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Help! I've got kids...

How to Calm Down when the Stakes are Up

January 25, 2009

Your daughter asked for permission to go to her friend's house after school. You gave it. Later, you realized she might be able to run an errand for you on her way home so you called the friend's house to ask to speak to your daughter. You were shocked to discover that she never arrived at the house and that, as far as this mom knows, the two girls went to the mall to meet some friends.

Fast forward two hours. Your daughter arrives home. Do you:

  1. Immediately send her to her room.
  2. Greet her by yelling at her for lying to you.
  3. Ask her where she went after school.
  4. Ignore her and refuse to speak to her for several days.
  5. All of the above.
  6. None of the above.

What you decide to do depends largely on what you did during the intervening two hours. Did you:

  1. Call your spouse and rant about your daughter's horrible personality.
  2. Go to your private inner space and berate yourself for being such a failure of a parent to have such a daughter.
  3. Go to your private inner space and sink into despair and/or depression.
  4. Replay in your mind all the things your daughter ever did wrong.
  5. Use a special technique to calm your nerves.
  6. Ask someone you trust for advice.
  7. Search the web for interventions for lying children.
  8. Remember what you learned from the last parenting book you read and/or at the last parenting class you attended.
  9. 5, 6, 7, and/or 8.

It's really hard to solve parenting problems when we're upset. When a child "pushes our buttons" to "on" we have to push them back to "off." We don't want our childhood failures, betrayals and other wounds flashing past our eyes when our actual child needs us to be in adult mode. Although kids routinely do things that trigger our strong emotions, we need to explore those emotions and release them before we attempt to deal with the child. Otherwise, we will just be "acting out." Screaming at a child, insulting her, heaping huge negative consequences upon her and other acts of irrationality not only hurt the child and our relationship with her, but they also hurt us. We know we're out of control and it doesn't feel good at all.

It's far better for us to deal with our upset and then approach the parenting dilemma intelligently and calmly. As the Torah teaches us, "the words of the wise are heard softly"; meaning that if you want someone to really hear you, you need to be speaking calmly and quietly to them. That's really hard to do if you're very upset.

There is, fortunately for us, an easy, powerful technique for emotional release called WHEE (Whole Healing Easily and Effectively). Although it looks too simple to be of any real value, WHEE actually goes right to the heart of our parenting pain and rapidly (within minutes) releases it and restores us to calm. WHEE works on the level of the mind, transforming memories, feelings, body sensations and neural pathways. Here is a short description of how to do the technique:

  1. Rate how upset you are between 1 and 10.
  2. Say (out loud or silently) "Even though I'm so upset about… (name your problem in lots of detail)… I love and accept myself completely and G‑d loves and accepts me too." For example, "Even though I'm really upset that my daughter didn't tell me the truth and this reminds me of how difficult she's been for 12 years now and how tired I am of having to deal with it, I love and accept myself completely and G‑d loves me too."
  3. Fold your arms so that both hands are top of your arms (this is called the Butterfly Position). Tap your hands alternately left/right, left/right and think about the troubling situation and your upset feelings in as much detail as you can. Continue tapping and thinking for about 20 seconds. E.g. tapping while thinking, "I can't believe she tried to pull this off… I'm so tired of her behavior… I can't take it anymore… I'm going to let her have it..."
  4. Keep tapping but now think a positive thought pertaining to the subject at hand. Tap for another 10 seconds. E.g. "G‑d will help me to get through this."
  5. Rest your hands on your lap. Take a deep breath in and out and relax. Now rate the problem again between 1 and 10.
  6. Keep doing rounds of tapping on whatever thoughts and feelings are coming up until you are completely calm—at a "zero."

The whole WHEE process usually takes just a few minutes. Once you are calm, you'll be able to find an appropriate solution to your parenting challenge and carry it out with composure and confidence. WHEE is like a fast ride downhill from a high peak of frustration, fear, grief or other upset. Use it whenever you want your parenting brain to function at its very best!

Helping Children Overcome a Trauma

January 18, 2009

As a local trauma therapist, I am often called upon to lend a helping ear after a traumatic event. Often children have been exposed to things none of us should ever see. Blood and injuries, screams of physical and emotional anguish. Many have nightmares and flashbacks; others, for example, don't ever again want to drive in a car.

While each situation should be dealt with on an individualized basis, it's important to discuss a few general tips for helping children cope with trauma:

What they are experiencing is normal and okay. Children often fear that they are weird or "going crazy" due to what they are experiencing. This additional level of distress can complicate attending to their inherent reactions to the incident.

Explain that you, and the entire family, are going through this together. Children may be concerned that they are alone in their thoughts and feelings. Knowing that you are there with them is exceptionally comforting. "Imo Anochi b'tzarah—I (G‑d) am with him in his troubles," the Psalmist tells us. G‑d's empathic caring, so to speak, is an essential trait for us to emulate.

Hear them out. Even if you saw it yourself. Even if they have told it to you already. Even if it is difficult for you to revisit and remember. (Just make sure that you stay calm and have someone that you can turn to as well.)

Assure them that they are safe and secure. One reason why people exposed to trauma keep repeating what they saw, is so that others will assure them that they are safe. ("Tell me, Daddy and Mommy, will I really be okay?") Don't promise them that nothing bad will ever happen in their lives, but also don't speak in detail about all the bad things that may happen. Simply tell them, "We are here for you, and always will be. Our family shares together in all important things that go on with our children. You will always be cared for."

Focus on the positive. Utilize some of the "teachable moments" that resulted from the trauma. Focus them on how miraculous it was that even more extensive damage and harm did not occur. Accentuate the incredible outpouring of kindness or helpfulness from strangers that they may have observed.

However, in the rush to focus on the positive, be careful not to ignore how children are feeling.

Following a serious bus crash a number of years ago, a school adamantly refused all offers of mental-health assistance, despite the pleas of parents and students. They insisted on "handling things internally." Mega-doses of discussions on faith, Divine Providence and positive thinking were dispensed. The results? Many children recovered quickly. The catch? Some of the remaining students actually reported feeling worse. This latter group couldn't adequately give vent to their traumatic feelings and weren't receiving any validation for what they were going through. On top of everything else, they now feared that they were lacking in faith and gratitude, since they weren't yet religiously "moved" by the moment.

Get them involved in hands-on projects. When a trauma occurs, children feel as if their world has turned upside down. There is no longer any feeling of control, power, or safety. This can be terrifying for anyone, especially children. It's the role of adults to help restore some sense of control, at least over the "inner world" which we all carry around.

Allow them to have some voice in choosing their projects. They can write stories and poems, or opt to paint and draw. They can focus on the event or express themselves in general terms. Encourage them to give charity, preferably to a charity or fund where they can directly understand that they are helping people. Have them recite prayers together with you for those still injured. A visit to a recovering friend or neighbor can achieve great results too.

"Getting back on the horse." A 17-year-old high-school student was once attacked by a group of armed youths as he walked through a playground. He was eventually saved by a courageous young man just as he fell unconscious. As I met with the student at the hospital a few days later, his rescuer unexpectedly arrived to make a visit. The injured teen said he was afraid to ever go near the playground again. The rescuer responded with the following story: "One summer I went on a program in the Midwest. We took the campers horseback riding, and one of them fell off his horse and got a bloody nose. He started crying, 'I'll never get on a horse again!' A cowhand came right up to the camper and admonished, 'Kid, in this business, people always fall off horses. The main thing is to get right back on!'"

Sometimes you can encourage a child to "get back on the horse" very quickly. For other children, it may entail a more step-by-step process. For example, for children in a car accident who no longer want to drive in a car it might mean sitting in an idling car one day, driving around the block the next day, eventually building up to regular driving. Know your child and listen to what he or she is saying.

Stick to routine. And be flexible. Which one is it? A little of both. Routine can provide a child with structure and comfort. But be prepared for the distinct possibility that compromise and flexibility may be needed, as well. Be prepared to add some extra time for them to fall asleep, or to read or play. If you feel that a young child needs to sleep with you for the night, or that you need to go into his or her room to facilitate sleeping, use expressions like, "Since it has been such a tough day, you can join us tonight." You want to avoid unwittingly fostering a situation where your child now "needs" to constantly sleep in your room.

Take care of yourself! Make sure that you have someone to vent to (spouse, sibling, neighbor, friend, rabbi/rebbetzin, therapist). Review some of the tips for children and find those that are applicable to you as well. Since you are already busy being Superman/Superwoman, try this "mission impossible" on for size: Find a way to fit something relaxing or enjoyable into your hectic schedule—if not daily, then at least on a weekly basis.

Remember: If you get overwhelmed, you won't be able to help yourself or your children!


January 11, 2009

Q. Dear Bracha, My ten year old son comes home from school very disturbed. Apparently there is a class bully who humiliates and teases him and does the same for anyone who tries to oppose him. While I suggested to my son that I would call his teachers, principal or the parents of this boy to apprise them of the situation, he is afraid of repercussions and things turning even worse. What should I do? Is there a way to teach him how to handle these bullies?

A. You are asking me a very difficult question. Unlike other parenting questions where the action to correct the situation is largely in the hands of the parents, in bullying, most of the time parents are helpless to protect their child and must rely on others involved—which may have poor results.

First let me say that your son's fear of repercussions is unfortunately well founded. As we all know children can be quite cruel at times and whatever he is experiencing, it can get worse. Bullying is a very serious problem and should never be taken lightly.

The main thing to understand is that bullying is an attack on a person's self-esteem. The bully makes the victim feel helpless to control the situation as well as literally telling the victim he is worthless. Your primary concern after the safety of your son would be to build up his self-esteem in real and tangible ways in order for him to be able to grow and gain strength, so that he will never be in a position of believing what the bully is saying about him. Eventually it is hoped that the victim will be able to truly understand that no one has the right to do this to him or her—which is the first step in giving your child the ability to stand up to the bully on his or her own.

No matter what is going on at school, make sure your son is involved in the home doing things that are helpful or developing skills that he appreciates and you can comment positively on. As long as he can think of himself as a capable person he will have what it takes to rise above his current situation.

It may be useful to look into groups that help children develop social skills or are geared to those children having problems such as your son. Start by asking your pediatrician about any information he may have in this area.

Let me leave you with a few more thoughts about bullying:

  • Some schools have a zero tolerance policy for bullying. However the policy is only as good as those who implement it. Direction and effectiveness comes down from the top. You should assess the competence of the administration and teachers who will be directly involved if you bring the matter to their attention. If you wish to go ahead and speak to them, it is not necessary for you to mention the perpetrator's name. By withholding the name of the bully, yet making sure the adults are aware that bullying is taking place, allows them to increase their vigilance of the classroom situation in a more even manner. A lot depends on whether the school has been successful in handling such situations in the past, as, like everything else, it takes practice to be able to deal these situations effectively.

    Some schools have done an excellent job in training their students to support one another and stand united in unfair situations. Teaching children to voice their concerns as a group, to stand up to the perpetrator and tell him that he is being unfair or mean, has an immediately positive effect on the situation. The perpetrator is also a person that the staff should be focusing on to promote his self worth by commenting when he behaves positively.
  • The experts will tell you that "in an extreme situation where the bullying cannot be controlled, the child should be removed from the setting (e.g. school, camp, clique, etc.) where this is happening. No matter the hardships (social, financial, etc.) involved in such a move, one should never underestimate the long term emotional negative effects bullying can have on a child."

    Even though I would agree with this statement, we live in an imperfect world. Removing a child from his friends because of a bully may be fraught with problems and make a bad situation worse. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that the new school will be without a bully ready to pounce on the "newbie" who has no friends to protect him. Please judge the situation carefully and, if this turns out to be your answer, proceed with caution.
  • In all situations where a child is under stress I suggest that families consider adopting an animal such as a cat. Animal therapy is totally amazing and I have seen it work wonders. Sitting and stroking a pet will bleed off tension that otherwise will remain inside your child or come out as anger at family members who are the only safe targets your child has.
  • Sometimes people who have this problem tell me it is because their son is too shy or not assertive enough. While these may be contributing factors, the fact is your child is probably a good kid. We all know that a bully does not pick on another child who he is afraid will "knock his block off"; he chooses "safe targets."

    I know what I am speaking about. I also had a son who had troubles with a bully (many years ago before I became wise...). My son was the strongest child I knew and very good natured. In frustration over the unrelenting situation I told him to hit the bully as hard as he could. My son came back the next day and when I asked him did he hit the bully, he said no, "Mom I just couldn't do it, hitting is wrong." And you know he's right and who taught that to him…I did. So I ask you to try to keep things in perspective and remember your son is showing good character traits, as it says in Ethics of the Fathers 4:1: "Who is strong? One who controls his passions." Your son did not respond in anger and strike out at his tormentor; he is showing the good stuff he is made of!

I hope I have been some help in this difficult situation.

Wishing you and your family all the best!

Mother Burn Out

January 4, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

I have great kids. They are creative, funny, fun-loving, and playful. They bring me a lot of nachas. Yet lately, I can't seem to enjoy them the way I usually do. In fact, although it sounds terrible, sometimes I wish they would go away and leave me alone. My friends keep telling me how lucky I am to have such great kids, and that only makes me feel worse. How can I get out of this rut, and and begin enjoying being their Mom again?

No Fun Being Mommy

Dear No Fun Being Mommy,

It sounds like you are experiencing burn-out. Mother burn-out is a common phenomenon, and is in no way a reflection on whether or not you love your children. Just like being physically exhausted, when you need to sleep to replenish your physical strength, mother burn-out is a state of emotional exhaustion, when a mother needs to turn inward, and focus on nurturing herself and replenishing her inner resources before she can regain her ability to nurture her family.

Reading between the lines, it sounds like your funny and creative kids also demand a lot of attention and care, the way all kids do. Right now, rather than feel guilty about the way you are feeling, the important thing to do is to accept the situation, and create a plan of action to help you recharge your batteries. Mother burn-out is a type of nurture-overload. It is a wake-up call for Mommy to start focusing on herself as a person, and not just a Mommy.

Interestingly, there is a precedent in the Torah for recognizing that a woman is more than "just a mother." Both Eve, the first woman, and Sarah, our first matriarch, had previous names before they took on their maternal roles. Eve, the mother of all living, was called Isha – the female counterpart of man – before motherhood became her primary identity. Sarah was called Yiska before her marriage to Abraham. Both these names, Isha and Yiska, refer to the spiritual identities of these great women.

I am sure that you also have another name besides Mom, and had a different identity before motherhood. It is time to reconnect with who you were, and figure out what parts of yourself need to be brought back into your life now.

There are several ways to respond to mother burn-out. Religious communities have long recognized the intense responsibilities that mothers and wives carry, and as a result have responded by providing small retreats for mothers in a local hotel. Just like sleep-away camp for Mommies, these several days of fun provide a chance to rest, relax, and be pampered. Check your synagogue or community bulletin to see whether this is available in your area.

Even if it is not available, you can recreate this for yourself by going with your husband for a small holiday in a hotel for two or three nights. Or, if that's not possible invite a friend or a sister to join you.

Another option is to bring in more household help. A cleaning lady and a babysitter can be just as nurturing as a massage therapist to a stressed out Mommy. Finally, consider taking a course, such as art, writing, exercise, or Torah learning, which will allow you to express yourself, learn something new, and make some new friends.

Finally, open up and share how you are feeling with friends you are close to. What you are experiencing is completely normal, and almost any experienced and honest mother will acknowledge that she too has experienced these feelings at times.

Just about every career requires prior course training, and often some work-related experience.

Becoming a parent can be one of the most responsible positions we undertake, yet most of us do so unprepared and without any prior knowledge.

What makes your child tick? How can you learn to communicate better so your child will listen? Dealing with bedtime fights? Teaching gentleness? Arranging allowances and chores?

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