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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 do not even know my neighbor- in fact this was the first time we met. The woman approached me across the white picket fence that divides us to complain about Charlie’s incessant barking. “I work from home,” she explained, “and I cannot concentrate on my work because I hear the barking every day.” I felt myself flooded with an overwhelming wave of guilt and shame, and proceeded to apologize profusely to the woman, explaining that Charlie apparently had a bad reaction to his twelve week vaccinations, or perhaps his system is rebelling against the peanut butter I frantically shoved into his teething Kong yesterday in a desperate attempt to distract him from his sudden/acute onset of separation anxiety. “I simply cannot 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 will not let me leave his side.”
My neighbor’s eyes softened as she gazed at Charlie’s irresistible puppy face; she then joined the ranks of every other passerby by commenting on how he looks exactly like Marley from the movie Marley and Me. “Yes, that is what I hear, in fact I entered him in the Post & Courier Marley & Me Cutest Pets photo contest,” I replied proudly. She nodded empathically as I droned on about the challenges of crate training and teething, and soon I noticed two older labs- one chocolate and one yellow, like Charlie- walking across her yard. “Oh they aren’t mine,” she exclaimed, just as a young man approached the fence and claimed the dogs as his own, suggesting that I hand Charlie across the fence to join the canine brood. Relief swept through my body as Charlie had been glued to my side all day and I was long overdue for a much needed reprieve. At this moment Charlie is happily romping in the neighbors’ backyard with the older Labs as I tend to laundry, dinner and writing this column. Thank heavens for the kindness of strangers; sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child (or a puppy).
Owning a puppy has deepened my capacity for understanding the challenges that parents are faced with on a daily basis. I do not have children of my own but I am well versed in child behavior research and empirically validated behavior management techniques. I am able to share this information with my clients in addition to healthy doses of clinical expertise and good old fashioned empathy. Although this is certainly sufficient to effect positive change, nothing beats the insight gained from personal experience. Pets and children certainly fall into vastly different categories in terms of the degree of emotional, physical and financial commitment required to successfully care for them, yet certain experiences do 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 minute details of everyday life. As a clinician who works primarily with parents, I believe the most essential component of effective parenting is learning to be aware of one’s own emotional experiences and how they impact parenting perspectives, attitudes and beliefs. The manner 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. Further, many parents tend to encounter the greatest difficulty when guiding their children through the same developmental stages in which they struggled the most during their own childhoods. In his book Giving the Love that Heals: A Guide for Parents, Harville Hendrix eloquently explains how the manner in which 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 who hopes to learn, grow and prosper in the practice of effective parenting.
The mother of one of my child patients became tearful in session as she discussed her eight year old daughter’s social difficulties at school. It was not so much her daughter’s peer related challenges that brought on the tears, rather, a particular question that 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. In listening to my patient admit this truth I wondered to what degree her daughter’s behaviors reflected similar dynamics at home in her relationship with her primary caregivers. I recalled 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?” This is where she became tearful and I knew I had tapped into an important truth. “Very much so” she replied, “in fact I have mentioned this to my husband on more than one occasion.” She then further admitted that when she is 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, this mother would fall on the “minimizer” or “underinvolved” end of the parenting spectrum, as opposed to the “maximizer” or “overinvolved” end of the spectrum. Hendrix maintains 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 folks are fairly comfortable when faced with difficult or challenging emotions in themselves and their children, while others avoid and even dread such experiences. If you are 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 enormously helpful as you strive to expand your repertoire of parental 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 that present in my office as the primary treatment goal, rather, it is the child’s behavior I am asked to explore. This seems to be the case regardless of whether the primary present problem pertains to internalizing (anxiety/depression/isolative behaviors) or externalizing (tantrums/defiant 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/inner turmoil. In other words, the younger the child is, the more likely I am to 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 a 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 for measuring what is going on around us and we should feel safe to access them at pivotal moments where decision making, problem solving and boundary/limit setting are warranted. Parents who say to their children “you should not feel this way” or “your feelings don’t make sense” are delivering a very harmful message- in effect they are teaching the child that his/her emotions are not to be trusted and potentially misleading or shameful. A child who comes to believe this message will eventually learn to look outside towards others, rather than inside the self, for permission to feel a certain way. A person’s feelings can never be wrong. It is the manner in which people manage and express those feelings that can be dysfunctional and problematic.
Charlie returned from his play date and reverted right back to his odd state of agitation and clingy behavior. Later that evening, fatigue won us over and my husband and I decided to allow him to sleep on the bed with us- just this once- to avoid a sleepless night filled with Charlie’s incessant whimpering. The 12 week old 30 pound puppy settled himself on the foot of our bed and snored happily through the night while I tossed and turned and prayed for sleep to overtake me. The next morning, Charlie seemed well rested and back to his usual content and playful self while I felt weary, disheveled and cranky. Perhaps today will be better, I thought to myself as I sipped my morning coffee and skimmed the paper, grateful my husband was off for the day and willing to hang out with Charlie for a while. As all parents and pet owners soon discover, each and every day is filled with new surprises and unforeseen adventures. Charlie suddenly appeared at my feet and gazed at me with his chocolate eyes, and the frustrations of the prior day rapidly melted away.
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