When things with our children get tough, there is an expression that is used to describe that experience: "Tza'ar gidul banim." It translates roughly as, "The pain of raising children." However, there is another way to translate this expression; that is "the pain of (our own) growth (gidul) - is through the children (banim)."

One of the most common obstacles to marital harmony is disagreement and disparity in attitudes towards raising children. When two people marry, they assume that they are going to somehow "blend" their differences and become one unit. Certainly the search for and the feeling of having found "the other half of one's soul" is the ideal Torah-oriented goal. However, once the children enter the picture, often people resort, quite automatically, to the patterns of their own childhood origins. Try as we may to overcome this tendency, it is a known and documented fact that we follow the examples of our own parents, even though we understand that these patterns are sometimes not productive, and even harmful.

Indeed, we often marry someone who, subconsciously, presents us with the same challenges we faced as children. We then have an opportunity to try and effect some type of "tikkun" (repair work) in that relationship. In order for that work to be successful, we need both education and awareness in order to stop the "repetition compulsion," the repeating of old negative behavior patterns.

A couple (let's call them Sara and Shlomo) that I recently dealt with provide a perfect example of this phenomenon. Their "presenting problem" (that is, the initial reason for seeking therapy), according to both spouses, was that the wife was always angry about the way that Shlomo dealt with the children. Shlomo was a rather laid-back type, content with things "kind-of rolling along." His wife did the disciplining of the children, and took most of the initiative in making decisions. He was happy to go about his daily routine and keep up with his career. When he returned in the evening, he just wanted to relax and be free of responsibility. But at that time, Sara wanted Shlomo's involvement with the children, help with homework, bedtime, etc. When that was not forthcoming, tensions mounted between mom and dad, and the children were beginning to reflect and express that stress both physically and emotionally.

As we explored the generational history of both spouses, we discovered that Shlomo assumed the same attitude as his father, an easy-going man who made few demands on himself as well as his family. Sara, however, was very much like her mother, quite dynamic, outspoken, and definitely more comfortable in the "driver's seat." She saw how frustrated her mother was with her father's quiet, more passive way. And she was now reliving that anger in her own marriage.

In fact, her husband pointed out with a smile, that he spent a lot of time fixing the door jams in the house! When I asked Sara about this she said, "Yes, when my mother got angry, she'd slam the doors really hard, loosening the door jams!" Sara hadn't realized how her attitude towards her husband began to assume the same patterns of her own father and mother.

In examining the relationship in this generational way, we began to isolate behaviors and beliefs that were simply negative "echoes of the past." When viewed from a more rational and realistic viewpoint, both Sara and Shlomo expressed agreement and willingness to work towards creating healthier patterns in their home.

I felt that, in their case, we could accomplish this by not only dealing with the dynamics of the couple, but with the children, as well. I proposed that this couple set up "family meetings" with their children. At these meetings, best held at least once a week for half an hour, the parents would establish new ways to deal with troublesome situations.

We developed a few major rules for these meetings:

1) Problems are meant to be solved, not emotionalized. Instead of getting stuck in emotions, they would move towards solutions as quickly as possible.

2) No more blame/shame/judgment/or fear. The atmosphere had to be one of safety and security. Everyone could make suggestions or comments (as long as they were constructive) without being put-down or hurt by anyone else.

3) The children were helped to understand that there are three types of decisions: those made by parents, those made by children, and joint decisions. In this way, there were be limits and clear boundaries, and a lot of confusion and struggle could be avoided. When arguments and/or differences of opinions persisted, they agreed to check with an outside authority, i.e. a rabbi, doctor, teacher, etc. In this way, the children could also be trained to seek outside help when all other possibilities have been exhausted.

At the meeting itself, mom would be more of a "recording secretary," basically keeping notes and gently encouraging participation, while dad would take more of a leadership role, teaching and discussing the issues, and bringing the family towards resolution. Meetings were to be kept "short and sweet," one or two items would be discussed, with the goal of peaceful problem solving. (Children would be taught the skills of compromising, negotiating, taking turns, "replaying," communicating, etc.) Each subsequent meeting would start with a summary of what was achieved previously, and what actually worked in practice during the week. (Note that whenever you take the time to write it down, kids take you more seriously. In Hebrew the word for writing down is "lirshome" and the word for impression is "roshem." It certainly makes an impression when you write it down!)

I worked with Shlomo and Sara to come up with an agenda – as well as the household rules they felt comfortable with. We rehearsed the possibilities of the children's reactions as well as potential difficulties, until they felt confident and "armed" with both the knowledge and techniques of how to handle things. It was a huge commitment on the part of each of them to overcome their "natural" tendencies, and, instead, move in the direction of change.

Shlomo admitted to being quite fearful of failure. And Sara was aware of her impulse to move in and take over as soon as she thought things weren't going as she wanted them to. I pointed out that even the willingness to recognize and talk openly and truthfully about their feelings, was already a sign of success; one which the children could now emulate.

At our next session, they both reported with enthusiasm about the success of their first family meeting. The children were apparently quite creative in finding solutions, and were actually eager for the next meeting. (They wanted another one the next day!) Shlomo surprised himself in being able to take leadership and become more involved in the family's emotional health. He was beginning to understand what Sara had been so upset about for so many years. And Sara, in turn, spoke about her great sense of relief, knowing that she could feel hopeful about Shlomo's ability to help shoulder the burden of parental responsibility. As the sessions progressed, and the couple was able to fine-tune the family program, they found that they were actually fine-tuning their own relationship. In their own words, "We feel like we're becoming a team; we're on the same page."

Truly a case of Tza'ar Gidul, Banim – the pain of growth – is through the children.