All parents care about their children, but they care even more when their children are unhealthy. Unhealthy is a broad term, and includes all forms of deficiencies: mental illness, ADHD, anger management, etc. It can also include non-diagnosable deficiencies: laziness, an insatiable need of constant stimuli, and other traits, that may always be a part of their lives. Interacting with unhealthy people may be difficult even for the most diplomatic, and patient, parents. Sadly, many parents aren’t diplomatic, or patient.
Many parents are able to articulate their children’s weaknesses to me in a detailed manner, with understanding, and empathy, but what often happens next is one of the more frustrating parts of my job. When many parents aren’t interacting (i.e. becoming stressed out from them) with their children, they accept them for who “they are”. They look for solutions, and are willing to finance those solutions, to the best of their abilities.
However, after they interact with their children, they call me to complain that they’re feeling resentful, and unbelieving. Their children’s behaviors are exactly as they described them to me. The parents find themselves unable to succeed with their children at even the simplest of tasks, such as co-existing through a Shabbos.
I understand that the nature of people is to be rational in a vacuum when discussing children, and to be less rational when interacting with them. For some parents the differences in their feelings for their children, when they’re with them, or not with them, is minimal. For others, the gap is so wide that it hints, at least partially, as an explanation of why their children aren’t as emotionally healthy as they should be. Here are some insights into the minds of such parents:
The following scenario may seem to parents as one that doesn’t apply to them. Nevertheless, my suggested solutions will apply to all parents, because extreme problems, and their solutions, apply to all parents, even if the differences are only in degrees.
When consulting with Mechanchim/professionals, parents will describe their children’s faults, and represent themselves as positive parents. What they’re really doing is representing themselves, to themselves, as caring parents. However, when they interact with their children, they see themselves as failures (which may not be true), and can’t accept that conclusion. In other words, for many parents, it’s all about their image.
Many people lack sufficient self-esteem. Some parents are able to place their inadequacies “on the side” for the sake of their children. They “swallow” their children’s mistreatment of them, and their own disappointments, in order to allow their children to succeed; however, other parents can’t do this.
How parents describe their children is dependent on whether, or not, they recently interacted with them. This leads me to make assumptions. One assumption is that the parents’ Chinuch approach exasperate their children, and may have created their children’s issues. These parents may be well meaning, but their mistakes are significant, and may be the result of their lack of self-esteem.
Here’s a recent example. A divorced daughter is reminded by her “side of the family” that her ex-husband is a nice person who should be appreciated. Their goal is to make her appreciative of (all) other people, to stop complaining about life, and be more of a team player, with those who claim to be trying to help her. While the goal is admirable, the message is unrealistic. The family is unwilling to admit their insensitivity in trying to get the woman to acknowledge that her “ex” is a good person, and they repeat the message multiple times.
The positive mentioning of an “ex” would be insensitive to even the most confident people. When I remind the family that their children aren’t confident, the family’s response is that “she has to grow up”. Such a response is demanding a shortcut that doesn’t exist. Should parents treat children based on hope, or reality? I often, remind parents that “urgency doesn’t create feasibility”.
However, some parents refuse to accept this message. They can’t imagine that their comments frustrate her, and make her resentful. I try to explain to them that teaching a lesson that makes people frustrated never works. As they told me, she’s unable to appreciate what others do for her. How can they, or anyone else, expect her to appreciate a divorced spouse?
Instead, I generally offer the parents the following advice:
1) This first thought is obvious. If the parents’ approach isn’t working they should ask for advice from an expert in the field, without believing that their instincts should be their sole guide. They have to let go of their belief that their instincts “know” best, despite that this may make them feel inadequate. I’ve handed the rights to make final decisions for some of my children to others, and have achieved great results that I couldn’t conceive of when I led “the team”. Many parents ask for advice, but as soon as it conflicts with their views, they conclude that the expert doesn’t understand what’s “really” taking place. Parents can tell me that I don’t understand their children, but that since I’ve become involved, their children have grown increasingly healthier, without seeing any contradiction.
2) Parents must focus on their own Yishuv Hadaas (emotional energy), when “working” with their children. I refer to this “selfishly selfless”. Almost any Chinch decision which will unnerve the parents’ is a bad one, even if it’s only because of what it does to them. Not only is such a Chinuch decision the wrong one, but any attitude that unnerves parents towards their children must be adjusted. This may be difficult because adopting a distorted, oversimplified, view is also counterproductive. The best thing is to speak to the Mechanech/Advisor and learn how to adjust their perspective to be an honest, yet positive, one.
A parent may call me and complain that their child has a violent temper, and sometimes breaks things in the home, and I’ll commit to helping the parent. The day following my first conversation with the child, I received a frantic call describing the day’s events, and that the child had a full blown “freak out”. This concludes with, “Why does s/he do that?” My response is that s/he has an anger problem of which you’re aware. In other words, I’ll tell the parent, “while this may be very frustrating to you, it’s not new.” The same call repeats itself multiple times, and I remind the parent that, “it’s not new”.
The parent’s inability, during stressful times, to understand his/her child, will significantly damage the parent’s ability to become a part of the solution. Unless there’s an escalation of behavior, they must remind themselves that it’s not new.
3) Parents should be realistic in their expectations and be consistent when talking to, and about, their children. I’ve found that, although, some parents will talk terribly critically of their children, nevertheless, when they discuss Yeshivos, Shidduchim, or friends, they’ll go to the other extreme. “My son/daughter is much better than that (the Shidduch, or school suggested), and I won’t place them in a school whose students aren’t motivated”. The lack of consistency should be a warning sign to the parents, that they need to “give” a larger portion of their decision making to a more objective person.
4) I often tell parents that sometimes children have to be treated based on how they need to be treated, and not on how they deserve to be treated. Understandably, some parents feel hurt by their children, and are sometimes unable to effectively respond. Seeing themselves as mentors, is a helpful approach. A mentor, by definition, doesn’t become offended by his/her mentee’s shortcomings.
Parenting has always been as much about personal growth as it’s been about parenting. Improving one’s own personal character will be the parents’ greatest tool towards bettering their children. Step back, self-reflect, and watch your children blossom into wonderful adults.