BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK
I have found that writing letters are often an important tool in conveying heartfelt messages. I usually reserve it for people who’ve strong defense mechanisms, those constantly defending themselves, their views, and their actions. In many cases, they don’t express themselves to others and are loners. When one speaks to them with the slightest amount of criticism, their muscles tighten, they interrupt or walk away, and they’re unwilling to actually consider what’s being said to them. As many parents will attest, children will walk away, or interrupt in anger, not giving parents the opportunity to convey any thoughts that may heal the situation.
(Although this article focuses on letter writing, its message is important in any attempt to communicate with an angry, inexpressive, person. The word “parents” can be exchanged for any recipient of the letter, such as a spouse or friend.)
A letter offers the advantages of “speaking” to those children who are otherwise distanced from their parents. In addition, many of the typical disadvantages of intense conversations are avoided when writing letters, including the absence of a “real” person to defend against. This may increase their receptiveness. A second advantage is the “curiosity factor”. The children will read the letter, and they’ll most probably read it twice.
Letters work because the nature of people is to immediately reject spoken suggestions that make them uncomfortable.
Letters work because the nature of people is to immediately reject spoken suggestions that make them uncomfortable. Without having someone to reject, there’s a greater chance that an acceptance process will begin. A letter increases the chances that the reader will absorb the message offered, even if only minimally, and even if only later in life.
I’m not suggesting that parents send daily notes to their children. Letter writing is something that should be used sparingly. It should be used only when the potential recipients (children) have reached a level of maturity that they’re aware of being unhappy and need to change. Despite this awareness, they’re still “stuck” in a place from which they’re unable to acknowledge those needs, and certainly unable to take the first step out. The letter serves best when it’s intended to expand a slightly “open window”. Written prematurely, it’ll be a wasted opportunity (and possibly increase any conflict). Written too late, the letter becomes unnecessary, as direct discussion will achieve the same goals.
However, letters have one significant drawback. The writers can’t retract whatever they’ve written. A flawed letter may haunt the writers forever. Spoken words can be forgiven, and may even be forgotten, but a letter is seared into the memory and, therefore, into the relationship between writer and reader.
Before the parents write a letter to their children, they must have the proper attitude. They must be willing to strip themselves of any self-respect. They’ll have to say things that, until now, their pride would not have let them. (Children tell me that pride is one of the most frustrating parts of dealing with parents.)
I strongly suggest that parents get a different perspective on the family dynamics from their other, more balanced, children. Parents are often shocked when they hear them say: “Sure, the other children are right for being angry. We didn’t let it bother us, but we also believe that you should have done better.”
The letter must show the children that the parents understand. It will never succeed if the parents don’t really understand.
The letter must show the children that the parents understand. It will never succeed if the parents don’t really understand. Talking to the other children, as painful as it may be, will help the parents write a more effective letter.
1) The first step is to consider who should write the letter: Should the letter come from only one of the parents and, if so, which one, or should it come from both? Consideration should be given with which of the parents the children are more comfortable. This isn’t a time to “force” them to do anything uncomfortable. If they avoid one parent more than the other, the other should write the letter.
2) Consideration should also be given as to which parent will be able to “hold up” better with any subsequent conversation. The letter is easier than the conversation, in the sense that it’s been given time and thought. The conversation may be spontaneous and require the ability to respond calmly and effectively.
3) Where writing a letter, even simple words must be weighed for any subtle meaning, because the words of a letter can be stared at and reread. Each word should be thought through, for all possible interpretations. Remember that the letter is being sent to children who, most probably, are looking for a way to criticize both the message and the writer.
For instance, don’t use the word “frustrated” to describe your reaction, when you really became explosive. The children will resent your downplaying what they had to experience. Don’t use “angry” when “frustrated” is more appropriate, as anger may increase the rift between the parents and children.
4) When writing a letter it’s important to understand what the recipients (children) may be thinking, and what’s causing their resentment. Only after that’s understood will the letter achieve its goal of shattering the recipients preconceived thoughts. The primary goal of the letter is to allow the recipients to know that what they’re thinking isn’t necessarily true. Children believe that their parents don’t understand what they’re thinking. Not understanding is different from not agreeing. It means that children believe that their parents consider them spoiled, selfish, immature, etc., and not as they perceive themselves to be, hurt, ignored, etc. The letter must say things that let them believe that the parents are beginning to “get it”.
5) When forming the letter’s message, perception is more important than reality. If the children believe that they were mistreated, they must hear an acknowledgment of those beliefs from the parents. The parents don’t actually have to admit that they mistreated them. However, they must at least write: “We now realize that you believe that we paid more attention to your siblings than to you. We’re sorry that you feel that way. Whether or not we made mistakes, the way you’re feeling about us, is itself a reason to believe that we did.” (Since the amount of time given to each child should be based on how much time each needs.)
Keep in mind that the children may believe that the parents are to blame for something that they did when the children were younger, and at that time the children were happy with what their parents did. They may have constantly told the parents that they were okay and didn’t need attention. However, as they became older they became resentful and complained that they weren’t given enough time. In hindsight, It’ll become evident that they were subconsciously playing the martyr.
Now isn’t the time for the parents to debate with the children; now is the time to rebuild the relationship, to convey to them that they understand what they’re experiencing. Now is the time for empathy and that’s something that can’t be rushed. Only with mutual understanding can the relationship grow so that they once again feel comfortable with their parents and/or family.
There are times when the recipients will become angry even when the writers admit to making mistakes. If there’s a risk that they’ll get angrier, then a letter isn’t a good idea. However, that generally doesn’t happen. Writing a letter, like all Chinuch tools, should be goal-oriented. The focus should be on the results that they’ll bring, more than on how accurate they are. I would not suggest that anyone write a dishonest letter but, if the writer believes that the content of the letter’s message is true, then it can be assumed that the letters message will be effective.
6) The letter should be given at a time when the writer anticipates that the recipient will be the most receptive, and not at the earliest possible time. This article assumes that the relationship has been strained, or non-existent, for months and, possibly, years. Waiting a week, or a month is worthwhile if it’ll produce the maximum results.
Don’t give the letter after, or when, you anticipate it will precede a stressful time. The goal of the letter is to, “connect” with them during a “soft moment. Stressful times, the inability to follow up the letter (i.e. dedicating the necessary time to talk to them, helping them find a job, suggesting that they make peace with their parents, or whatever the letter was intended to accomplish), will result in a lost opportunity.
Don’t give the letter after, or when, you anticipate, an increased chance of a confrontation. If the writer feels that there’s a significant chance that, after reading the letter, they’ll storm into the writer’s room and have a tantrum, then, even if there’s a significant chance that the letter will “work”, don’t give the letter.
The letter’s goal was to create an opportunity for discussion. If the letter succeeds, you may have only one chance for that discussion.
Don’t give the letter unless you’ll be able to “drop” whatever you’re doing when they confront you about the letter. The letter’s goal was to create an opportunity for discussion. If the letter succeeds, you may have only one chance for that discussion. If the letter succeeds, and the recipients take the initiative to approach the writer, they’ll expect the writer to be willing to talk to them in a focused manner at that time. If the writer responds, “not now, we’ll have to discuss this later”, this will ruin what may have been the only opportunity.
The letter should be given at a time when the recipients will be alone and have the option to remain alone. I often suggest slipping the letter under the bedroom door (if they have their own room) before they go to sleep for the night. In that way, there’s no pressure on the recipients to read the letter quickly, or to confront the writer too prematurely. In addition, being alone gives the recipient the opportunity to reflect on the letter’s message.
After giving the letter (in person or under the door), act as you normally would, and expect them to read the entire letter, probably twice. Although they may not respond, they certainly will have internalized some points and, therefore, the letter has succeeded in planting a “seed” for the next interaction.
When they respond, they’ll do it without acknowledging that the letter was meaningful. They may respond in passing, sarcastically, and/or in an antagonistic manner. The recipients realize that the letter has given them the opportunity to “open up”, but they don’t have the maturity to say, “We read your letter and appreciate the effort and candor. Can we sit down and talk?” Instead, they’ll probably say something like, ” and you still don’t even know anything about me” or, “I don’t care about it (the letter). You’re attempting to communicate with me through it doesn’t make a difference.” (The choice of the word “it”, allows them to be vague and somewhat controlling, forcing you to figure out what they’re saying.)
However, they did respond, and that’s positive. Pause, and softly say, “I (or we, if you’re speaking for both parents) wrote the letter because I’m trying to improve things, even though you haven’t been willing to let us into your life. Would you be willing to give us a chance?” They may say “no”, add something nasty, and storm out of the room. Although this may not have been pleasant, it probably means that you’ve “chipped” away a little of the anger.
7) Before the letter is given it’s important to consider whether there’s anyone in the recipient’s life to whom they may listen, or talk. If there are, give them advance notice of the letter’s contents and goals. Make sure they agree with those goals and expect that the recipients may call them, probably with a fresh round of complaints against the writer. They should be prepared to soften the recipient’s anger. Hopefully, they’ll also be able to have the recipients appreciate what the writer is trying to convey to them.
The recipient may answer the writer by saying, “I don’t care if you want to talk. Talking won’t help.” Take that response as a possible yes. The “trick” is to not get pulled into a conversation while the recipient is angry, in a rush, or unwilling to focus. Respond, “thanks for acknowledging my letter. Can we go to lunch sometime in the next few days?” The recipients will continue to play “hard to get”, but keep ignoring their attitude, and get a date. If you can’t get a date, try to get a few minutes immediately. The writer must be prepared to put everything else in life aside and talk with them. If they give the writer a time to talk later, consider whether they’ll keep the date. If there’s the slightest chance that they’ll regret “making” a time to talk, later, speak to them immediately.
8) The conversation should be kept simple. “I (or we) may not be the best parents, and you may want to have someone else in whom to confide. We’re fine with that, but it’ll be easier for everyone if we get everything out of “our systems”. Living a life of anger or resentment is not good for anyone. I (or we) are willing to listen, and if needed, apologize, and we’ll do whatever we can to help all of us “move on”. We can do this by ourselves, or with someone else’s help. We’ll use anyone with whom you’re comfortable. What we wrote in the letter is something we really meant”.
This small script is how you should begin the conversation. In reality, the recipients may “take over” the conversation and get it out of their systems. Don’t defend yourself. Repeat, their words to them in the form of sincere questions. “Is this what you’re saying? Are you saying that when _____ happened, you felt like ____?” There’ll be other times to defend, and explain yourself. Now’s the time to listen. They have to believe that your compassion for them isn’t blocked by your own insecurities or pride. (Even though this may not be true; it’s how they’ll perceive it.)
If the conversation goes well conclude with, “So what should we do next? Maybe we should talk again, now that we’ve begun to understand you.”
9) The most important part of the letter’s follow-up is for the writer to be patient, and focus on listening. Avoid the urge to respond with disbelief. Listen as they revise family history, and challenge many things you know to be true. Expect “shock” comments, such as, “I don’t want to be Frum, or I’m going to ___” They’re all a part of their need to control you and your emotions. They don’t mean a lot.
The letter is not the “cure-all”, but it’s an effective first step. Anyone writing a letter must appreciate the amount of effort that will follow. Ask for advice and, as I usually advise, say a lot of Tehillim. Repairing old damage will take time, effort, and skill. Good luck.
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