By Zahava Farbman
As told to Steve Lipman
The pandemic definitely played and continues to play a large role in the mental health of our children. We’re going to be seeing the effects of the pandemic—residual stress and fear—for a while. Educators and school administrators witnessed this when children returned to school with pent-up emotions after months of isolation—many children were behaving in ways they did not prior to the pandemic.
But how children handled the pandemic came down to one thing: the environment in the home. The ways in which a family dealt with the stress during those difficult months had a lasting impression on the children.
Some families dealt with the pandemic with a lot of tension and negativity, others with positivity and gratitude. I know parents who were able to provide an environment of calmness, without stress, where a child felt safe. During the months of isolation, there were parents who were persistent in getting the kids to complete their schoolwork, yet also made time for them to share what they were feeling. There was room in the schedule for bonding and fun activities, such as family games, projects or camping out in the backyard. If there were fears, these parents allowed their children to express them, but fear did not take over the day; it wasn’t the focus.
I saw many families who worked hard to achieve this kind of atmosphere—with parents focused on their children, on their faith and on thanking G-d that they were together. That’s what these kids will remember post-corona, and it is how they will deal with the next crisis in their lives.
In families, however, where the general tension level was high prior to the pandemic, or where there were marital conflicts or significant financial or other pressures, stress levels tended to be extremely high when the pandemic was added to the mix.
All of us want to raise mentally strong individuals who possess coping mechanisms and who don’t crumble in the face of the crisis. So what can parents do?
Model calmness. Emphasize positivity and gratitude. Give children a gratitude book in which they can write down all that they are grateful for. Turn to our mesorah—the number one focus should be that everything comes from Hashem, even though we may not understand it and we may not like it. And ask Hashem to grant you more emunah.
Veteran trauma expert Zahava Farbman, a resident of Woodmere, Long Island, serves as associate director of crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement services at Chai Lifeline’s Project Chai.
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.
Parents today are unanimous in wanting their children to grow up to be mentally healthy, successful adults with good middos. Where there is considerable disparity of opinion, however, is regarding the best strategies to achieve that goal.
Some parents prefer to use carrots to encourage good behavior, for example. Others rely on sticks to enforce rules and set limits. The one approach that has proven to be the most effective is the strategy that is often the least-considered by many parents: to teach by setting the proper example.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, is said to have asked—what is the most critical skill that children must learn in order to succeed in life? He explained that children must learn how to walk upright on two feet. Crawling on all fours just won’t get anyone very far. How then do children learn this more effective method of mobility? Do parents sit their children down and lecture them on the benefits of walking over crawling? Do they implement a reward system to encourage them? Certainly not! Instead, they simply walk back and forth as their children observe and eventually imitate the strides of their parents. If parents want a foolproof strategy for inculcating appropriate behavior, good middos and Torah values in their children, they should seriously consider trying to set a good example. “Do as I say, not as I do” simply does not work.
Conversely, the one thing parents sometimes do that is the most detrimental to the emotional well-being of their children is quarreling, or even worse, quarreling in front of their children. Some parents feel there is nothing wrong with criticizing each other within earshot of their children. They believe children need to learn to accept conflict as a natural component of family life. In their view, exposing children to conflict between their parents is healthy and enables children to learn necessary social skills. That may be true as long as the parents disagree in a civil manner, demonstrating mutual respect. When parents disparage, attack or insult each other, however, the rancor reverberates in the minds of their children, sometimes causing irreparable damage. More specifically, children exposed to open hostilities between their parents may suffer from a host of mental health issues, such as social withdrawal, anxiety and depression. And the longer the exposure, the more serious the damage can be.
Self-righteous parents may even believe they are benefiting their children by openly confronting their irrational, misguided or misinformed spouse. In other words, the children should know how truly wrong the other spouse is. In reality, however, such parents are robbing their children of the sense of security that all children need in order to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults.
A dayan in Lakewood shared that he comes in contact with many lawyers, both Jewish and otherwise. A non-Jewish lawyer who is a former marine and an Iraqi War veteran once made the following self-disclosure to the dayan: “During my tour of duty in Iraq, I was shot and wounded. I witnessed buddies of mine die in front of me. And I even had to kill people. In spite of all that, the experience that traumatized me the most in my life was when I was lying in bed at night as a young child hearing my parents fight with each other.”
Occasional feelings of resentment toward your spouse are inevitable in any marriage. If they are expressed behind closed doors, however, you can spare your children untold suffering that can last a lifetime.
Dr. Meir Wikler is an author, psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn, New York and Lakewood, New Jersey.
As told to Sandy Eller
Realizing that our children learn so much more from our actions than our words is a daunting prospect, one that places an extra burden of responsibility on our collective shoulders. Our children watch us 24/7, so if we say one thing and do another, we have proven ourselves to be hypocritical. Under those circumstances, they have no reason to trust us, for if we don’t follow the rules, why should they?
The flip side of that coin is our ability to model good behavior. So much of the good that we do—like writing tzedakah checks or calling a sick friend—is done when our children are asleep or in school. Be a positive role model by asking your child to accompany you when you bring food to someone who just had a baby, or to sort through the mail with you to help you decide which organizations are the best recipients of your tzedakah dollars.
We can also model resilience by showing our children how we react to the circumstances of our lives, both good and bad. Turn difficult moments into teaching opportunities by showing your children how you face your own struggles, so that they can take those lessons to heart. If your car breaks down, share your thought processes with them so they can see you working through the disappointment and annoyance of arranging transportation and repairs, transforming what seemed like a major issue into just another bump on the road of life. Similarly, if you achieved less-than-stellar results when you tried painting the den yourself, let them hear you say that instead of getting angry you will go out and get more paint so you can try again tomorrow when you are feeling refreshed. Talking things out in front of your children is a great way to show them how you deal with those less-than-perfect moments and also demonstrates that things don’t always go the way you want but we can still find ways to make them work.
Rona Novick, PhD, is the dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University.
Sandy Eller is a writer for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients.
By Faye Wilbur
As told to Leah R. Lightman
Torah Jews start the day by reciting the Modeh Ani prayer, thanking Hashem for the simple fact that we woke up. It would be more grammatically correct to say “Ani modeh.” Yet we commence with “thank you” in order to become habituated to having gratitude.
Gratitude is a skill that needs to be introduced and nurtured. Parents can begin teaching this skill to their children at a young age. The more we help our children cultivate an attitude of gratitude, the more positive they will be about life. Studies show that children who possess the trait of gratitude tend to be happier and more optimistic; they report more satisfaction with school, friends, themselves and life in general, as children and later as adults.
Grateful parents tend to raise grateful children. Practically speaking, parents can create an environment of gratitude by modeling a vocabulary of gratitude and by actively looking for opportunities to express gratitude. The possibilities for teachable moments are unlimited. A child comes home from school and his parent might ask him to talk about something nice that happened that day. When lighting Shabbos candles, a mother could tell her children that she is using this time to thank Hashem for her spouse, children, parents and others. Walking with children on a sunny day, a father might say, “Thank you Hashem for giving us this beautiful day so we can enjoy walking outdoors.” Keeping a gratitude box or journal is another great way to develop a gratitude mindset.
Fostering gratitude in today’s children, who live in an era of great expectations, is admittedly challenging. Parents can consciously choose to set an example by differentiating between needs and wants. A “need” is something you must have for survival, such as water, food and shelter. A “want” is something you would like to have but can live without, such as tennis lessons. When children hear their parents say they need a larger house, it leads them to believe they need what their classmates have. Having unmet needs can lead to negative thoughts, a low self-image and a worldview of dissatisfaction. On the other hand, a parent saying it would be nice to have a larger house but we are fortunate that we have room for everyone, live in a nice area and have friends and family nearby exemplifies gratitude.
For a lesson in this area, take your child to a grocery store or pharmacy. We need toothpaste. But we want sparkly nail polish. Also talk to your children about needs that can be met without money. Does your child need a hug? To be tucked into bed at night? To know that Daddy and Mommy daven for him or her?
Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” in children provides them with a foundation for other valuable traits, such as resilience, and leads them and their parents on a road to greater happiness.
Faye Wilbur, LCSW-R, is director of community relations for Mishkon, a division of The Jewish Board. She is a licensed clinical social worker and therapist with extensive post-master’s training with a particular focus on trauma. Ms. Wilbur maintains a private practice in Brooklyn, New York.
Leah R. Lightman is a freelance writer living in Lawrence, New York, with her family.
By Dr. Rona Novick
As told to Sandy Eller
Gratitude has a unique ability to cloak our world in a positive light and is yet another area in which we can teach our children by example how to appreciate all that they have in their lives. When Covid hit and I started working from home, I made daily trips out to my backyard to visit a plant and a tree that I had planted years earlier, a ritual that lifted my spirits. Even today, I still go outside to look at them regularly. Seeing that they have grown taller than I am leaves me feeling both excited and thankful, and I make a point to appreciate the joy they bring into my life.
Keep a gratitude journal. Do gratitude exercises. But above all, let your children see you being thankful for the positives in your life. There is no better way to raise grateful children than by letting them see you expressing gratitude for the people, objects and experiences that bring you joy.
All children have their challenging moments, but levels of family disquietude have risen sharply since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Updated national prevalence rates are not yet available, but early studies suggest that since 2019 there has been a two-to-four-fold increase in mental disorders among children, teens and young adults. Anecdotally, my clinical office has been so inundated with calls over the past twelve months that we needed to expand our staff and services by 100 percent.
My data suggests that Orthodox Jewish families are at no greater risk for mental health concerns than the general population. However, with a mean average of 3.3 children (pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-demographics/), it is not only statistically improbable but virtually impossible for most Orthodox parents to avoid dealing with mental health matters in the current day and age.
Given these trends, if I could pick just one parenting skill to teach families today, it would be validation.
Validation entails recognizing and affirming that someone’s feelings make sense and are worthwhile. One does not need to agree with someone’s perspectives or opinions to validate! However, one does need to temporarily suspend judgment and withhold from trying to change the other’s viewpoint.
For most parents, validating is easier said than done. The general parental tendency when kids’ emotions intensify is to try to convince the child why his or her feelings and perspectives don’t make sense. The intent of this approach is to settle the child by talking sense into him. However, the effects are rarely positive. This is because trying to teach anyone while he or she is experiencing high levels of distress is almost always an exercise in futility. The only sensible option in such circumstances is to convey that the child’s emotions matter and are valid. Once things settle down, a parent can revisit whether it might be advisable to share alternative perspectives.
Take, for example, the following scenario: Sixteen-year old Esti Turkell1 came home from school last Thursday and threw an angry fit. Her mother Shoshana unfortunately bore the brunt of it. “Esti was completely irrational,” Shoshana shared with a loud sigh, adding, “I literally tried everything to get her to calm down, to no avail!” When I asked Shoshana why she didn’t put her foot down, she sheepishly shared her concerns that Esti might harm herself (as Shoshana’s friend’s daughter had done). In speaking with Shoshana, she was clearly emotionally dysregulated herself. Her facial expressions, rate of speech and tone all connoted feelings of anger, shame, sadness and anxiety. And so I took the time to validate Shoshana’s concerns. I expressed interest in her feelings and reflected her distress about her daughter. I empathized with and acknowledged her range of emotions, being careful to mention that high distress is very reasonable given her concerns about Esti’s safety. The process took five to ten minutes, and Shoshana settled down. Her breathing slowed, she relaxed in her chair and she was ready to learn. The rest of our session focused on how to validate Esti’s feelings—just as I had done for Shoshana moments before. I conveyed that there are six levels of validation (see sidebar), and Shoshana and I practiced what each of these might look like in conversations with Esti.
Why does validation help where other strategies fail? There is nothing that compounds emotional distress as significantly as the belief that one is crazy for feeling that way. Validation directly combats this belief. By sharing with children (or spouses, teachers, co-workers, bosses, patients or anyone else!) that their feelings make sense, tension immediately starts to dissipate. More importantly, validation helps us reestablish emotional connection when the other person is in distress. By conveying in word and deed that the person’s feelings matter and will be respected, we strengthen our bond with that person. This in and of itself is a critical aid to emotion regulation.
Before trying to change a child’s perspectives or moods, be sure to convey a sense of understanding for the way he or she feels. This simple and often overlooked step has a massive impact on mental health.
1. All names and identifying details in this article have been changed to protect privacy.
Dr. David H. Rosmarin is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Center for Anxiety in New York and Boston.
By Dr. Rona Novick
As told to Sandy Eller
So often our children come to us for validation on issues big and small, and while there are times when their concerns are genuine, there are others when it is tempting to dismiss their concerns for a variety of reasons. It may be that what they are saying is totally untrue or a gross exaggeration, but if you don’t make your child feel heard and understood, you have lost all power to be an influencer in his life and a facilitator of his growth.
Minimizing your child’s feelings will have her cutting you out of the loop the next time similar circumstances arise because, in her mind, you don’t understand her at all. Worse yet, you run the risk of forcing your child into a position where she thinks she has to escalate her distress in order to get your attention.
Parents need to understand the fine line between validation and agreement. The sentiments your child is expressing may be totally off the mark but letting him know that you appreciate how upset he is makes him feel supported and understood.
Imagine that your son tells you that his life is over because he failed a test. Obviously, he isn’t forever doomed and his teacher isn’t the root of all evil. But pointing out that he is wrong isn’t the best course of action either, because it sends the message that you have no idea what he is all about at that moment in time. Instead, your best option is to tell your son that you see how unhappy he is, making it clear that you are in tune with him and his feelings. And only once you have done that can you move on to the next step—helping your son solve the problem at hand.
More than anything else, the pandemic was a vivid reminder that parents are the key to ensuring their kids’ mental health.
We were all blindsided when the pandemic hit; our community rocked by an onslaught of tragic deaths. But even as doctors strove heroically to save lives and we all did our best to flatten the curve, having spent so many years toiling in the field of all things mental health-related, I knew there was going to be another side to the pandemic—an epic mental health crisis, one that would last for years. It went without saying that if adults were going to have a tough time coping with everything that was about to unfold, it was clear that kids were going to be hit particularly hard, a reality that proved to be true.
More than anything else, the pandemic was a vivid reminder that parents are the key to ensuring their kids’ mental health. Thankfully, there are many resources that can guide parents along roads they never expected to be traveling, including videos and literature that can help adults see life through their children’s eyes and provide tools to steer them through this undeniably stressful period.
Bolstering a child’s self-esteem is an important component of good mental health, particularly in today’s challenging world. Build your kids up by encouraging them to voice their opinions. And provide positive feedback when they do good things—there isn’t a child out there who won’t feel like a million bucks when he realizes that he is valued and appreciated. If your child has a particular talent, by all means let her pursue it. Giving her a chance to shine can yield tremendous rewards. Remember that building a kid’s confidence isn’t only about making her feel good about herself and helping her face the world with a positive outlook. Helping a child gain self-esteem is also empowering. In addition to making him a less likely target for bullies, it gives him the tools he needs to withstand peer pressure and serious dangers, including abuse and addiction.
Building trust with your kids isn’t just a good idea—it is fundamental to the parent-child relationship. No matter how tempting it may be to sugarcoat things when a difficult situation arises or a crisis strikes, always tell your kids the truth, albeit in an age-appropriate manner. Lying to your children is one of the worst things you can do as a parent, so even though telling the truth may seem daunting at times, know that being dishonest will only create far bigger problems.
Living in a world where best practices and regulations fluctuate regularly and where masks and vaccination mandates continue evolving isn’t easy for anyone. Let your kids know that it is okay to feel worried or concerned and that articulating those feelings is actually a crucial coping mechanism that helps build resilience. Listen to what your kids have to say, and be sure to take the time to talk to them about whatever is on their minds. And if for any reason your child’s anxiety seems to rise beyond reasonable levels, reach out to a qualified individual for help because early detection is the key to preventing long-term issues.
Rabbi Zvi Gluck is the CEO of Amudim, an organization dedicated to helping abuse victims and those suffering with addiction within the Jewish community. He has been heavily involved in crisis intervention and management for the past twenty-two years.
In This Section:
Resilience by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt
Empowering Parents by Leah R. Lightman
Q&A with Dr. David Pelcovitz by Binyamin Ehrenkranz