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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- in fact this was the first time we met. The woman approached me through the white picket fence that divided us to complain about Charlie’s constant barking. “I work at home,” he explained, “and I can’t concentrate on my work because I hear them barking every day.” I felt a wave of guilt and shame wash over me, and I proceeded to apologize profusely to the woman, and explained that Charlie apparently had a bad reaction to his twelve-week shots, or maybe his system was rebelling against The peanut butter I mixed in. his teething Kong yesterday in a desperate attempt to distract him from the sudden / acute onset of separation anxiety. “I simply can’t calm him down today,” I explained. “I tried to run him around the neighborhood a few times to burn off his excess energy, but that didn’t work either, and I had to take him to my office during a session with one of my patients. He won’t let me leave. beside him.”
My neighbor’s eyes softened as he looked at Charlie the puppy’s irresistible face; Then he joined the ranks of every other passerby by commenting on how exactly he looks like Marley in the movie Marley and Me. “Yeah, that’s what I heard, I actually entered him in the Post & Courier Marley & Me Cutest Pets photo contest,” I replied proudly. She nodded sympathetically as I talked about the challenges of crate training and teething, and soon I noticed two older labs – one chocolate and one yellow, like Charlie – walking around her yard. “Oh, they’re not mine,” he said, as a young man approached the fence and claimed the dogs as his own, suggesting that I drop Charlie across the fence to join the canine brood. Relief swept through my body as Charlie clung to my side all day and I was overdue for some much needed relief. At the moment, Charlie is happily frolicking in the neighbors yard with the older Labs while I tend to laundry, dinner and writing this column. Thank heaven for the kindness of strangers; sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child (or puppy).
Owning a puppy has deepened my ability to understand the challenges that parents face 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 a healthy dose of clinical expertise and good old-fashioned empathy. Although this is certainly enough positive change effect, 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 care for them successfully, but 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 parents any chance they get.
In any new parenting situation, one must learn to accept the inevitable sleep deprivation, schedule changes and loss of control over the minute details of daily life. As a clinician who works primarily with parents, I believe the most essential component of effective parenting is becoming aware of one’s own emotional experiences and how they affect parenting perspectives, attitudes and beliefs. The way parents manage and express their own emotional experiences is directly related to how they respond to the same kind of emotions in their children. In addition, many parents tend to encounter greater difficulties when guiding their children through the same developmental stages where they struggled most during their own childhoods. In his book Giving the Love that Heals: A Guide for Parents, Harville Hendrix eloquently explains how people parent their children reveals a lot about how they became parents. 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 children’s patients came to tears in session while discussing her eight-year-old daughter’s social difficulties at school. It wasn’t so much the challenges related to her daughter’s peers that brought the tears, rather, a particular question I asked her during the session. The woman admits that her daughter tends to bully other children for attention and becomes easily agitated when she feels left out or ignored. Listening to my patient admit this truth, I wondered to what extent her daughter’s behavior reflected similar dynamics at home in her relationship with her primary caregivers. I recalled during the first interview when both parents were present in my office, the father commented on his daughter’s defiant and stubborn behavior. He admits that he and the child tend to engage in frequent power struggles at home. So, on this day, I asked the mother this question: “Do you think your daughter’s sensitivity around her peers is similar to how she responds to your husband at home?” This is where he came to cry and I knew I had tapped into an important truth. “So much” she replied, “in fact, I mentioned this to my husband on more than one occasion.” And he admitted that when he witnesses these conflict-laden exchanges between his husband and daughter, he tends to disengage and turn away rather than recognizing 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 holds that the emotional wounds we sustain during our own childhoods are often triggered by parental experiences. 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 these exchanges, or even seek them out and enjoy them. In addition, some people are fairly comfortable when dealing with difficult emotions or challenges in themselves and their children, while others avoid and even fear these 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 invaluable as you strive to expand your repertoire of parenting skills and techniques.
When I work with parents, I am often amazed at the extent to which the problems of the marriage and the temperament of the parents are reflected in the behavior of their children. It is rarely the marital relationship or the inner emotional struggles of the parents that present in my office as the primary treatment goal, rather, it is the child’s behavior that I ask to be explored. This appears to be the case regardless of whether the primary presenting problem concerns internalizing (anxiety/depression/isolated behavior) or externalizing (angry/challenging behavior) type symptoms. The common thread seems to be the emotional dynamics of the parents as reflected in the child’s struggles. In addition, there appears to be an inverse correlation between the patient’s age and the level of parental distress/internalizing disturbance. In other words, the younger the child, the more likely I 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. emphasized to the audience a cardinal rule of 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 crucial moments where decision making, problem solving and setting boundaries/boundaries are guaranteed. Parents who tell their children “you shouldn’t feel this” or “your feelings don’t make sense” are sending a very dangerous message – in fact, they are teaching the child that his emotions are not to be trusted and potentially. deceived or disappointed. A child who comes to believe this message will eventually learn to look outward toward others, rather than within the self, for permission to feel a certain way. One’s feelings can never be wrong. It is how people manage and express these feelings that can be dysfunctional and problematic.
Charlie returned from his play date and returned to his odd state of restlessness and clingy behavior. Later in the evening, exhaustion won me over with my husband and decided to let him sleep on the bed with us- just this once- to avoid a sleepless night full of Charlie’s incessant complaining. The 12-week-old, 30-pound puppy sat on the foot of our bed and snored happily through the night as I tossed and turned and prayed for sleep. The next morning Charlie seemed well rested and returned to his usual content and playful self while I felt tired, discouraged and irritable. Maybe today will be better, I thought to myself as I sipped my morning coffee and skimmed the paper, thankful my husband was gone for the day and wanted to hang out with Charlie for a while. As all parents and pet owners soon discover, every day is filled with new surprises and unforeseen adventures. Charlie appeared suddenly 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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