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Help! I've got kids...

Moody Teen

June 28, 2009

Question:

Like most teenagers, my seventeen year old can be very moody. There are time when he is wonderfully helpful and accommodating but other times the slightest request will make him sullen, disrespectful and irritated, as if his indignation is wholly justified. Do I just ignore these outbursts?

Answer:

You are bringing up a very common problem of teenage-hood: moodiness. Our focus here is not the cause but the cure. Though truly nothing can cure this "condition" completely, there are certain ways to encourage improvement.

Firstly, as your question informs us, let's recognize your son's good traits. He has the ability to be helpful and very accommodating. This sounds like the basis of person who is reasonable and sees himself as part of the family "team." This is great news as it gives you a base to work on. From this we can assume that your son has a fair amount of good will towards you and the family in general. What is needed is a clarification of the relationship and responsibility towards it.

Many teens fall into this same predicament as your son: they do not mean any harm to their parents or family, but controlling one's emotions is the hardest part of being human. What's missing is the understanding of what it's doing to others and who bears responsibility for this situation. In other words, people are still responsible for their actions no matter what mood they're in or how their day went. I suspect we could all learn this lesson. To teach it to your son you should find a quiet time when he is in a good mood and have a talk with him. In that talk you should explain how you feel when he allows himself to be less than nice.

The measure of an adult is not who they are or what they do when things are going well for them, but what they are like when things are going wrong. Everyone can smile and be pleasant when things are going their way, but who you really are shows as soon as the clouds roll in on your sunny day. So far your son doesn't look too good. Your pledge is that you, as the parent, will keep your cool and try very hard to listen to him in any discussion. The result is that if there is a negative atmosphere it's his fault! Does he really want the relationship with his parents to turn negative or for there to be raised voices and hard words said—is this what he wants? Discuss with him what he wants in the relationship with his parents and how is he going to get there. Talk about the real situations that have come up in the past in as analytical manner as possible. Not as blame to be given but as a problem to be solved.

Lastly, you must talk with him about being disrespectful. This is never permitted—period!

Discuss this issue with him to the point where he agrees that there is never an excuse to talk to parents in this manner, then discuss what the consequences will be if he breaks this rule. Together, decide on the consequences and make it very clear that a zero tolerance policy now exists in your home.

If he then breaks the rules and is disrespectful, you could come down on him like a ton of bricks. But if he has problems controlling himself and is being sullen and irritated, he really needs a little help. Decide with him on reminder phrases to use at these occasions to help him catch himself, such as "Having a bad hair day?" or "Good time to look in the mirror..." whatever makes sense to both of you and he feels will not embarrass him if overheard by others.

One more communication tool must be in your "kit"; your son needs a way to communicate with you in order to tell you that he really needs to be left alone now and can't handle the requests you are making of him. This is a very legitimate part of the relationship which is based on mutual respect. As long as it is not overused and it's clear that in cases of urgency Mom may need help no matter how bad her son's day has been.

You both need permission to increase your communication, preferably in a fun way that allows for the meeting of needs, recognizes responsibility to respect each other, and recognizes the responsibility of a mother to run the home with the help and respect of all her children.

While discussing how to best meet these needs in your home, please remember that verbal communication gives so many other messages beyond the spoken word. Every word said harshly means, "I don't care about you." Every word said thoughtfully and kindly means, "I love you." This is what's meant by the term "loshon tov," or "good speech." Our Sages have asked the question many times: What is the most harmful thing in the world and what is the most healing thing in the world? The answer is the same; the tongue! Human speech has far reaching power and effects, choose your words well.

Wishing you and your family all the best!

Older Daughter Sucking Thumb Again

June 21, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

We had a new baby, and my older daughter, who is almost seven, has just started sucking her thumb. She is way too old for this kind of behavior. What does this mean, and what can we do about it?

Mother of a Thumb-Sucking Big Girl

Dear Mother of a Thumb-Sucking Big Girl,

You are most likely correct in assuming that your older daughter's behavior is connected to the birth of your new baby. It is quite normal for older siblings to exhibit regressive behaviors following the birth of a new sibling.

The arrival of a new sibling involves a period of adjustment and heightened anxiety for the entire family. Your daughter's behavior reflects her internal struggle to establish what this new arrival means to her, and how it affects her own place in the family. New babies receive a lot of attention and affection, and it is natural to fantasize about being the recipient of such an outpouring of love.

You may also notice her asking you to do things for her at this time that she is normally able and willing to do for herself, such as dressing her in pajamas or brushing her teeth. While this may be quite annoying to you at this time because you yourself are busy with the new baby, by agreeing nevertheless to do these simple tasks for her, you will reassure her that her own place in the family has not been usurped.

Reassure her that you love her, and cherish her, and that despite being a big girl now, she will always be "your baby." Explain to her that she does not need to be a baby to be your baby. Allow her to sit on your lap. Tell her stories of her own babyhood, or show her baby pictures of herself.

Balance this with a discussion of all the fun things that big girls can do that babies cannot do, such as jumping rope, collecting stickers, or choosing their own clothes.

Do not make a big deal out of her regression. Try to look the other way, and control your impulse to tell her to take her thumb out of her mouth. Allowing this phase to play itself out and run its course naturally will help it to pass quickly and without undue tension or power struggles.

There is no need to pathologize her behavior. Rather, recognize this phase as her way of explaining to you that she still needs you. Be patient with her. Growing up is not a linear process. Both in our physical development as well as our spiritual development, the process is characterized by movement forward tempered by small movements backward.

In Proverbs (24:16), King Solomon says, "A tzaddik [righteous person] falls seven times—but arises." Such is the nature of the ladder of spiritual perfection. If even righteous people regress at times, surely we can allow our children the same understanding as well.

Getting Kids Organized

June 14, 2009

Question:

Can I teach my child to be more organized? She's just a total mess! She's very bright and capable, but procrastinates with all her responsibilities, leaving it to the very last minute. And the worst thing is, she usually succeeds in doing it well—but the process is just so infuriating, tense and frustrating for all of us!

Answer:

To make a long story short, the answer is no.

Organization is largely a function of innate predisposition or, in other words, a person's nature. The other factor is motivation, a person sees for themselves the need and personally desires change so much that they control their old habits and create new ones. Your daughter will change when she is self motivated to do so and not beforehand.

You can show her a few good ideas that will help her be more organized, but if she chooses not to use them there is little you can do about it.

So ends the first part of your question. The other elements of your question are confusing to me. You refer to your daughter as a "total mess," yet you state that she usually succeeds at doing well—that doesn't sound like a mess to me! Most confusing of all is that you refer to her success as "the worst thing" and leave me with a hint of what the real problem is—"the process is just so infuriating, tense and frustrating for all of us!" Therein lies the problem.

I am not sure if your daughter is elementary or high school age but it is clear to me that you have adopted her problem as your problem, and it is not. But it is a great way for children to get attention and keep their parents focused on them. We have talked a lot in this column about children's need to receive attention from their parents and how this subconscious drive makes them act in certain ways based on how their parents respond. Change parents' response = change in child's behavior. Therefore, stop rescuing her and let her be; she seems to land on her feet anyway. Give minimal reminders and assistance, let her know in advance that your attitude has changed, that you trust her to make good decisions and will help in any reasonable manner; she gets no more hounding (frequent reminders) from parents and in return parents will not be expected to respond to panic last minute situations.

As a parent I know you will be reasonable in this, but we both know that you will be tested. You will have to let her feel the responsibility of her own actions or inactions. If this means she loses some marks off a project, then the life lesson was far more important. I wouldn't let her sleep through a final exam or anything but there will be many less traumatic ways to learn responsibility.

In areas where she is untimely with family responsibilities, a more active response is necessary. To a certain extent she can do as she pleases with anything that will only affect her, but when it affects others, she has an obligation. Pulling one's weight as part of a family is very important, and sometimes "less organized" children seem to actually do less in the house hold because they can't get their first job finished, then they never get a second or third job and everyone else has to pick up the slack. Not fair and a very old ploy. If this is the case, back up her duties with time limits followed by consequences. For instance if she was to fold the laundry you would ask her how long it will take her. Let's say the response is 20 minutes. So, being kind, you tell her, "You can have 30 minutes starting from now, the time is 6 pm I will see how things are going at 6:30, if the job is not done, then the consequence will be the addition of dusting the living room."

As you know, the critical issue is to follow through and not go back on any consequences. We both know all about the whining and pleading; at these points your heart has to be as hard as stone! Don't change your mind, don't go back on your word, you must have an air-tight reputation—or say hello to incessant whining!

Take a step back from the situation and I'm sure you'll see how this has been affecting your family negatively. Let all that fall away from you and allow your relationship with your daughter to develop without this baggage. Find ways to connect with her on a daily basis and do things together that need to be done anyway, such as cooking or fixing something around the house. Pull her to you gradually so that she can see that you rely on her. Let the rest fall where it may, within the parameters that we have discussed, so that your daughter can blossom unhindered.

As we learn in the Ethics of the Fathers: "Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace." By implementing the plan of action above, you will have a much more peaceful home while your daughter experiences her worth and learns how to grow.

Wishing you and your family all the best!

One of a Kind

More on Self-Esteem

June 7, 2009

Q. I would like to know how to handle a situation where a child complains a lot about her homework, and doesn't want to do it.

A. There are many different reasons why a child may not want to tackle homework. Try to engage your child in a conversation about school in general, slowly getting to the issue of homework and what is bothering her about the assignments. It might also be helpful to speak to your child's teacher, not to complain about the homework but to discuss the situation in a non-judgmental way and try to sort out both the issue and how to solve it.

One common reason why a child will complain about her homework is because she feels too pressured that whatever she does has to be perfect, that whatever she does has got to be the best. Seeking to avoid that stress, the child would rather not face the homework and the pressure that comes along with it.

It's a very competitive world today. Many parents have great expectations of their children. They want them to be at the top of the class, to be a shining star. Children unconsciously sense their parents' wishes and they, too, begin to strive to be that star.

One of the reasons why Adam was created alone, unlike animals who were created in groups and in herds, is to convey the greatness of the Holy One. For when a human being mints many coins from a single mold, all of them are similar to each other. But the Holy One minted every person from the mold of that first human being, and not one is the same as another.

Adam was unique. So too, G‑d wanted every person to realize they're unique. Every person is a rarity, every person is special and there will never be another like you. Every person was created by G‑d as an individual and is one of a kind. That's the basis of self esteem.

Life is not about competition with others, it's about competition with ourselves. How can I be the best person I can be? How can I be a better person today than I was yesterday?

My father-in-law used to tell his children, "I don't want you to be the best. You could be one before the best, but don't be the best." Being the best is a pretty scary place to be. What if one day I make a mistake and I lose my standing as "the best"? What if tomorrow someone does something better than me? If my identity, my entire worth, is based on being the best, what if one day I'm somewhat less than best, then what am I?

Instead of telling your child, "You're the best," tell her, "You're precious." Rather than saying, "You're the smartest," tell her, over and over again, that she is beloved, by you, by Daddy, by G‑d. Let her know that she's the best Sharon or Laura or Debbie that ever there was. Don't assume your child knows you love her. Children need to be told again and again how much you love them.

But to say that you have to believe in that. In the Scroll of Esther we read about Mordechai, "Vayehi omen es Hadassah"-- and he raised Hadassah (another name for Esther). The root of the word omen, raised, is the same as the word emunah, faith. That's the way Mordechai raised Esther. He believed in her. He trusted that she was special. When you believe in your child, she will believe in herself, too.

Yet sometimes, when we, as parents, feel that we're lacking ourselves, we may try to make up for it in our children. The child becomes our showpiece. And it becomes vital for our child to outdo herself, so that we, her parents, can take pride, can now see ourselves as worthy, "Hey, this is my child."

That's why we have to believe in ourselves first. We have to believe in our inherent value. We have to know our virtues, our qualities. As a parent it's important to build your self-esteem by excelling in what you're good at. Find your strong points so that you can find the strong points in your child.

Help your child discover who she is. If your child shows an interest in art or drawing, provide her with art supplies. If she enjoys gardening, dancing or music, give her the opportunities to develop in that area. Give her age-appropriate activities, chores and responsibilities within the home. It's a great way for children to develop a range of skills and it is a wonderful opportunity for parents to offer praise and encouragement for effort, success and achievement.

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, a famous spiritual advisor and ethicist) at the Mir yeshiva in Poland is known to have said, "Woe to the person who doesn't know where he is lacking. Such a person doesn't know where to improve. But a double woe for the one who doesn't recognize his virtues, because he doesn't know the tools he has with which to improve.

Similarly, in the book HaYom Yom, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes: the true way is to know one's character, truly recognizing one's own deficiencies and one's good qualities.

There's nothing that motivates a child more than the awareness of who she is. Homework, household chores, everything becomes easier for the child to handle, because there's no need for her to prove herself or to impress others with who she is. She is not the smartest and neither does she have to be. She is not measured by being perfect and the best of all the rest; everyone is perfect and the best in their own way. She is a precious child of G‑d, worthy and unique, with a very unique role to fulfill in this world that no one else can achieve.

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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