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Anger Is Expensive

Anger Is Expensive

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Just as it takes many tools to build a physical home, parents need many skills to build a strong foundation of good middot, character traits. Anger and criticism are not building tools; they destroy people’s sense of self-worth, trust and security.

Lia was a student of mine years ago who enthusiastically put my ideas into practice. She used my tools and techniques to help her children face loss and frustration, express their emotions and build their self-esteem. Despite the fact that her hot-tempered husband often exploded angrily, these tactics worked beautifully on the younger children, helping them control their negative impulses. Sadly, her oldest, Sharon, was already a teenager when her mother introduced my ideas, and she took after her father, sarcastic and condescending at home but well-loved and virtuous to outsiders.

Anger and criticism are not building tools

When Sharon married Eli, they decided that they would have none of Lia’s “touchy-feely, psychological nonsense,” as she called it. They declared, “Children must be obedient without prizes, charts or notebooks.” Their oldest, Mike, was barely two when they began to spank him for being “disrespectful.” This included failing to put his toys away instantly, not looking in their eyes when they scolded him, dropping a bit of food on the floor, or not falling asleep easily when they put him to bed. To teach him a lesson, he was sent to bed without food, given long timeouts, and sometimes locked in a dark room for hours or made to stand outside in the freezing cold.

They viewed themselves as very devoted parents who were educating their children properly. They did act loving, as long as Mike complied instantly, and they spanked and punished only when necessary. Sometimes they would buy him a toy and refuse to let him play with it because he had been “bad.” There it was, on top of the refrigerator, where he could look at it, but not touch it, to remind him of his lack of respect. The power struggles escalated; the angrier they got, the more defiant Mike became.

Mike is now ten. When frustrated, he terrorizes his seven younger siblings, hits his mother, or destroys possessions in the home. He sometimes refuses to eat, bathe or dress, which makes his parents even angrier. Threats of withdrawing food no longer work, as he can refuse to eat for days. As for hitting, he learned that he can hit back harder. He doesn’t care if he dies, and often runs away or darts into the street heedlessly. When I suggested to Lia that she help build Mike’s confidence by phoning him each day and talking about his victories, the parents insisted that she would not be welcome in their home if she continued. Sharon said, “With a house full of children and the stresses of life, I have no time for Adahan nonsense.”

When Mike’s teachers complained that he was violent with his peers, sullen and uncommunicative, the parents consulted a psychiatrist, determined to find which psychiatric meds would make him calm and compliant. They seemed so devoted that the doctor saw only a disturbed child, not the background which produced his misery.

Anger is truly expensive. It seems to work like magic with little children, getting them to clean up, go to bed, be quiet, and pretty much do anything parents want. But the “angry, short way” is actually the very long way. Brain research shows that a child’s brain development is affected not only by physical abuse or neglect, but also by chronic verbal violence between parents, even when the child is asleep. Mike has learned to hate himself and to fear people.

A high-conflict home teaches children that the world is not safe and that people are dangerous. When parents are abusive, children inevitably becomes violent toward themselves or others, for they have learned that this is what relationships are all about—hurting and being hurt. They keep pushing their parents’ buttons, proving to themselves that their parents cannot be trusted. Some turn to addictions for soothing, since a computer, chocolate or alcohol will never be angry, rejecting or disappointing—the opposite, the addiction welcomes you with open arms, offering an illusion of “love” in the form of a fake connection.

So, what can we do when kids push our buttons, or we feel frazzled, exhausted, overwhelmed and irritated? Anger is hard-wired into our brains; as infants, we cry when we are hungry, bored or irritated. Even as adults, our “baby brain” puts up a big fuss whenever we feel deprived physically or emotionally. What can we do when kids push our buttons?But as adults, we can make new choices and override the primitive brain. The next time you feel anger, do this:

  1. Feel the pain. You are human. Raising kids is hard. Don’t deny that you feel upset, angry, betrayed, disappointed, frustrated or hurt. Name the loss. Children cause physical losses, such as the loss of comfort, privacy, space, structure, cleanliness, order, safety, time or sleep. They can cause emotional losses, such as the loss of love, respect, self-confidence, recognition, validation, belonging, fairness, communication, or the fulfillment of a dream. If you name it, you can tame it!
  2. Thank G‑d. Think, “G‑d, You are causing this child to act this way right now to give me an opportunity to work on my middot. I can practice patience, maturity and compassion, or I can destroy my relationship and raise my blood pressure and cholesterol.”
  3. “Water” the positive. Whatever you water grows. Mike’s mother has already “watered” anger and hatred. The only way to avoid this is by talking constantly to children about your own and their victories. Keep a list on the fridge. Repeat their victories to friends and family members. Repeat the list at the Shabbat table. This teaches children that they are capable of self-control and are essentially good. G‑d forbid that they should internalize the message, like Mike, that “I am worthless, unloved and a failure.”

Doing this is like exercising a muscle. You get used to responding to stress and discomfort by focusing on solutions instead of acting like an enraged animal. It is important to remember that children only have a primitive, impulsive brain. Their prefrontal cortex, the problem-solving brain, is not fully developed until between 20–25 years of age. You can teach them self-control only if you praise them enthusiastically whenever they are obedient and cooperative, and by showing them how you practice self-control.

Children only have a primitive, impulsive brain

A bully thinks, “Anger motivates me to demand that my needs be met and my rights respected! I must get angry or people will deprive, disrespect and abuse me.” Don’t teach your kids to be bullies. If you cannot control yourself, have the humility to seek outside help before your children’s lives are ruined.

As a young mother, I wrote out a statement and put it in my siddur: “I will not open my mouth unless I have love in my heart.” We are told, “In the way a person wishes to go, he is given divine assistance” (Talmud, Makkot 10a). I witnessed many miracles in my own life. I could not always get others to cooperate or treat me with respect, but I maintained my sanity and sense of self-worth. And that was more important than anything I thought I needed at the moment. Try it! You’ll save a lot of money on therapists.

Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Dr. Miriam Adahan is a psychologist, therapist, prolific author and founder of EMETT (“Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah”)—a network of self-help groups dedicated to personal growth. Click here to visit her website.
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Federico Arrarte Canada November 23, 2013

thank you for the article; seems that nowadays we have to harmonize, weaknesses and strengths amid a diverse cultural background of our children; we hear and we listen, next we act, hopefully not solely from our own cultural background but from the ones we keep trying to understand Reply

Anonymous Orange County, CA November 22, 2013

Can you relate to most people's circumstances? What this article, and most psychologists seem to forget is the effect external influences have in the majority of cases. Job loss, unreasonable executive demands of the parents at the job when they have one, the general coldness of modern society - Jewish or otherwise. In an ideal world where both parents have a stable situation, what a child does one can easily roll off their back. As this world becomes more insensitive to others' situations though, actions of a child simply become the straw that breaks the camel's back. I am not in any way condoning parental abuse, and I am one who personally tries to act as an umbrella for my children, keeping all of the world's problems away from them while the rest of the world leaves me either inverted or in tatters. I find, as we fall into this world of dismay as the prophet Amos prophesized, anger is more of a societal issue than a personal accountability issue. I feel from reading this Miriam Adahan lives in a bubble, am I wrong? Reply

Aryeh Rosenblatt Alexandria VA November 21, 2013

I'm in the same boat Dear Craig

I also have a five year old and have mental illness. I have various diagnoses and this really affects my family life. This article really helped me and I encourage you to view her website. It’s great! Reply

David Jones Brandon November 20, 2013

Children copy us Thankyou for expressing this wisdom. If anyone has ever had a child, then they can relate to this article. "If you can't say anything nice, then say nothing at all." We teach our kids through words and our actions. I hated when my Dad would get mad and curse really badly. I swore that I would never say anything close to those words when I got older, but I did. Generation to generation. We have to practice self control. It ain't easy, I can tell you that. I will keep trying! We should have a goal of getting better everyday. Reply

Anonymous November 20, 2013

help! I know all these Ideas It seems so true but for some odd reason when your angry you forget! Reply

Shulamit Melbourne, Australia. November 20, 2013

Thank you! I always feel inspired by your articles! Reply

Tamara Lieb Portland, or November 20, 2013

Anger is expensive This is the best article I have ever read addressing adult anger and children. Very enlightening and helpful read. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA November 20, 2013

I would never suggest parenting this way, but maybe some positivity may be extracted from evil. Let’s consider this a different way. Perhaps, that since your child no longer cares it is that he or she has never before been so open to the possibility of having faith, and Torah observance that comes from the gut, instead of just superficial observance. Why do I say this? Your child no longer cares! He or she is free from judgment, and is also free to be a Jew in the most radical sense. Your child is free to love Gd in any way that he or she wants. Heaven forefend that anymore punishment should occur, but I would imagine that there is a spark of goodness in this child, and if it can be cultivated careful, the result could be a flame of righteousness. However, be careful because your child has some catching up to do. His or her peers will probably be more advanced in normal behavior, and the route to goodness can be long and hard. However, let’s pray for the best. Reply

Chasida Mortner Brooklyn November 20, 2013

Wonderful Direction Your deep care for Jewish families is the core of my listening to your advice.
I realize by your training that if we start by understanding our own emotions and not demand that our children feel and act as little soldiers because it make us feel good we can all grow in the Torah way and bring light.

May you only see revealed good in all you do
Chasida Crown Heights Reply

Michelle UK November 20, 2013

Thank YOU especially for the last paragraph summary. this is a shelf I am sitting on on my mountain climb ~ and it has felt a lonely place and I've found it hard to accept and let go of the fact that i'm not alone, not totally responsible and trust ~ that as painful as parenting has gotten in this house, G-d has a plan and I just need to work with Him and allow it to unfold, regardless of what the authorities and schools tell me, I am here to work on myself AND help my Son by serving G-d. Reply

froly November 20, 2013

i totally agree with Dr. Miriam Adahan. My children are now in their 20s. And I'm glad I decided to take the 'long way' in rearing them way back in their babyhood, despite being horibbly judged by my 'goody-two-shoes' fellow-parents.

Thank you for writing such wisdom, Dr. Adahan Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA November 19, 2013

Deet-doo and Doot-dee The issue of children and discipline is something I have struggled with, especially because I have bipolar disorder. My son is now 5 and we have a good relationship. He happily says that he loves mommy as much as daddy. However, when he was 3ish or 4ish I was having a manic episode. My chart says bipolar - most recent episode, manic and severe. During this time when I was hospitalized, my son got fully potty trained. My wife told me that it happened most likely because I was not at home, such that he could relax and poop on the potty. This made me feel horrible. Luckily, he remembers back before my most recent episode; back when we used to exchange, "Deet-doo," and "Doot-dee," as a language, as later when I questioned him later what do those words mean that we have been saying, and he said, "It means, 'I love you,'" which absolutely melted my heart. I am glad that he loves me, and I hope that I don't lose control due to bipolar again. Reply

Anonymous November 19, 2013

BH thanks, I will write a note in my sidur inmediatly Reply

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