A new study shows that parenting kids with disabilities over a long period of time jeopardizes cognitive function—especially memory—in mothers, but not in fathers, due to chronic stress.
The study—published in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B last month—used a large U.S. survey of parents from 2004 to 2006 to compare 128 parents raising disabled kids with 512 parents whose children did not have disabilities. The children with disabilities had autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, attention deficit or intellectual disability.
Parents were tested on verbal memory and fluency, mental processing speed, reasoning, working memory and ability to switch their attention. Researchers also assessed parents’ physical and mental health, physical activity, social support and “negative parenting experience.” To determine the latter, participants were asked to rate how true six statements were for them. For example, “I feel good about the opportunities I have been able to provide for my children” and “problems with my children have caused me shame and embarrassment at times” and “it seems to me that family life with my children has been more negative than most people’s.”
Interestingly, at a younger age, mothering a child with a disability was associated with better performance on memory tasks, but by age 60 the pattern had reversed itself. Mothers who had higher levels of “negative parenting experience” were more forgetful, leading researchers to conclude that chronic exposure to parenting stress predicted cognitive decline for mothers of children with disabilities. Seventy-six per cent of mothers of kids with disabilities reported significantly higher levels of negative parenting experience compared with 46 per cent of the comparison group mothers.
The study found that mothers of children with disabilities tended to be much more depressed, less physically healthy and to feel less in control than mothers without disabled kids. They also had more problems handling their kids and less support from friends than women whose children do not have disabilities (yup, we’ve seen parent isolation in other studies about raising kids with disabilities).
Mothers with a strong support system, a sense of control and a history of regular exercise had better memories than those without.
This point is critical. “Keeping quality friendships, sense of control for life and [a] physically active lifestyle would help to protect these parents from accelerated cognitive aging,” said Jieun Song, a researcher at the Waisman Centre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study.
I classify all of these things under the header “self-compassion.” In her new book Parenting Through The Storm, Ann Douglas says being kind to yourself in the way you would treat a friend is one of the best things you can do to support a child who is struggling (see this recent blog post). I know, it's counter-intuitive, isn't it?
But still, if you’re a mom of a child with disability, you’re probably thinking: “Oh great. Now, to add to my never-ending “to-do” list, which includes taking my kid to therapy and multiple specialist appointments, doing therapy exercises at home, advocating at school and in the community, making my home the ‘funnest’ place for playdates on the block, and doing my child's bathing and physical care, I need to step it up by going to the club regularly and being a social butterfly. To be honest, I’m not sure how you go about increasing number 3 in the study—the sense of control you have over your life! Isn’t that an illusion? Ha ha! But I digress.
So, how do you find the time and energy to get fit and healthy and socially connected when you’re already running flat-out 24-7 with your kid with special needs?
Today I heard Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, give a talk at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
Gretchen spoke about her new book on habits—how we can develop good ones and break bad ones. I think we moms of kids with disabilities can benefit from some of her research and tips.
Good habits are “freeing,” Gretchen said, “because they eliminate decision-making and self-control” (in the case of the latter, if you’re like me you’ll find yourself lacking). Gretchen noted that if you’re in the habit of going to the exercise club at 6 a.m. every morning you don’t think about it, and you don’t fret about it, you just go.
So why is it so hard to drop bad habits or develop ones that we know would make us happier—or, in the context of the study on cognitive aging in moms of kids with disabilities, protect our brain power?
Because we don’t all have the same aptitude for forming habits or the same attitude towards them, Gretchen said. There isn’t one solution that works for everyone. “It’s important to figure out what kind of person you are” because that will determine which of 21 strategies, or a combination thereof, may work for you, she said.
One approach I think we mothers can try to help us work into our schedule habits that keep us physically and mentally healthy is called the “strategy of four tendencies.”
This is about how we deal with expectation—both outer expectations, like a work deadline, and inner expectations—and varies from person to person. Gretchen said we tend to have four responses to expectations. “Upholders” readily respond to outer and inner expectations and see them as equally important. “Questioners” will meet expectations if they agree they make sense. They hate arbitrary demands and need to turn an external request into an internal expectation to make it work. “Obligers”—the most common style, and certainly mine!—meet outer expectations well, but struggle to meet inner ones. Finally, “rebels” resist all expectations.
In talking about “obligers,” Gretchen noted that we’re often dissatisfied and frustrated because we’re so good at meeting other people’s demands but so bad at taking care of ourselves. To reverse this, we need to create “external accountability” for being kind to ourselves. That could mean paying for a class or coach, creating an accountability group with friends or similarly-minded people online, or coming up with funny ways that force you into good habits.
For example, friends who want to help each other work out regularly switch shoes at the end of their workout so they “have” to return for their next scheduled workout (otherwise the other person can’t exercise). One woman who wanted to get up at 6 a.m. every morning programmed Hootsuite to post an embarrassing message about her on Faceboook at 6:15 unless she got up and disabled it. Someone who wants to read should join a book club.
I think we moms of kids with disabilities should band together to create habit groups (except with a much cooler title)—perhaps online—where we encourage each other to do healthy things a certain number of times a week. What do you think?
Gretchen also shared other habit strategies.
For example, if you’re an “abstainer,” it means you do well when you give up a bad habit “all together.” This means not purchasing Haagen Dazs at the grocery store or keeping Hershey’s kisses in your office desk and deleting Candy Crush from your iPad.
Another tactic involves giving yourself “healthy treats. When we give ourselves healthy treats we energize ourselves and feel comforted,” Gretchen said. Stay away from food, drink and shopping in this category, and instead, be imaginative: listen to a favourite podcast or buy yourself some music.
When developing good habits, it's useful to consider goals as “milestones” rather than a “finishing line.” For example, many people commit to training for a marathon, then stop running. “That’s because the idea of the ‘finish line’ disrupts the habit,” Gretchen said. “You have to start over, and that’s hard.” So instead of telling yourself you have to lose 20 pounds, tell yourself you need to eat healthy forever.
Gretchen says “outer order contributes to inner calm” so use her one-minute rule to reduce clutter. If you can do it in less than a minute—hang up a coat or put some papers in the recycling, for example—do it. Instead of feeling you have to overhaul your entire house, “do it one minute at a time.”
Finally, “the strategy of convenience” involves making healthy things convenient, and unhealthy things inconvenient. For example, disable one-click shopping and put your cell phone in a closet instead of in your back pocket. “To change a complex habit you may need to use three to five strategies,” Gretchen said.
If you want to get a copy of a starter kit to help you begin a habits group with others, where you encourage each other, e-mail Gretchen at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com.
I know I'm going to!