experiences, etc) development.
This balancing act is made even more tenuous when you add in their developing cognitive, emotional and executive functions. At a young age, they simply don’t have the capacity to manage inputs affecting energy use; or the ability to manage the consequences of energy use (i.e. their mood and emotions).
When you consider these factors, is it any wonder that their brains are sapped of energy to spend on emotional regulation? Next time your little person lashes out, rather than reacting with a blunt response, instead, consider whether their brain budget may be in surplus or deficit.
If we want our kids to be their best selves and reach their potential, they are going to need sufficient energy from their brains. This requires us as parents to keep their brains in surplus as much as possible.
How Do We Keep Our Kids’ Brain Budgets In Surplus?
Understanding that our kid’s brains expend a lot of energy even before they need them for thinking and emotions, what can we do to help keep their brains in surplus?
Here are 7 effective strategies:
- Sleep is one of, if not the most, crucial factors that support brain health. During sleep, toxins that build up in the brain while awake, are washed away. This cleansing is crucial to “paying back the debt” accumulated through other activities. Children should typically be getting 10 or so quality hours sleep a night.
- Remember cortisol that we mentioned earlier? Hugs reduce stress hormones like cortisol, while promoting other chemicals (such as oxytocin), which make us feel safe and secure. Be liberal with your hugs – what a win-win!
- Be kind. Being kind to others is a simple and effective way to reduce stress and promote brain health. Teaching your child simple kindness techniques, such as saying “thank you,” sharing, and paying it forward, can, ironically, provide them with as many advantages as the receiver of their kindness.
- Be grateful. In a similar vein to kindness, being grateful will help your child maintain a more positive mood and contribute to their greater emotional well-being. Gratitude is not pseudo-science; it has been demonstrated to be one of the most powerful and effective strategies to optimise health and mitigate metabolic disease.
- Understanding of emotions. The deeper your child’s understanding and awareness of their emotions, the better equipped they are to manage them. By assisting your child label and understand the emotions they feel, the better able they become in managing those emotions.
- Breathing is an extremely effective (and somewhat under-rated) way to regulate both the bodies physical response to emotions, and emotions themselves. Teaching your child a simple breathing technique, which they can utilise when stressed or anxious, can dramatically improve their ability to manage stress. A very simple technique such as breathing deeply into the belly, 4-seconds in, hold for 2-seconds, and out for 4-seconds; repeated 3 to 4 times, is all that’s needed.
- Kids are copying machines. If you’re always running in deficit – being stressed, reacting emotionally, impatient, etc – your child will mirror your behaviours. The same goes for your physical inputs, such as sleep, exercise, kindness and gratitude. Consistently exhibit the behaviours you want to see in your child. You will all benefit!
Conclusion: Help Your Child Keep Their Brain Budget In Surplus
Your brain budget is like a financial ledger. You spend when you’re stressed, anxious and angry. If you consistently spend more than you replenish, you suffer emotionally and physically with metabolic illness.
Our brains main function is to keep us alive. This function alone is a huge responsibility and consumes an immense amount of the brain’s energy. The brain can only contribute what’s left over for cognitive and executive functions.
If we want our kids to thrive, we must help them keep their brain budgets in surplus. There are several effective strategies to assist this, including ensuring they get enough sleep, being kind and grateful, giving them hugs, teaching them breathing techniques and about their emotions, and modelling the behaviours you want them to exhibit.
About Superpower Kids
At Superpower Kids we develop fun, engaging social and emotional learning programs for children aged 5 to 10 years. All our programs incorporate scientifically sound principals and activities. We have several programs that can assist you maintain your child’s brain budget, including Self-control, Empathy, Gratitude and Resilience.