Debra is a beautiful, successful woman who is raising a family, running a business, active in her community. No one would suspect that she is so insecure. “I know it all looks great on the outside,” she admits. “I just can’t get over what happened to me when I was a kid. My father was emotionally brutal. By the time I left home, I was a shell of a person, someone with no My father was emotionally brutalconfidence whatsoever. Till this day, when things go right, I can’t take any credit for it. I always feel like I’m having a lucky break, that I don’t deserve success, that it has nothing to do with me.”

What was this emotional abuse that was so destructive? “Mostly it was what he did when I made a mistake. Let’s say I didn’t close the cutlery drawer all the way. If he saw that, he’d march over, slam the drawer so hard the house would shake, and start screaming at me that I was lazy and stupid, and how many times did he have to tell me to shut the stupid drawer, and was I some kind of moron, and didn’t I realize that someone would bump into it if I left it like that, or water would drip off the counter and corrode it, and it would cost him thousands of dollars to repair, and I was such an idiot, a loser, and so on and so on. I know it sounds crazy, but this is honestly the kind of thing he’d say when I made small mistakes. I know now (intellectually) that most mistakes don’t call for that sort of hysterical reaction, but whenever I do something wrong, I still feel like that stupid little girl. Now he’s gone and he’s not abusing me anymore, but I’m abusing myself, calling myself stupid and useless every time I slip up. It’s excruciating.”

Helping Kids Learn

Obviously, Debra’s father was a disturbed man, and his reactions to his child were extreme. The negative consequences for Debra are pervasive; there is much work that she’ll have to do to heal from this experience of abuse. Fortunately, the act of making a mistake is not such a crisis in most households. Nevertheless, many of us have a “touch” of Debra’s father in us, a touch that would be better off eradicated. No matter how small, our overreaction to our kids’ mistakes can still harm them in many ways, including:

  • lowering their self-esteem and confidence
  • giving them a negative inner voice that harrasses them throughout life
  • increasing feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression
  • reducing their capacity to take risks and reach their potential.

Why Do We Overreact?

We can all see the exaggerated nature of Debra’s father’s reaction. Who cares that much about an open drawer? It’s harder, however, to see the ridiculousness of our own upsets. In the moment, our child’s error can seem much larger than it is. “I had just finished washing the floor when Jacob dropped his popsicle on it. It was close to Shabbat. I didn’t have time to Our overreaction to our kids’ mistakes can harm them start all over. I had told him to eat it over a cup, and he ignored me. Yes, I flipped out. I’m not proud of it, but there’s only so much patience a mother can have!” It’s true that we’re very human and we don’t have unlimited patience. The clock is ticking, Shabbat is coming, we’re exhausted and overwhelmed . . . why can’t that child listen just for once? And yet our little display of impatience can have such long-lasting negative consequences. Well actually, not that one little display. But that one, and the other one, and the ones that involved other family members and were just overheard . . . Like a drop of water on a stone, this one little display of irrationality adds its force to all the other droplets that eventually erode the solid surface, or in our case, the integrity of the soul.

How Not to Overreact

No one is perfect, and no one needs to be. Rare overreactions aren’t likely to cause serious damage; it’s the pattern of frequent overreactions that we want to avoid. Here are some helpful strategies:

  1. Change your thoughts. For instance, focusing our attention on the Torah concept that G‑d judges us the way we judge others may give us the necessary incentive to tone down our reactions to our child’s mistakes. If we can minimize the importance of our child’s misdemeanor, G‑d will minimize our own wrongdoings. If we can overlook careless errors, G‑d will overlook our careless errors, and if we can judge our child favorably—assuming that his actions were caused by benign motives rather than evil intentions—G‑d will judge us favorably as well. So there’s good reason for us to calm down and cut our child some slack!
  2. Change your actions. As our sages advise us, we can force ourselves to speak softly when confronting a child’s error. This helps prevent our anger from escalating. In fact, it is equally Wait until the emotion passesimportant to say little at this time—the less words, the less anger. Indeed, it is best, as our sages teach, not to speak at all if we feel anger surging through our veins. Rather, we can wait until the emotion passes and offer correction long after the misdeed. There’s no rush; we have twenty years to raise the child.
  3. Nurture yourself. Spilled milk, messy fingers, broken vases—it all matters far less when we are happy. It’s easier to put these little family dramas into perspective after we’ve slept enough hours, exercised, talked with friends, meditated, had our nails done, ate nutritious food, laughed and loved, spoken with G‑d and engaged in meaningful activity. A bit of personal therapy can add the finishing touches when our own psyche has been bruised by life’s circumstances. When we are healthy and well-nurtured, our nerves can handle the routine challenges of childrearing without making mountains out of molehills.

Yes, children make mistakes, and so do we. It’s the human way, and it’s okay. Let’s just try again.