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"I Love You"

July 28, 2010

Smile to a baby. His face lights up with joy. Uninhibited by fears, shyness or other social and emotional hang-ups, he readily shows you his pleasure. Yet a child of any age basks in the radiance of your smile, though he may not be so quick to reveal his pleasure.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, in his classic text Alei Shur, writes: "Who knows which is more beneficial for a child's health and development – the food he eats or the warmth he is shown? And it is known that it is very difficult for a child who has been raised without warmth to be healthy emotionally."

Even in the first days of a child's life, while still in the hospital, there is a noticeable difference between infants who have been hugged and touched by their mothers and those who have not.

Every parent knows the exquisite feeling of love. Expressing the love that we feel toward our children, through words and actions on a consistent basis, conveys to them that they are important to you and that they are accepted.

A smile from a parent envelops the child in love. Smile all you can, shower them with the sunshine of your love.

Tell them in clear, direct language how much you love them and how much you enjoy having them around. One woman I know likes to remind her children again and again that she is a billionaire, since each of her children is worth billions.

Surprise your child with little trinkets now and then, and tell him, "Son, I was thinking about you today." Your child will get the message that you truly care about him, he will be able to touch and feel your love, and he will treasure both the gift and its message.

Engage your child in casual conversation. Tell him about your day, about your feelings, about your hopes and dreams. Not only will he reciprocate in kind, following your lead, but these conversations will demonstrate how important he is to you and how much you enjoy his company.

Beware of hinging your love for your child on his behavior, actions or deeds. Don't fall into the trap of "if/then" love: If you do well on your test, then I will be warm to you. If you fail, then you will be subject to an icy reception from me. True, disciplining our children is imperative if we want them to grow up as healthy, strong and successful individuals. That is why, when we truly care for our children and keep their best interests at heart, discipline is love. When disciplining with love, we do not hesitate to teach our children the law of cause and effect by punishing when necessary, but we do so with love in our hearts. The child can learn that there are negative consequences to negative actions and positive consequences for positive actions in a calm and loving manner.

Unconditional and consistent love, regardless of what he does or says, is the greatest gift you can give your child. It is a clear message that he has inherent value and will eventually have the capacity to experience G‑d's unconditional love for him as well. As it says in Ethics of the Fathers, Israel is precious and are called children of G‑d; an extra measure of love was given to them by telling them they are children of G‑d. The strength he will derive from the deep knowledge that he is acknowledged, loved and an important human being will help him overcome all obstacles.

What If Mommy Didn't Love You?

July 21, 2010

One of the most difficult traumas a child can experience is rejection by his/her mother. Some readers will vehemently protest that such a phenomenon does not exist. But the truth is that it does. Not all parents love or even like their children. Some parents feel burdened by their children or resentful that they are not what they "ordered" and do not fulfill their expectations.

Obviously, all parents feel frustrated, burdened, overwhelmed and exhausted at times. But some parents are downright rejecting and abusive, so immature or disturbed that it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide love and security on a consistent basis. People who are impulsive, undisciplined and self-absorbed will resent the fact that a baby caused them to lose out on a restful night's sleep, the fun of hanging out with friends, and the freedom to come and go as they please. Addictions, even seemingly "innocent" addictions like shopping or workaholism, let alone drugs or internet, leave no space in their hearts to bond with another, as the addiction eats up their self-respect, time and energy. Those with emotional disturbances, such as narcissism, Borderline Disorder, OCD, anxiety, depression or autism, may be only peripherally aware of the child's very existence and incapable of paying attention to his needs.

The brain patterns and chemical makeup of neglected and abused children are different from well-loved childrenWe all know that if children are deprived of certain vitamins during their formative years, such as Vitamins A, B or D, they suffer lifelong problems such as brittle bones or mental retardation. Likewise, the lack of vitamin "L" – love – will create emotional handicaps. Not all of this damage can be reversed, since the brain patterns and chemical makeup of neglected and abused children are different from well-loved children. For example, neglected babies have a higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and lower levels of vasopressin and oxytocin, the two “social bonding” hormones (National Academy of Sciences, Fall 2005). High cortisol levels cause them to feel anxious around people, thus reinforcing their certainty that "I can't trust. People will hurt me. Something is very wrong with me."

During the first year of life, babies are able to develop trust in people only if reliable and compassionate caregivers meet their needs for security and love. This relationship forms a template upon which his/her future relationships are built. Those who suffered neglect or rejection expect to be rejected, creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust. The handicap remains in the form of an invisible wall which springs up automatically when people come close. This does not mean that an unloved child is doomed.

How does one heal the seemingly "unhealable"? The first step is to understand the messages one imbibed in childhood. All people, including children, have a need to understand painful events and why they happen. Due to the child’s simplistic and egocentric grasp of reality, they (and many adults as well!) innocently assume, "Bad things happen because I am bad." After all, children idolize and idealize parents, certain that these "gods" know what is right, do what is right and have far more love, wisdom, power and money than they actually have. To make sense of what seems senseless, they make up their own personal narratives, such as, "I am not loved because I cannot be loved. I am inherently defective. It's because I'm not good, brilliant, obedient, beautiful or ebullient enough to deserve anyone's love." The "not good enough" belief is deeply engrained in the psyche. It seems like Absolute Truth, repeated millions of times in the mind, spoken as naturally and effortlessly as one's mother tongue.

It is typical for such a client to tell me, "My mother was always so nervous. She would get angry if I cried or asked for attention. I remember thinking, around the age of three, that if I died, she would be happy, because I would not be making messes or asking for attention. I wanted to make her happy, so I kept hoping to die. Throughout my life, I have thought, 'If my own mother could not love me, then I must be inherently unlovable. It means that no one can love me. It means I am not allowed to even love myself.' It didn't help that I married a cold and critical person."

Draw yourself as you are now, a person of compassion and wisdom, next to that suffering childIf you adopted such a false narrative, you must go back and liberate your Inner Child which has been held captive by a false belief system that is brutal and pitiless. I suggest that you draw a picture of your Inner Child confined at the age when you first remember feeling unworthy. Now, imagine that you are on a rescue mission. Draw yourself as you are now, a person of compassion and wisdom, next to that suffering child. Write down the words of love, empathy and comfort which the Inner Child needs to hear, perhaps, "I'm so sorry for all your pain. It wasn't your fault. You were just an innocent baby, a precious child. G‑d was so happy that you were born. It was part of His plan that you were given this mother. It has given you special sensitivities and understandings that many people do not possess. Your mother did her best. She gave all that she could give. Due to her own lack of emotional nourishment, you were malnourished. I will liberate you from this place of trauma and turmoil and will devote my life to healing this wound by showering you with love."

Like survivors of concentration camps, a malnourished Inner Child is not able to take in too much emotional "nourishment" at once. You must patiently teach your Child to believe in this new language of love. At first, your Inner Child will reject words of love as insincere lies. Keep practicing this language throughout the day until it becomes second nature. For example, teach yourself to think:

  • "It's okay to be imperfect and average. I don't have to be the best or the most spectacular. It is enough to just do my best. After all, everyone is imperfect in some way."
  • "I am as lovable and deserving of love as anyone on the face of this earth."
  • "I am a success – for simply figuring out how to survive."
  • "I am allowed to enjoy in this very moment. I am grateful for whatever I have, including my eyes and hands, the rain, the flowers and any caring people in my life."
  • "I will not allow myself to be exploited or abused in order to avoid being abandoned. I can take care of myself and live with dignity and self-respect."
  • "I give because giving is empowering and gives me a sense of joy and significance."
  • "I don't have to be anxious, suspicious and fearful all the time. I can relax, knowing that G‑d is taking care of me and giving me everything I need at every moment."
  • "I don't have to numb the pain with addictions. I can enjoy the pleasure of healthy food, healthy exercise and healthy disciplines. Self-discipline will build self-respect."
  • "I am far more powerful, wise and courageous than I have ever acknowledged."
  • "I won't coerce others to fulfill my needs. I feel powerful when I take charge of my mental and physical health and am protective and caring of others."
  • "G‑d loves me as I am, right this second."

Healing is a life-long task. It requires giving what we did not get. And it requires a great deal of compassion and patience. Every step is precious and important. Love heals. All G‑d asks from us is to be as loving as we can be at every given moment.

Controlling Your Teenager

July 14, 2010

To read the previous article in this series, Self-Esteem, Individuality and Love for Teenagers, click here.

Control

As children move from infancy into middle and later childhood, they have a growing need for control over their environment. To meet this need, teenagers must be given reasonable power to make choices about what they eat, whom they play with, and what extracurricular activities they participate in. They need to be given the opportunity to make choices that they view as important in different areas in their lives. Parents can find many ways to safely empower teens without allowing them to make dangerous choices. Teens can make safe choices when buying clothing, planning family trips, or selecting their birthday presents. Most of the time the significance of the choices does not matter; even small decisions can make a difference and allow them to feel that they can fulfill their desire for control in a healthy way. Whether to eat chocolate or vanilla ice cream, what time to have a get-together, or which days are best for a family outing are equally important. Although some choices seem inconsequential, what matters is the overall feeling teenagers will have when given the power to choose.

I once counseled family whose oldest child had trouble sitting for a long period of time at the Shabbat table. As the firstborn, he seemed to have a strong desire for control and felt too old to be sitting with his younger brothers and sisters. I suggested to his father that he make his son a partner in running the Shabbat meal and turning over some responsibility, such as giving out treats to the other children for good behavior. Almost immediately, this teenager felt empowered at the table and was more willing to participate and enjoy the family experience. He was provided a way to fulfill his need for control in a healthy manner, which reduced the power struggle at the table that had been going on for some time.

Control may also be given in return for a teen accepting increased responsibility. Here are some suggestions for safe levels of control parents can allow their teenager:

  • For teenagers who want to use the car: Make a list of necessary maintenance activities, like buying gas, changing the oil, and checking the pressure in the tires. Explain that when you see that they are responsible for taking care of the car, you will discuss ways of letting them use it more often.
  • For teenagers who want to buy their own things: Open a bank account with them and set target dates for saving money to buy the items they want. You can also deposit an allowance into the account on a weekly basis according to their behavior in the home.
  • For teenagers who want to have more fun outside the house: Make a list of chores around the house that they are responsible for. Reward their performance monetarily or by taking them to do fun things.
  • For teenagers who want to buy a lot of clothing: Create a monthly clothing allowance, a budget, and a list of prices of the clothing they want to buy.
  • For teenagers who don't like school and want to work: Arrange for an after-school internship in a local business or profession.
  • For teenagers who don't like eating with the family: Buy an easy cookbook and have them make a weekly menu of the foods they prefer. They can also help cook the meals they have chosen.

When parents empower teenagers with a healthy modicum of control, they are giving them the strength to step into the adult world and take responsibility for their own actions.

Meaning

The fifth pillar of the inner world is what the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl called the "Will to Meaning." This desire for meaning implies wanting to know the whys of life and not just the hows.

Most teenagers have a tremendous desire to know why events are happening to them. In fact, when teens are empowered with meaning and understand the whys of life, they are more able to negotiate the hows and the many challenges that life presents.

Unfortunately, our educational system often denies a teenager's need for meaning. Our schools tend to tell our children what they have to do but not why they have to do it. When they are given an answer like "because I said so," they interpret it to mean the teacher is not interested in what they are feeling or what they have to say.

With this in mind, parents need to spend a considerable amount of time trying to explain to their teens the whys of life. For example, when children feel neglected by their school, parents can help by discussing with them how a school runs, the financial and organizational pressures facing the school, and why teachers can't always give students the attention they deserve.

Teenagers also benefit from knowing the meaning behind their parents' behavior. If you want your teenager to go to bed early, for example, the reason you might offer is that the teenager has been working hard all day and needs to go to sleep early. And that's sufficient. At least your teenager knows why you expect him or her to go to sleep and does not think that you simply don't want him or her around.

I remember coming home from a very hard day of work to a very lively household of children. I told them that I needed a break and would be glad to play with them later in the evening. In the past - before I learned about my children's inner desire for meaning - I wouldn't have spent much time explaining to them how I was feeling. After learning more about their inner world, I was able to sit down with my two older boys and say, "I just want you to know that I love you very much and I had a really pressured day at work. I have a big headache and need some time to read a book and relax. Giving me a little time now would allow me to give you more quality time later. Please play by yourselves for another half-hour. Then I will come out and help you with your homework and play." When I explained to them why they couldn't have my immediate attention, they were much less hurt by my not spending time with them.

Parents shouldn't worry that they have to provide the perfect answer for every question or know the meaning behind everything that happens in life. Nor do their answers have to be absolute proof in the philosophical sense. If parents don't feel that they have the right answers, they can always tell their teenagers that they would like to speak to an expert in that field or do some more reading about the topic. The key element is to make teenagers aware that you are interested in their world and willing to discuss ideas that are close to their hearts.

By focusing on their teens' inner worlds, parents can create a deeper connection and facilitate a greater sense of closeness. The benefits of this new relationship include:

  • Mutual respect and trust
  • Empathy – sympathetic understanding – for one another
  • Emphasis on assets rather than faults
  • Sharing of thoughts and feelings rather than hiding them and bearing resentment

Spending Quality Time Together

As part of the process of connecting to your teenager, an important step is spending quality time together. I know that, for many families, spending time with an individual child or teenager seems like a daunting task. However, making the effort to do so can go a long way in building your relationship.

One of the questions that parents have is about what will happen if they spend time alone with a teenager with whom they fight. The answer is often surprising. Most teenagers enjoy the special occasion of spending time with their parents alone especially outside of the home. I counsel many families who have daily screaming matches with their teenagers, but when they take them out of the house, the emotional environment can change very quickly.

During this time with their child, parents should try to imagine that they are going out on a date for the first time. Everyone knows that the first time people meet someone else they are careful with their emotions. They know that they have to be calm and pay special attention to not delve into the other person's private matters. A kind of healthy distance exists that protects people when they first meet and helps them to maintain a sense of awe and respect.

When alone with your teenager it's important not to rehash the same issues you have been fighting about in the home. Talking about general ideas concerning current events, music, or sports or about your child's feelings regarding life and relationships is more productive. The main idea is to have a good time together. Work on developing conversation in the way that you would with a friend.

Many parents think that the only way to get their teenager to spend time with them is by shopping or eating out. But that is not entirely true. I suggest parents connect with their teenagers by finding hobbies and activities of common interest. For example, my wife and I found a pottery studio nearby where parents and children can paint kitchen items like coffee mugs and tea pots that are then professionally produced in a kiln. Painting pottery is a simple and fun way of spending time together. You can also share what you painted with the rest of your family, which is symbolic of the productive nature of spending quality time with your children.

Dealing With Attention-Seeking Kids

July 7, 2010

Dear Bracha,

In the past month, my 10-month-old son has started screaming every time he is the least bit frustrated. I understand that children are often looking for attention (negative or positive), so I try to ignore him while he's doing this. However, I do feel bad as he has no other means to communicate yet. How should I handle this situation?

Worried Mother


Dear Worried Mother,

Our sages talk about a sapling that is growing crooked. If the sapling is tended to while still young, and assisted to grow properly, the result will usually be a straight and tall tree. However, if the sapling is allowed to continue growing crooked, and efforts are only made at a later date to correct the situation, it is usually not effective. The trunk of the tree is no longer pliable. So, too, with young children; if they're allowed to develop poor habits of behavior when young, these habits will become the norm and may swallow up their good natures. The sooner poor behavior is corrected, the happier everyone will be.

What we have here is screaming (or crying or whiny noises of discontent) while mom goes through the 20,000 question game to find out what Johnny wants. Do you want a toy, do you want a cookie, do you want a drink…do you want me to play with you… – that's it!!!

Your son has gotten you to play with him, and whatever he wanted, if indeed he wanted anything, is beside the point. His main goal is to keep you engaged and focused on him and, as you can see, he's very successful.

Your analysis of the situation was correct, but not its conclusion. Your child's frustration is not because of things he cannot tell you, but because he has learned by observation that this "act" – which is all it is, an act – of frustration will keep you engaged. All he wants is: "Mommy, play with me. Mommy, pay attention to me."

Attention is about talking, touch and eye contact. Take it away during poor behavior, add to it during good behavior. Be very deliberate in your use of this technique since your son's difficult behavior can become personality traits if not nipped in the bud early. A child who gets results from showing frustration is a child who will not try to control himself because, by driving mother crazy, she will let the child have anything he wants just to get him off her back.

All of these are examples of children in control of the interaction. But you are part of this interaction; you can leave your son in control and react to whatever he is doing, or take control by controlling your response.

I usually get this question from parents whose children are older than yours, a bit over the age of one is average. So, off the bat, even though your child's behavior is normal, he is very precocious to start so early. So I assume you have a very smart child on your hands. The pre-verbal child is a little trickier than post-verbal, but the younger the child, the more important it is to address the behavior, as it has more profound personality-shaping consequences.

Remove attention from him when he is showing poor behavior. Give him a short instructional phrase to guide him towards expected behavior, five words if possible; don't make eye contact with him when you say it – look over his head. Assuming this causes him to pause for even 60 seconds, you can then move on to positive attention by engaging him on your terms.

For example: your son is getting that frustrated look and "noisily" seems to indicate he wants something, perhaps a toy. Your response: "Johnny, I can't help you unless you carefully point to it." You say this while looking above his head and then turn your back to him. He sits puzzled, figuring out his next move, but he has been quiet for 60 seconds (or less at a younger age). Scoop him up saying, "Wow, that was good! I see you're thinking about things. Why don't we read a book for a little while?" You could play a game or take him into the kitchen while you prepare dinner, talking to him and making strong eye contact as frequently as possible.

What have you accomplished? You have separated his negative behavior from producing positive results. You have shown appreciation and positive interaction in response to his ability to "control" himself and follow instructions.

Children have a real need to receive attention from their parents. This need must be met. But it's up to you as to how you are going to do it. If you are going to be interacting with him anyway, why not maintain control of the situation and give him attention in a positive way?

Wishing you and your family all the best,

Bracha

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