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Raising a Difficult Child

May 31, 2009

Some kids are easier to raise than others. They are cooperative, happy, flexible and a joy to be with; they make their parents look like parenting geniuses. Others, however, can be moody, stubborn, wild, anxious, intense or otherwise challenging. Despite their parents' best efforts, these kids are aggressive or uncooperative or somehow difficult to deal with. They've inherited certain traits that make their lives hard, and their parents' lives hard as well.

Youngsters in this group have been dubbed the "challenging child," the "spirited child" and even the "difficult child." They sometimes have received clinical diagnoses that explain some of their symptoms: the may have ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Asperger Syndrome, Childhood Depression, an Anxiety Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder or something else. Very often, they have nothing that can be formally named: they're just difficult.

Parents have to deal with their disappointment when raising this kind of child. Everyone wants nachas from their youngster—the pride that parents feel upon sending a little mentch out into the world. Parents love to hear from teachers and other parents how clever, well-behaved and well-liked their child is. When what they hear is a litany of sour reports ("He doesn't seem to have any friends," "He scares the other children," "She has trouble listening," "She is impulsive"), their hearts sink. Every parent tries his or her best. They sometimes feel like it is their fault that they're child isn't behaving nicely. No parent is perfect, but in most cases it is not the parents who make a difficult child difficult—the child is born this way. His genetically inherited cluster of traits comes together in a way that makes him dramatic, tough, needy, oversensitive, negative and/or unhappy. He's just difficult.

The difficult child is sometimes only difficult at home. In these cases, he manages to pull himself together at school but then disintegrates upon entering his house. This is some comfort for the parents who are at least spared the agony of public shame, but they still feel helpless, overwhelmed and miserable at home in having to deal with disobedience, tantrums, endless demands or other unpleasant behaviors.

Parents of difficult kids need to be gentle on themselves. They shouldn't blame themselves for the difficulties the child has. Unless they've been abusing the youngster, their parenting strategy is not the most likely cause of the child's personality. Kids are born with much of their personality intact, which is why King Solomon advises us to "educate the child according to his way"—his inborn way. Parents need to understand that G‑d entrusted this child to them because G‑d had faith in their ability to help this tender soul evolve. It is always appropriate to include G‑d in the parenting plan—talk to G‑d daily when raising kids. It is especially important when one has a special needs child to ask G‑d for help, guidance and energy to carry out the special parenting task.

Consulting a child psychologist or parenting expert early in the game can be most helpful. Parents of special kids need special tools and there are people out there who can provide them. A difficult child should be assessed and, if necessary, treated. Early intervention can reduce the difficulties for parents and child and prevent an unnecessary spiral of problems. If there is nothing to treat (according to the doctor), naturopathic assessment and intervention may sometimes provide alternative strategies that make a difference.

Parents need to nurture themselves and their marriage in order to continue to have the necessary energy to deal with their challenging youngster. Downtime, private time, date night, exercise, time for learning, socialization and all the rest are extremely important to replenish exhausted resources. Before the bank runs dry, parents need to make joyful deposits. This will give them more patience, clear thinking, compassion and energy to deal with raising a difficult child.

Son Acts Up with Guests

May 24, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

Sometimes when we have company over, my son becomes very rude and cheeky to our guests. We recognize that he values the time our family spends together, and resents the presence of outsiders, and this brings him to act out. The question is, should we discipline him for his inappropriate behavior in front of our company, or should we wait until they leave in order to prevent embarrassing him. The problem with waiting is that I often feel embarrassed myself; I worry that our guests will think that his behavior went unnoticed if they don't see us respond immediately. How should we handle this?

Loves Company But My Son Doesn't

Dear Loves Company But My Son Doesn't,

I commend your sensitivity. It is important to discipline children in a respectful and private manner that does not embarrass them. Nobody appreciates being humiliated publicly. Children are especially sensitive to shame. It sounds like you have insight into your son's misbehavior, and respond appropriately.

As far as what your guests think, if they are parents themselves, hopefully they will understand that some matters are best handled privately. However, you can't allow the question of what others think of your parenting to pressure you into decisions or behaviors that are not appropriate for your children. Your obligation first and foremost is to your children, and only afterwards to your guests.

It sounds like you have discovered a pattern. You can now use this information to plan ahead. Forewarned is forearmed. Speak to your son before company arrives, and explain clearly how you expect him to speak to the company and what the consequences of an inappropriate manner of speaking will be.

You can also reassure your son that you are reserving special time for your family, or for him alone, later in the day. Knowing that he is not losing out on spending quality time with you may help him to be more welcoming to your guests.

It is also important to discuss with him the importance of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests into one's home). Use this time to explore what his role is in the performance of this mitzvah, and how his participation is necessary to ensure that guests feel truly welcome in your home. Encourage him to take an active part in the mitzvah, such as baking a cake for the guests that he will serve by himself, or serving them drinks. This will allow him to experience firsthand the pleasures of doing this special mitzvah.

The Torah teaches us that discipline is not just about keeping our children in line while they are under our roof. Rather, discipline, or chinuch, is the process of shaping and molding their character in such a way that desirable behaviors become ingrained and internalized. In short, they become the child's natural way of being in the world.

Dealing with Anger and Children

May 17, 2009

Lots of things can make children angry. From the time they are babies, they get "angry" if they are not held enough, if they are wet or hungry and if they don't get enough stimulation or enough down-time. Then they start to grow and get angry because someone gets a bigger cookie or has a toy they want or are in a daycare situation they dislike or simply feeling helpless or rejected. Other than sleepless nights, dealing with angry kids is probably the most difficult thing about parenting. It's exhausting, embarrassing and nerve wracking.

Some children are rarely angry. There really are docile and obedient types. If you didn't get that type (the Heavenly secretary must run out of those types at some point) and you get the more defiant, willful types, you need an entire set of strategies to deal with their rage without losing your marbles or your character in the process. I'm only going to tell you what worked with my children—because I didn't get the docile ones either.

1) Train yourself to think, or to say out loud, "Thank You for this opportunity to work on my character." It sounds crazy, but this phrase gives you access to your spiritual powers—and that's what you need when you're dealing with their powerful drives. When children are angry, it really is an opportunity to work on your character! If you want your children to calm down, you must model patience, self-discipline and humility. Think: "G‑d caused my child to be angry/act wild, etc., at this particular moment in time for my own growth." Knowing that this is a divine experience, even though it looks like it came straight from hell, is what connects you to your soul; that's true power. Many times, just saying these words shocks the children into silence and gives you some breathing space to think rationally instead of giving in to your more primitive impulses. (You know what they are; they include strangling, hitting, screaming like a banshee, etc.)

2) Say, "It is natural to be angry." That's right. Human beings – ourselves included – need to acknowledge our feelings. It doesn't mean that we can act on them, or that we shouldn't work on ourselves to overcome or eradicate them, to actually program ourselves to react differently, but the first step in managing them is to know that they currently exist. It's kind of like "agreeing" to the fact that gravity exists. Whether you like it or not, right now it's there. Not acknowledging it won't get you anywhere. We do not have direct control over our instinctual feelings; but we can always control our thoughts and actions; and that is where we must do most of our spiritual work. Forget the feelings and focus on how you are functioning.

Unless you are Hillel the Elder, you will probably experience feelings of anger at times, especially when you feel betrayed, ignored, scorned or bored: when someone cuts us off when we're in line, puts us on hold for 45 minutes, doesn't offer to help when we're overwhelmed or does shoddy work.

3) Say the words, "Solutions! G‑d will help us find a solution." You can even do the "solution dance," in which you hold the child's hand (if he's not about to kick you) and sing, "so-lu-tion, so-lu-tion, we just need a so-lu-tion." If the child starts to laugh, all the better.

4) Tell the child what you do to calm yourself down when you feel angry. When you are waiting behind the garbage truck or waiting for someone who is late, you say, "I'm practicing patience." When you can't get through to the doctor, you say, "Here's a chance to practice making G‑d's will my will." When you are criticized by a relative, you say, "Even if someone does not like me, I know that G‑d loves me more than I can imagine." If something breaks or gets dirty, you say, "Thank G‑d, it's a triviality." When someone nags you, you say assertively, without hostility, "I know it is frustrating and disappointing, but practicing self-discipline is what builds self-respect."

5) Tell them what yes to do, instead of telling them what not to do. They need to know that acting on their anger and hurting others is not okay. Tell them, "Say with words what you want." Or, "You can let off steam by jumping on the trampoline or polishing the silver." Or, "Draw me a picture of how you feel and another picture of the solution." Or, "Write him a letter." Or, say, "write a letter to G‑d about what you are feeling." When they have finished the letter, hand them a magic marker and say, "now imagine what G‑d might say to you to help you handle this loss."

6) Don't give in to their demands if they are bullying you or an important principle is involved. State the rules: "I love you too much to buy junk food." "We don't use those words. Say what you want in a respectful voice." "We agreed to a half hour on the Game Boy." If they don't calm down, calm yourself by thinking, "This is temporary. It will end." Hang in there. How you react to their anger is going to be a lifelong lesson for them in how to cope with their own frustrations.

7) Praise them for handling their anger in a positive manner. Something like, "Good for you for not hitting your brother when he took your stuff." "I appreciate very much that you didn't get hostile when I said that it's too late to go out." "I appreciate your hanging up your clothes even though you were in a hurry to go out." "You were really patient while I was on the phone." "I'm glad you shared your snack with your sister. I like the way you're able to think of others." "Thank you for waiting your turn." "Thank you for helping me even though it was hard."

Remember, if you hit, they learn to hit. If you scream, they learn to scream. If you give in, they learn that you cannot be trusted to protect them. Being a good parent means that you will sometimes have to set limits that cause children to hate, reject and scorn you. How humbling! Each time we practice self-control, we grow spiritually. And that is why G‑d gives us so many opportunities to do so.

Finding Recreation for the Whole Family

May 10, 2009

Dear Bracha,

We have a family with teenage children as well as really young ones. I am finding it challenging to go on recreational trips or vacations that would be suitable for everyone. Is there such a thing?


Yes there is, but it takes more juggling and a lot of hard work from the parents. I assume from your question that you are like me and Club Med is out. Trying to keep everyone satisfied and the costs down is a real challenge, but when you are talking about having older children, please remember that it is everyone's challenge.

Your teenage children have to be brought into the project early. They are a big part of the picture and the more they can do to help out with their younger siblings the more flexibility the family will have and the more things the teens want to do can get done. Make it very clear to them that a definite plan of action is needed where they really work.

I can read between the lines of your letter that you have already had a bad experience; I sense the scars of trips that have been disasters! So you already know what the warning signs are from your younger children, what steps will need to be taken to keep them happy, how will you manage? Brainstorm with your teens, and write everything down, you will be surprised what they come up with.

With this plan of action you will probably come up with quite a few ideas on your own, but if you are still wondering what to do, there is one suggestion that most children, young or old usually enjoy. Camping. If you have never camped before then I suggest going to a site where everything is already set up and you "rent" everything, just like renting a cabin (or you could rent a cabin), or go with a friend who is an experienced camper. The main thing about camping is safety. Safety is first especially with your younger children. I have spoken to a great many families who find camping the answer to all their problems. It is inexpensive and allows for travel to many new places. It keeps the teens busy as they must take charge for the setting up of the tents and running the camp site, including cooking over a campfire. As for your younger children, they will be in seventh heaven! Mom and Dad maintain a very active supervisory role to keep everything going, try not to get pulled into doing everything so your teens can go free, that won't work for you. To put the "fun" in family time, parents have to have fun too. Team work, that's what it's all about, let your children shine by showing you how much they can do!

I hope you find something you all enjoy, family vacations are the stuff that makes the best family memories. The things we talk about for years, "Do you remember when we….?!" I hope you and your family will have many fond memories of the vacations you have taken together.

Wishing you and your family all the best,


Snapping Under Pressure

May 3, 2009

It's 8 a.m. Parent has to get three little kids out the door and into the morning carpool. Let's say that the youngest is 2 years old, the next is 4 and the eldest is 6. Parent gets the smallest one dressed; it's winter, so that means boots, snowsuit, hat, mittens, scarf—the whole works. The 4 year old struggles with his coat and refuses to accept help because "I can do it myself." The oldest can't find her other glove. The clock is ticking. "We've got to get moving," Parent states in a tense voice.

The eldest finds her glove but suddenly remembers that she wants to bring something for her friend. "I have to go find it. I think it's under my bed," she shouts, running away from the front door toward the back of the house. "Not now," Parent calls after her. "I've got to get to work and we're going to be late... come back here right now!" The eldest ignores the request. Instead, she runs from room to room. "I know I left it under the bed! Somebody took it! I promised I'd bring it. I've got to get it."

Parent is fuming. Nostrils are flaring. "I SAID NOT NOW. WE HAVE TO GO." Parent grabs the child and drags her screaming toward the front door. Another morning has begun.

It certainly wasn't the parent's intention to start the day fighting with the kids. In fact, every parent wants to have a pleasant morning (and evening!) with the kids. Often, the time starts out well. There might be affection, laughter, peace. Then pressure sets in as a deadline approaches. Whether it's time for school or time for Shabbat, the approaching deadline screams in the parent's ear: "Hurry, hurry, hurry." The parent becomes agitated and stress chemicals start flooding his or her brain. Good parenting techniques, stored in the frontal cortex, become inaccessible as the emergency centers of the brain take over. Primitive responses – yelling, grabbing, threatening – seem to arrive "out of nowhere." In a frantic attempt to gain control of the situation, the parent loses control of him or herself.

Nachmanides offers a preventative strategy—one that is today echoed by modern psychological research. In his Iggeret HaRamban, he advises us to picture repetitive problematic situations—the things that go wrong again and again.

Is it always challenging getting the kids out of the door in the morning? Picture the scene. What goes wrong? What happens when the kids are causing a delay? Picture your normal response. Now picture what you want to happen when the kids cause a delay. How do you want to look, sound and act? Picture yourself doing all of it. Every day, take a few minutes to focus your attention on this new picture. Soon, it will be wired into your brain. Then, when the challenging situation arises, your new response set will automatically appear.

Programming ourselves for success is easy. It only takes a few moments of thinking and imagining. Most of us tend to snap under pressure, so that's a good place to begin our imaginative work. Just close your eyes, breath slowly, and picture yourself acting the way you wish you could. Your picture will soon be reality.

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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