The Joy Gap in Special Needs Parenting

This past week I attended a conference hosted by Life Model Works, an organization made up of psychologists, pastors, therapists, neurotheologians, and others, who have extensively researched the brain and how it works. I've been studying their materials for over a year now and have found it immensely helpful for myself, let alone my husband or our son who has special needs.


This is a topic I intend to share more on in this blog because I believe it’s so important for parents of special needs children to understand how the brain works in order to help their children thrive. Especially when support seems so inefficient or non-existent. However, I think everyone can learn and grow from the information coming out about how our brains work.


In one of the sessions I attended at this conference, the speaker, Dr. Marcus Warner of Deeper Walk International, was talking about the joy gap that can form in marriages. As he spoke, I realized how this same joy gap can form in special needs families and how the same principles he outlined can be used to close the joy gap and, hopefully, lower stress, shorten meltdowns, and increase our patience as parents.


Before I get too far into this, I’ll give some of the background information about how our brains are wired to work. When we’re born, our brains are still developing and in order to develop the way they’re supposed to babies need to receive certain things from their mother. Touch, eye contact, and smiles are a few of those things. As we get older, the things we need to receive from our parents and the community of people around us changes, but are no less important for the development of our brains.


If we don’t get the things we need for our brain, we experience Type A Traumas. These are simply the necessary things our brain needed but didn’t get and we all have these types of traumas. There are also Type B Traumas. These are the things that shouldn’t ever happen to anyone: rape, violence, war, etc.


Neuroscience has discovered nineteen skills our brains need and if we have all nineteen of them, we shouldn’t have any Type A Traumas, however, the more disconnected we become with other people, the fewer brain skills we have to pass on to the next generation. There is hope though, because the people over at Life Model Works have discovered ways we can practice and learn these skills even if we didn’t get them at the life stage we were supposed to get them at. So, essentially, we can teach our brains the skills it didn’t get and receive healing from Type A traumas.


Now our brains our wired for joy. Not happiness, joy. They are also wired to feel six negative emotions: sadness, anger, despair, fear, shame, and disgust. These negative emotions are meant to be warning signs, much like our sense of touch tells us to take our hand off the hot stove. Negative emotions warn us something is not right in our relationships and we need to do something about it in order to return to joy.


However, if we have A or B type traumas, we can get stuck in those negative emotions because our brain never learned how to process those emotions and return to joy from them. When that happens, instead of seeing the negative emotion as a warning sign and doing something to fix our relationships, we run away, try to stuff those emotions, or we blow up and nothing every truly gets resolved, we simply learn how to dance around each other trying not to trigger those negative emotions in other people and trying to avoid having our own negative emotions triggered by others.


When I consider this in the light of my son, who has Reactive Attachment Disorder, I can now see and understand that because he wasn’t able to attach to his birth mother in his first year of life and got none of the necessary things his brain needed in that first year, he has a low joy capacity in his brain. And now I know I can encourage him to make eye contact with me and practice joy smiles with him to increase his capacity. I also know that he didn’t receive much comfort from care givers in his first year of life, so now I know specific breathing exercises I can practice with him that will teach him how to quiet his body and his thoughts.


Also, because he was unable to attach to a person, he very easily attaches to things because things are safer than people. Things can’t abandon you. And while this still frustrates me because he’s always wanting new things without regard to how much they cost, and gets upset when he can’t have them. I’m finding if I remind myself of the why behind the nagging, I can have more patience with him.


By now you may be wondering what all this has to do with the session about the joy gap I mentioned earlier. Dr. Warner was speaking about marriages, but I believe this joy gap can occur in any relationship. A joy gap forms between two people when there is low joy in the relationship. Inside the gap is where hurt feelings, depressions, PTSD, and all the negative emotions reside and the longer we don’t experience joy together, the bigger the gap becomes.


I’ve heard countless stories of parents who have children with special needs talk about caregiver fatigue. It comes about after days of meltdowns, no respite relief, hard decisions, and a lack of understanding in the general community of people around you. On top of that one or both parents may be working full time jobs, plus all the other life stuff on top of it. It’s exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally.


Raising a child who cannot fully connect with you is difficult and I believe it is extremely easy for a joy gap to form in homes with special needs children. Maybe the child who has special needs can attach to their parents, but because of the physical needs of the child, other children in the home don’t get the things they need from their parents, or the parents don’t get the time alone they need to enjoy each other. There are many scenarios of how a joy gap can form.


Dr. Warner gave four steps for decreasing the joy gap, and because he’s fond of acronyms, he used PLAN: Play together, Listen for emotion, Appreciate daily, and Nurture Rhythm.


Negative emotions are supposed to be a warning to us that our relationships are not as they should be and something needs to be fixed, but often our automatic response is to hide, or blow up. If we can remember to keep relationships more important than whatever problems arise, we can reconnect after negative emotions surface.


Playing together is something we haven’t done much of in the past six years with our son because often, after the fun was over, he would have a violent meltdown and although we had therapists and doctors giving us advice, nothing worked to talked him down from these episodes. What I’ve learned in the past year, is that because his joy capacity is so low, what he needed was for us to quiet with him after a high joy event. Instead we would all separate into our own corners of the house to quiet on our own, the best we knew how. And because our son doesn’t know how to quiet himself, his brain was overwhelmed with the high joy event and he reacted.


Listening for emotion wasn’t difficult with our son, but understanding it and knowing what to do with it was. His angry outbursts often didn’t make any sense when he tried to explain what he was feeling and I would get frustrated because I didn't know how to solve his problem, and I would basically, in the kindest way possible, tell him to get over it because I didn’t know what he needed. Now, I know dissecting his meaning and solving the problem isn’t the important thing. It’s recognizing he’s having a negative emotion, validating him, making him feel heard, and helping him return to joy that’s important.


Appreciating daily has always been a struggle for me when it comes to my son, but it’s something I’m intentionally working on right now. It’s hard to appreciate a child who tells you off all day long, or throws things at you, or mocks you when you’re upset. And honestly, I still struggle to find anything to appreciate about him, even though he’s matured a lot and doesn’t do many of those things any more. What this shows me is I need to work on forgiving him and getting healing for the things he said and did that I allowed to affect me or triggered me because of my own Type A Traumas.


Nurture Rhythm refers to the balancing of act of joy and quiet together. Recognizing when each other needs a boost of joy and when we each need time to quiet. We are a long way from getting to this step. It’s something my husband and I can work on easily together, but for my son to be able to do this in his relationships he first needs to learn how to go between the two in himself.


I am so excited about everything I’ve learned and continue to learn about how our brains work and how to apply all the knowledge and practices in my own life as well as my sons. If this topic interested you at all, if you want to learn more, or have already been learning about this and want to chat about how you’re applying it, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below, drop me a line on my contact page, or send me a message on Facebook. There is a video of Dr. Warner explaining the joy gap here if you’d like to hear it.

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