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Notes From the Couch – Conscious Parenting – It Takes a Village to Raise a Child (Or a Puppy)
I just handed my three month old puppy over the fence to my neighbor for an impromptu play date. I don’t even know my neighbor- actually that was the first time we met. The woman approached me across the white fence that separates us to complain about Charlie’s incessant barking. “I work at home,” she explained, “and I can’t concentrate on my work because I hear the barking every day.” I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt and shame wash over me, and proceeded to apologize profusely to the woman, explaining that Charlie had apparently had a bad reaction to his twelve-week vaccinations, or maybe his system was rebelling against the peanut butter I’d been madly shoveling. his teething Kong yesterday in a desperate attempt to distract him from his sudden/sharp onset of separation anxiety. “I just can’t seem to calm him down today,” I explained. “I tried running him around the block a few times to burn off his excess energy, but that didn’t work either, and I was forced to bring him into my office during a session with one of my patients. He wouldn’t let me leave. his side.”
My neighbor’s eyes softened as she looked at Charlie’s irresistible puppy face; she then joined the ranks of every other passerby commenting on how he looked exactly like Marley from the movie Marley and Me. “Yeah, that’s what I hear, actually I entered him in the Post & Courier Marley & Me Cutest Pets photo contest,” I replied proudly. She nodded empathetically as I dwelt on the challenges of crate training and teething, and soon I noticed two older labs—one chocolate and one yellow, like Charlie—walking through her yard. “Oh they’re not mine,” she exclaimed, just as a young man approached the fence and claimed the dogs as his own, suggesting that I hand Charlie over the fence to join the canine brood. Relief coursed through my body as Charlie had been glued to my side all day and I was long overdue for some much needed relief. Right now Charlie is happily rolling around in the neighbors yard with the older Labs while I tend to do laundry, eat dinner and write this column. Thank heaven for the kindness of strangers; sometimes it does take a village to raise a child (or a puppy).
Owning a puppy has deepened my ability to understand the challenges that parents face every day. I do not have children of my own, but I am well versed in child behavior research and empirically validated behavior management techniques. I can share this information with my clients in addition to healthy doses of clinical expertise and good old fashioned empathy. While this is certainly enough to effect positive change, nothing beats the insight gained from personal experience. Pets and children certainly fall into very different categories in terms of the degree of emotional, physical and financial commitment required to successfully care for them, yet certain experiences seem to overlap. Any dog owner can probably attest to the fact that puppies are a full-time commitment and just like children, they are happy to throw curve balls at their loving human parents any chance they get.
In any new parenting situation, one must learn to accept the inevitability of sleep deprivation, schedule changes, and loss of control over the small details of daily life. As a clinician who works primarily with parents, I believe that the most essential component of effective parenting is learning to be aware of one’s own emotional experiences and how they influence parenting perspectives, attitudes, and beliefs. The way in which parents manage and express their own emotional experiences is directly correlated with how they respond to the same types of emotions in their children. Furthermore, many parents tend to encounter the greatest difficulty when guiding their children through the same developmental stages in which they struggled most during their own childhoods. In his book Giving the Love that Heals: A Guide for Parents, Harville Hendrix eloquently explains how the way people parent their children reveals a great deal about how they were parented. This book has been invaluable to my clinical practice and I highly recommend it to anyone hoping to learn, grow and thrive in the practice of effective parenting.
The mother of one of my child patients became tearful in a session as she discussed her eight-year-old daughter’s social difficulties at school. It wasn’t so much the challenges related to her daughter’s peers that caused tears, rather, a particular question I asked her during the session. The woman admitted that her daughter tends to annoy other children by demanding their attention and becoming easily agitated when she feels left out or ignored. Listening to my patient confess this truth made me wonder to what extent her daughter’s behaviors reflect a similar dynamic at home in her relationship with her primary caregivers. I remembered during the initial interview, when both parents were present in my office, the father commented on his daughter’s defiance and stubborn behavior. He admitted that he and the child tend to engage in frequent power struggles at home. So, on this day, I asked the mother the following question: “Do you think your daughter’s sensitivity around her peers is similar to the way she responds to your husband at home?” Here she became tearful and I knew I had tapped into an important truth. “Very much” she replied, “in fact I mentioned it to my husband on more than one occasion.” She then further admitted that when she is a witness to these conflict-laden exchanges between her husband and daughter, she tends to disengage and turn away rather than recognize the challenge as a golden moment for a teaching opportunity.
According to Hendrix, that mother would fall on the “minimizer” or “under-involved” end of the parenting spectrum, as opposed to the “maximizer” or “over-involved” end of the spectrum. Hendrix claims that the emotional wounds we sustain during our own childhoods are often triggered by the parenting experience. Where a particular parent falls on this spectrum is very much a function of their own childhood experiences in learning to identify, verbalize and manage difficult emotions. While some parents avoid emotional exchanges at all costs, others embrace such exchanges, or even seek them out and enjoy them. Further, some people are quite comfortable when facing difficult or difficult emotions in themselves and in their children, while others avoid and even fear such experiences. If you’re inspired to read Hendrix, you can learn more about these parenting styles and discover where you fall on the spectrum. The insight gained can be extremely useful as you strive to expand your repertoire of parenting skills and techniques.
In working with parents I am often amazed at the striking degree to which marital issues and the temperaments of the parents are reflected in the behavior patterns of their children. It is rarely the marital relationship or the inner emotional struggle of the parents who present in my office as the main treatment goal, rather, it is the behavior of the child I am asked to investigate. This appears to be the case regardless of whether the primary current problem is related to internalizing (anxiety/depression/isolating behaviors) or externalizing (heartbreaks/challenging behaviors) types of symptoms. The common thread seems to be the emotional dynamics of the parents as they are reflected in the child’s struggle. Additionally, there appears to be an inverse correlation between the age of the patient and the level of parental distress/internal turmoil. In other words, the younger the child, the more likely I will find myself in the role of parent educator.
I recently gave a talk for parents at a local private school called Conscious Parenting: Skills and Techniques for Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child where I shared with the audience some helpful tips for guiding children through the treacherous waters of anger, frustration, fear and sadness and emphasized to the audience cardinal rule for effective parenting – never teach your children that their emotions are invalid, shameful or inappropriate. Emotions are adaptive and necessary for survival; they act as a barometer to measure what is happening around us and we should feel safe to access them in pivotal moments where decision making, problem solving and limit/boundary setting are guaranteed. Parents who tell their children “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “your feelings don’t make sense” deliver a very harmful message – in effect they are teaching the child that his/her emotions are not to be trusted and may. misleading or shameful. A child who believes this message will eventually learn to look outside to others, rather than inside the self, for permission to feel a certain way. A person’s feelings can never be wrong. It is the way people manage and express those feelings that can be dysfunctional and problematic.
Charlie returned from his play date and went right back to his strange state of agitation and clingy behavior. Later that evening, tiredness got the better of me and my husband and I decided to let him sleep on the bed with us- just this once- to avoid a sleepless night filled with Charlie’s incessant whining. The 12-week-old 30-pound puppy settled on the foot of our bed and snored happily through the night as I tossed and turned and prayed for sleep to overtake me. The next morning, Charlie seemed well rested and was back to his usual content and playful self while I felt tired, disheveled and restless. Maybe today will be better, I thought to myself as I sipped my morning coffee and thumbed through the paper, thankful that my husband was gone for the day and willing to hang out with Charlie for a little while. As all parents and pets soon discover, every day is full of new surprises and unforeseen adventures. Charlie suddenly appeared at my feet and looked at me with his chocolate eyes, and the frustrations of the previous day quickly melted away.
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