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Helping Children Adapt to Difficult Situations

April 28, 2010

We generally react to a problem in one of two ways. We either try to fix it or, if it is not worth our time, we simply walk away. But what do we do if the problem cannot be fixed and is not something from which we can easily walk away? We are left facing an intractable situation. Our frustration and vulnerability builds and we are likely to experience anxiety, anger, confusion, and/or fear because we are truly stuck in a place not of our own choosing.

For example, let's say a bright, funny, and energetic fourteen-year-old girl named Leah goes to school one day and finds that her best friend has suddenly picked up a whole new group of friends and literally turns her back to her when they meet in the morning. Leah is confused and hurt and seeks out the friend at lunch. However, she continues to get the cold shoulder. She gets through the the day in a daze and goes home very depressed. The situation goes on for days and then weeks. Leah tries everything she can think of to reconnect with her friend but nothing works. What does she do? She can't get her friend back but she can't walk away from her either.

Leah's saving grace comes in the form of her parents who see that she is struggling with something and is just "not herself." They find a quiet moment one evening to talk. Leah quickly breaks down, sobs, and explains what has happened with her friend. This releases all the dammed up hurt feelings. She borrowed the strength to adapt to her new reality because her parents were there to hold onto when she was drowning in misery. Although still heartbroken, she realizes that she is just going to have to get on with her life. Leah remembers that she has other friends and determines to find a new after-school project to fill the time usually spent with her (former) best friend.

What would have happened, however, if Leah's parents did not notice her change, or were not even there to see it? Or they did see it, but Leah did not want to share her secret with them? Most likely she would have remained miserable. Other parts of her life would begin to suffer and she would need to develop "coping strategies" to get through her days. Instead of thriving she would just be surviving, with her personal growth on indefinite hold.

Life demands that we adapt to unworkable situations all the time. But as this narrative illustrates, that is not always easy because it often means giving up something precious.

Children need to be able to turn to their parents. Adults should also be able to turn to their parents, as well as spouses, or other deep attachments. Ultimately, the strongest attachment – one that will never go away – is with G‑d. Connecting to G‑d is a life-long pursuit that pays off when we really need it. In the best scenario, we will have a web of strong and varied attachments that offer us the necessary support to gracefully adapt to difficult situations.

Dealing with Temper Tantrums

April 22, 2010

Temper tantrums can be frightening to families, especially when those tantrums continue on an ongoing basis. It can be frightening to the child who feels that they are losing control. The anxiety that they generate can be felt for a prolonged period of time, long after the outburst itself. A child's unbridled anger causes parents to feel helpless, and a parent may begin to question him/herself and wonder who is really in control in this house. For both adults and children alike, these uncontrollable negative emotions are uncomfortable and unpleasant.

A child chooses this behavior as a way to vent feelings for a variety of reasons. The most common and simple cause of milder temper tantrums is that the child is spoiled. A spoiled child will often have his parents wrapped around his finger. He will know how to manipulate his parents and will understand that his parents' embarrassment over a publicly screaming child will cause them to give in to anything. A parent needs to scrutinize his reactions to his child's behavior which allow for such behavior to exist publicly. To change a reaction, a parent needs to change their initial response to their child. If a child really believes that "no" is "no" and not "maybe," perhaps these tantrums will not occur. If a child really believes that screaming publicly will only incur worse consequences later on, perhaps a child will attempt other means to gain what he desires. A parent must honestly take stock and ask himself if he is being consistent in his words and actions. If one is consistent, tantrums are less likely to occur, because the child knows that the tantrum will not change things, and that there will be negative consequences due to his screaming.

A more serious type of temper tantrum is that of the very frustrated child. These are children that fight with siblings and begin to have temper tantrums when they are unable to express themselves verbally. Their inability to express themselves and deal with anger causes them to become more and more frustrated, until their emotions can only be expressed through tears and general uncontrollability. This type of child cannot usually be reached by a rational problem-solving parent, as the child's response itself is no longer logical. Consumed by a feeling of "not being understood," a parent's logical explanation of the child's problem will not dissipate his pain. Instead, a child needs to have an "illogical" response, in a sense. As the child cannot find the words to express his outrage, a parent can try and formulate what the parents think the child might be feeling. An example of this might be, "Chani started up with you. She called you stupid – it's not fair."

Though Chani may not appreciate having you "take her sister's side," this is often necessary to help allow the child to form their thoughts and give them passageway to leave the realm of hysteria. Once the screaming child is calmer, a more honest appraisal of the situation can be made by both siblings.

In such a situation, punishment for the tantrum is not usually helpful. The child's anger was due to extreme frustration, and not due to a desire to manipulate others. After such an episode, attempting prevention of future outbursts is a more constructive way of dealing with this problem.

Prevention of tantrums could involve discussing ways of appropriately expressing anger. Asking a child what she might have wanted her parent to do in the actual situation is another example of what can be done. However, the child's suggestion may not be able to be carried out in a future circumstance, and a parent needs to explain why this idea would not be possible. Ultimately, a child needs to be allowed to express frustration and see his parents desire to work together with him.

Sometimes temper tantrums reflect a more global problem that is occurring in the home. It might be a family, medical, or even emotional crisis. Whatever the cause, a child can sometimes almost "absorb" the tension of the home, internalizing an overwhelming feeling of tension, and is only able to vent these feelings in fits of rage. Such anger expresses the anxiety of the home, and the problem needs to be resolved within the family system.

In some cases, uncontrollable tantrums reflect a more severe problem within an individual child and professional help is necessary. In such cases, a more in-depth approach needs to be followed.

Working with anger is a lifetime task, difficult for both parent and child. Yet helping a child effectively cope with negative emotions is a tremendous gift that all parents can give to their children.

Teaching Children Happiness Skills

April 15, 2010


My child almost always complains about what he's been given. He often whines that he gets "too little" or that others have better toys, clothes, and lunches than him. What can I do?


This is a very common lament from parents. What can we do to prevent children – and consequently their parents – from whining? Perhaps the first step is to understand that it is not our job to ensure that our children are kept happy all the time. It would be wonderful, however, for us to help them develop happiness skills that have the potential to transform their entire lives, and ours.

One of my children's books, The Happiness Box, demonstrates critical steps needed to acquire happiness skills. It's the story of a boy who is never happy with anything he got.

When a new washing machine is delivered to the boy's house, his father decides to turn the big box from which the washing machine came, into a Happiness Box. The father introduces his son to this special box by telling him:

"I've made a door for the Happiness Box.
Step in carefully.
The good that's found in everything
Is all that you will see."

The boy is hesitant, but he goes inside the box anyway, and gives it a try. He starts off by thinking about his favorite kinds of food. Next, he thinks about his favorite toys, sneakers, Jewish holidays, until eventually even his own eyes and ears become sources of gratitude and appreciation.

In the days ahead, whenever he is feeling badly, he goes back inside that special, cozy place in order to focus on what he enjoys, and he inevitably emerges more cheerful. One day, however, when he is on a bus going to camp and feeling kind of lonely, he starts wishing that there was some way he could take that great big Happiness Box along with him. And then it hits him:

"I must have laughed right out loud,
The moment it was clear.
The Box was right there with me.
There was no need to fear!"

What this boy eventually understands is what we can all realize with enough practice:

"There's a Happiness Box in your head, you see.
It's a Happiness Box if you let it be!
But if it's hard to use your head,
Just get a cardboard box instead!"

Through the years, I have heard from parents, as well as children, who've created similar Happiness Boxes. There are usually plenty of Happiness Boxes in the back of stores selling large appliances just waiting to be recycled in this wonderful way!

Another method for instilling happiness skills involves playing a "Gratitude Game" over dinner or a Shabbat meal. Going around the table, from youngest to oldest, highlights of the day or week can be expressed. Just about everybody seems to have a good time participating in this happiness-building activity, even more so as the years go by.

One more fairly subtle yet effective technique for instilling gratitude skills, specifically in very young children, involves the parent gently holding onto the sippy cup, piece of paper, box of crayons, etc., until the child expresses his gratitude. In the beginning, a parent may need to whisper the "magic words" for the object to be released, but soon, a silent smile from the parent will be the only cue needed. Children tend to catch on pretty quickly to this exercise, and its invaluable lessons are absorbed deeply.

Guess what happens when happiness-building skills are inculcated through repeated practice in a pleasant manner? Entire homes can be transformed into Happiness Boxes!

When Your Children Delete You...

April 8, 2010

One of the tragic consequences of an unhappy marriage is that grown children may distance themselves from you. It is understandable that they would want to be distant from people who were addicted, abusive or neglectful. But what is very confusing is that many children turn against the parent who was the most loving and who tried most heroically to keep the marriage together despite the abuse. If you were a loving parent and feel as if you've been thrown out in the cold, you are, no doubt, grief-stricken and bewildered, wondering how this could happen. Each day, you wonder how it is that despite all you did for them, they rarely call, or are abrupt in conversations, annoyed that you called or too busy to talk.

Surely your heart constricts in pain when you are not invited to family get-togethers or are told not to send e-mails. One mother said, "My oldest daughter and I were especially close. I was always her best friend and confidant. But as soon as she married, she suddenly had no time for me. She never invites me to visit, yet does everything to please her domineering mother-in-law, who comes frequently. I long to share the details of our lives as we once did. I can't get used to being stonewalled. Being deleted is devastating, worse than death."

This type of grief involves ongoing pain for which there is no closure or cure. In order to avoid adding to the pain you already feel, make sure that you:

1. Avoid guilt. Unless you were intentionally abusive or neglectful, you must forgive yourself over and over again. You did your best under very trying circumstances, despite the fact that you did not always behave in a saintly manner, given the grief, abuse and lack of love. You assume that abused children would want distance from the abusive parent. Yet, ironically, they may crave that person's love! While the loving parent's love is often unappreciated and taken for granted, a child who spent years hungering for love may experience an intense craving to fulfill that need as an adult. Or, they may associate you with the disturbed parent, no matter how loving you were, wanting nothing to do with either. It's like a "package deal" in their minds; when they think of you, they think of the other.

2. Ask the child if there is anything you can do now to improve the relationship. If you were abusive, ask for forgiveness. Let the child talk about the painful incidents without getting defensive or angry. However, if the child is vindictive and vicious, say, "I am sorry, but I must end the conversation. I did my best and I will not abuse myself more by taking abuse." You are probably the type who will do anything to stay connected, which is why you stayed in an abusive relationship in the first place. But taking more abuse now in the hope that this will heal the wounds is unhealthy. Nastiness has a strong genetic component which they may have inherited from the disturbed parent.

3. Understand their pain. Living in a dysfunctional family engenders great shame and anxiety in children. Having witnessed abnormal behavior, they may think it is normal and justified to act that way. If your spouse punished you by not talking for weeks, children think that this is acceptable. They may have learned to exploit you shamelessly to get money or attention, or learned to bully and speak scornfully if they saw you scorned. If you divorced, they may be angry that you ruined their childhood. If you did not divorce, they may be angry that you did not provide them with a happier childhood. For multiple reasons, you may have taught them to be super-secretive to outsiders, which taught them to withhold information. Children want to be on the "winning side," i.e., the side of power. Many children associate power with being cold, cynical and insensitive. Children learn to dissociate, disconnect and distrust if there is no one to trust. Remember, the one who wants the relationship least is the one who controls it. This is a painful fact of life.

4. Do not criticize or threaten. Don't give into the temptation to tell them that they are heartless, self-centered or narcissistic. Don't say, "You'll cry over my grave when I'm gone! G‑d will punish you for ignoring me," or "You only call when you want money!" Don't beg them to visit or call you, as this will poison the relationship even further. Love cannot be forced. It must come from within. This is the best they can do with the level of awareness they have at this point in life.

5. Don't try to figure it out. Loving parents often "process the past" obsessively, trying to figure out, "What did I do wrong? Was I too harsh? Did I take my bitterness and frustration out on them? Was I too indulgent, afraid to discipline them for fear of alienating my only source of love? Was I scared they would hate me or snitch on me that I gave in? Did that cause their selfishness? Did I use them as "spouse substitutes," craving their warmth, so that scorned me as needy and clingy? Did I use them as "therapist substitutes," sharing the gory details of my misery, which made them feel overly burdened? Did I turn them into "parent substitutes," looking to them for security and advice, which caused them to hate me? Perhaps I was not there for them, since I was the sole wage-earner and was away for hours, thus forcing them to manage on their own?" Whatever the answers, speculating will drive you crazy. In the end, we can never know with 100% certainty what causes children to become alienated.

6. Learn to "manage" the grief, like a physical illness which cannot be cured and must be managed. Avoid comparing yourself to those who have warm and loving relationships with their children. Comparisons will cause you to drown in self-pity. Yes, it is painful to see grown children and grandchildren visiting their parents when your home is empty. It is even more painful to be told that your children are friendly with their in-laws or those who caused you the greatest pain. To handle the grief and avoid feeling like a failure, I strongly suggest using EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique. EFT teaches us to accept the pain in our lives and to grow from it.

7. Enjoy life to whatever extent possible. Enjoy flowers and hobbies. Take a dance class. You must have a source of love in your life. Find people who can appreciate your loving heart. There are endless organizations that need help, and many real orphans or "emotional orphans" who crave someone's love.

We have very little control over who likes or dislikes us. All we can do is be proud of ourselves for facing the pain with faith and compassion. People may not always understand or have compassion for us, but we can try to understand them and be compassionate toward ourselves. By filling our hearts with compassion, we are open to all kinds of possibilities.

While some children do become closer with the years, there are no guarantees. No matter what happens, radiate confidence and competence! Do not expect understanding or pity. Use the pain to spur you to contribute to your community and to create a rock-solid relationship with G‑d.

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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