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His 5 year old boy was not interested in playing catch with his father. Instead he kept placing a marble at the top of his marble run and watching it go round and round to the bottom for an hour straight. His father watched with a knot in his stomach. Then he realized his son was joyful. As he told his story to the 7 other men in the room, he reflected that he couldn’t remember ever being joyful for an hour.
Although this awareness arose through the experience of having a child on the autism spectrum, it is certainly not unique to parents of children with special needs. According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D. in Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experience and Teflon for positive ones.”
The human brain has evolved of necessity to be constantly scanning for threats to protect us. The downside is that the brain loses sight of the big picture. We spend most of our time worrying about things that might go wrong in the future and ruminating about things that have already happened. Hanson states that the way to “hardwire happiness” into the brain is to take in the good — being present to life’s tiny, joyful moments.
By observing the positive experiences with the greatest personal impact, we can train our brains to keep our eyes open for happiness and contentment and cultivate a sense of wonder. Although all parents face challenges, parents of children with autism and other special needs often experience more anxiety, depression, guilt, and shame.
Getting in tune or in sync with your child starts with just being there and seeing the world through your child’s eyes. The child with special needs is first of all a child. It is through everyday routine activities that children learn and develop. Just being there and learning to enjoy your child again is the starting point for getting back in sync. It starts with taking turns, an essential relationship skill.
• Start with imitating or mirroring the child’s actions or vocalizations.
• Follow your child’s lead.
• Use facial expressions, gestures, expressive vocalizations, etc.
• Keep taking turns increasing the number of turns that keep your child engaged.
• Decrease whatever leads to less engagement.
In Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn describe the deep connection that is “available to us virtually in any moment, even in the more difficult ones, if we stay attuned both to our children and to this moment.” (p.2) There can be moments of pure bliss, such as a child’s first steps or first words, or moments of intense frustration and pain, such as during a meltdown or aggressive behavior. These difficult moments have the possibility of opening our minds and hearts to new learning and growth just as the father who realized that his son was blissfully playing with the marble run.
Opening to inner experience is vital for parents for we find happiness as a passing state that comes and goes as we experience everything else. We cannot chase moments of delight any more than we can hold onto a rainbow that comes after the rain. Perhaps happiness can be understood as the side effect of living life to the fullest.