Unhappy & Doing Something About It
BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK
I ‘ve recently become very involved in a new junior high school for Yeshiva boys, called Birchas Eliyohu. This has increased my involvement with boys, ages 11 – 13. When I first meet these boys I’m not surprised to find many of them to be very angry from their recent difficult experiences. (Please call the Areivim office to find out more about Yeshivas Bircas Eliyohu. We are B”H succeeding beyond expectations)
My first conversations with the young boys mostly focus on those events that have made them angry. They describe those events believing them to be things that have happened only to them. I see those events as a part of growing up. They retell to me stories of the class bully, the Rebbi or principal that responds without listening to the entire story and English education in general.
Many people, again particularly young ones, when confronted with an uncomfortable situation often react in a manner that’s not only unable to make the situation better, it often makes it worse. They will stop attending class, “shutdown”, fight back in an uncontrolled manner, or just become irritating to all those around them. The only thing they succeed in doing is alienating the same people whom they’re reaching out to for help.
I would, therefore, like to dedicate the next few articles to the art of understanding and then reacting to uncomfortable situations. Although this article was motivated by conversations with young children the thoughts are equally as applicable to everyone who finds life frustrating and unfair.
I’ve found that the exaggerated frustration level these young boys demonstrate is primarily caused by an unrealistic view of the norm. People become frustrated when things that they believe shouldn’t happen to take place. Therefore, I will begin with some common misconceptions.
The first and most general misconception is that things are expected to work out. With young people, this mostly refers to their relationship with those around them. With adults “working out” also refers to financial, health situations and their other needs. Children assume that it’s possible to have a room of 22 boys or girls who will all act nicely. They become frustrated when 3 of those children treat others, particularly themselves, unfairly.
The second misconception is that reaching adulthood doesn’t mean that they’re mature, caring or any other positive character trait that they’re looking for. Not only are adults sometimes lacking in character, but Rabbeim may also lack character. This doesn’t mean to point fingers at Rabbeim in general. Most Rabbeim were picked because of their qualities and the vast majority of Rabbeim are an asset, both to the school and the community. But it would be unfair to say that there aren’t some who lack patience and good judgment. Practically speaking every Rebbi is, at one point in his life inexperienced and he hasn’t yet mastered the art of dealing with 22 children at the same time.
Adults have their own set of social misconceptions. Bosses don’t have to be fair. A person takes a job because he needs to support his family, not because he’s so enamored by his boss’s personality that he wants to constantly be around him to learn from his wisdom. We marry people because we like our spouses, not because we like their parents or other relatives.
People become very frustrated when they feel that they have been singled out by Teachers, students and even Hashem to suffer. If they’d accept that their difficulties, although painful, are typical, they would handle things better.
The third misconception is that children aren’t aware that other children also experience what they’re experiencing. Those other children are just more accepting of the difficulties they face. People become very frustrated when they feel that they have been singled out by teachers, students, and even Hashem to suffer. If they’d accept that their difficulties, although painful, are typical, they would handle things better.
The fourth misconception is that they are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that they probably contributed to the problem. This doesn’t mean that it was their fault. (Suggest that they’re to blame and you might as well just give up) It means that they may have done something that motivated and then enabled the other person to treat them unfairly.
For instance, the young student may have made a huge “scene” whenever someone in his class irritated him. When he makes a scene he offers wonderful entertainment to his classmates. This is especially valuable when his classmates can make him make a scene during class time. Is the victim wrong? Not in the least. But he did motivate the bully to repeat his abuse.
These misconceptions heighten the unfairness of their situation, blinding them. They become unable to think logically. Speaking to these young children I watch them eagerly and happily take advantage of the opportunity to speak to me. Within minutes they become agitated. Before I know it their faces become contorted, their fists clench up and their voices become raised.
Readjusting their expectations will help lower their frustrations. Lowered frustrations will help them keep focused and not become an emotional wreck before planning out their reaction. Some of the most common reactions that not only don’t help but hurt are:
The first thing I tell them is that, if they want my help, they can’t alienate me. Even more, they must make me feel good for helping them. Although I know they are not screaming at me, I need to believe that the conversation won’t end up with their being angrier than when we began. I need to believe that if I come up with a plan, they will be willing to listen. I need to believe that, in some manner, I can make a difference. If by listening to them I will fuel a full-blown flashback, then I’m not helping them and I certainly am not going to enjoy the conversation.
The second thing that I tell them is that we must become practical. Life isn’t fair when we look at it on a day by day basis. Things eventually even out but sometimes it takes a long time. I once told that to a boy who didn’t believe me until the boys bothering him were thrown out of school and ended up on my doorstep. Only then did he feel that life can be fair, it just may take a long time.
I tried reminded him that “a long time” is often more than a few months and that he might have to wait for adulthood before truly appreciating my words. Once he has seen that those misbehaving classmates got punished, it became easier for him to accept that a bully may rate high in sixth grade, but, twenty years from now will rate poorly in the neighborhood Shul. The nice boy who doesn’t fight back, rates poorly in class, but, as an adult will be appreciated in that same community Shul.
Unhappy and doing something about it – Part Two
Last week’s article concluded with the thought that readjusting the expectations of children will help lower their frustrations. Lowered frustrations will help them keep focused and not become an emotional wreck before planning out their reaction. This week’s article continues with tips to help them survive, and thrive, during the 7th and 8th-grade years.
The third one is that if a person is constantly picked on he must consider that there’s something that makes him pickable. As I mentioned in the previous week, being pickable doesn’t make someone to blame. Being aware that it’s his actions that make him pickable will help him realize that he has more control of his life than he believes he has.
Without validating others that take advantage of them, adults, just like children, can still look inside themselves to see what it is about them that contribute to the problems they are facing.
Adults must also consider that they may be intelligent, an excellent employee or community member but that certain negative character traits make them unappreciated. Without validating others that take advantage of them, adults, just like children, can still look inside themselves to see what it is about them that contribute to the problems they are facing.
The fourth one is that many of these young children demonstrate poor judgment when bothered by other children. They should be coached to help them consider stepping aside and let the incident pass over. With many, their self-esteem is so poor that, defending themselves seems to them to be the only logical move. Their response, contrary to what they hoped, only succeeds in making them appear to be even more pickable. The cycle of being picked on and responding poorly continues until the situation becomes unbearable.
They should be coached to consider, before reacting, what they believe the probable result of defending themselves will be. This requires a huge amount of maturity and self-control and maybe too much to expect. Sadly, some young children’s lives are so complex that they have little choice but to be asked to rise to the challenge. The irony is that because the victim often acts younger than his real age we ask him to act above his real age.
I often offer these children the following analogy. A person who finds a bee flying around should avoiding trying to hit it unless he is confident he will kill it in his first try. If he misses the bee he will have made it angry, increasing his risk of being stung. In a classroom, before responding, the child should also be confident that his reaction will actually stop the other children from bothering him. If it doesn’t, like the bee, his classmates will increase their attention to him.
This message is important in more than just the area of classroom fights. The concept of effectiveness being more important than being right is a valuable lesson for everyone to understand.
The fifth one is that even if a response becomes necessary and is deemed effective, they must keep their response to be a proportionate one. A child that is called a name isn’t allowed to throw something sharp and heavy at the other boy. Doing so is not only morally wrong (Something they aren’t too concerned about) it causes the adults to shift their allegiance from his side to the other boy’s side. This causes immense frustration as the victim doesn’t understand why “everyone always sticks up for the boy who started up”.
When I explain this to the boy I take particular detail in first explaining how I think the other boy is wrong. It often takes me more time then I expect to convince the boy that I believe that it is he who is the victim. Yet, before he believes that you understand that he didn’t start up with the other boy, nothing I say would be accepted.
The sixth lesson is an extension of the previous one that pointed out that there are many things that a child is allowed to do but shouldn’t do it because it won’t be effective. There are also many things a person is allowed to do that still make him looked upon negatively in his friend’s eyes. There are many things, I constantly repeat, that the other person deserves, but you shouldn’t do.
There are some additional messages that I tell the parents of young children. The first is often the most difficult for parents to comply with. Most young children are the product of their parent’s household. This, when the child is still young is the time to reflect on the dynamics in the home in the areas of; Sholom Bayis, their Chinuch system, and the parent’s and sibling’s personal behavior. Although it’s true that many successful families have difficult children the first step is to consider if the household dynamics are affecting the child.
Sometimes the household is exceptionally run well but still contributes to the child problems. For instance, a home where all siblings are overachievers will cause multiple problems for the mediocre child. Is the family aware that it’s causing problems? Are the siblings sensitive to hide their activities that cause those frustrations?
The second is that when assessing how to respond to their child’s behaviors parents should assess their child’s receptiveness to their message. Some children are surprisingly very mature, others much less so. With some children, they can listen to the message but forget it a second later. Sometimes they’re forgetting is sincere, others times manipulative. Before parents have any discussions with their child they must know which category their child falls into. As the child grows parents should reassess their child’s receptiveness.
The third thing is that parents are going to have to convey many messages that their child is not going to want to listen to. The parents may have to tell their children that he, the child, is wrong, that despite being right he will have to accept what’s taking place and that, as parents, you are sometimes disappointed in him. These messages will have to be done very carefully. Parents must learn how to communicate and master the arts of diplomacy, humor, and effective body language.
The fourth point is that in addition to mastering the previous paragraphs skills parents must also earn their child’s trust and friendship for these messages to be accepted. If not, the discussions themselves will become the next episode requiring damage control.
The fifth point is that with some children school is secondary to their child’s immediate needs. A day off is not so bad. Parents must juggle the concern of their child becoming accustomed to not going to school but, in general, a day off, calming the child down, won’t hurt him.
The sixth message is that parents may have to consider homeschooling. Generally, this is only suggested for a short period of time, such as until the end of the school year. The goal is twofold: to remove the child from the classroom long enough for him to become calmer and have the energy to try again. The second goal is to teach him, without the challenges of the classroom, enough life skills to give him a greater chance of success in the next attempt.
If possible it’s best to try partial homeschooling. There are two options for partial homeschooling. The student could actually attend school the entire day but hire tutors (mentors disguised as tutors are often a better idea) to take him out of class. Other times it’s advisable to have him stay in school in the morning and home school for English classes.
Parents must be aware that complete homeschooling can cause as many problems as it solves. One of the greatest challenges of homeschooling is the social factor. Without peers, children can’t learn the necessary skills to be reintroduced back into the classroom. If a parent will remove a child from school they must first be confident that they can create all (not most, but all) of the necessary components. This includes teachers and mentors (They can be the same person) friends, patience on the part of the entire family, discipline for the child to participate in homeschooling and the ability to keep the child as busy as he would be in class.
Parents must keep in mind that once out of school their child may become so comfortable they may not agree to go back again. Most parents attempt homeschooling as a temporary step, but find that, once home, the child is doing so well it doesn’t make sense for him to go back. That is fine. But that may be more than the parent can handle. A homeschooled child, even with an army of teachers will require several hours a day from the parent.
In other cases, the homeschooling experience was a failure but the boy, home for weeks, refuses to go back to school. In many cases, the parent, who was so angry at the school, realizes that it’s the child, not the school that is in need of an overhaul.
In almost every community, more and more parents are choosing homeschooling. (I was recently told that there are numerous websites to offer support to parents considering homeschooling their child.) Recently parents are considering homeschooling as a first choice and not because their children found school difficult.
Whatever the reason for keeping one’s child at home parents should network In their neighborhood for other parents and create small groups, are combining their children, financial resources and their personal time to make the experience a success. (Birchas Eliyohu, beginning in a similar manner has grown into a permanent project, offering personal attention and small classes for the 11-12-year-old boy.) Be careful. Parents home school for a wide range of reasons. Make sure you want the other person’s child around your child all day before agreeing to join forces.
The seventh one is that, although I am not a fan of medication, it’s often a necessary step. Done early enough and with the proper professional team, it can often be short term and with minimal doses. Not to be taken lightly, medication should also not be rejected without serious thought.
After distributing part one of this article some parents responded to one particular point more than to any other one. I wrote that some “They (the children) retell to me stories of the class bully, the Rebbi or principal that responds without listening to the entire story and English education in general.”
I don’t know the personal circumstances of any of those that responded to this article. But it does give me an opportunity to discuss something that I feel is important. Every once in a while I write an article that attracts a large amount of positive attention. It always amuses me when the comments are how, “My wife really needs to read this” or, “Can I have a copy e-mailed to me there’s someone I want to send this too”.
Although the person reading this article will hopefully absorb its message for the next time he approaches a similar incident, there’s a component that can be unhealthy. Many people look at these articles as an opportunity to purge themselves of guilt. They listen to a description of bad Rabbeim or errors in the school system and they feel better. They can now divert blame to another party. It’s even easier when the other party is a common scapegoat or can be labeled, such as “the system” or a need of medication.
In general, I remind people that guilt is intended to do two things: It forces us to admit to ourselves that we realize that what has taken place is wrong. This helps us change our actions when we face similar opportunities. Secondly, it’s to makes us aware that we must make amends with the person we may have let down.
Blaming a problem on a third party purges one of guilt. Admitting one’s contribution to a problem can be therapeutic to parent and child. In general, I remind people that guilt is intended to do two things: It forces us to admit to ourselves that we realize that what has taken place is wrong. This helps us change our actions when we face similar opportunities. Secondly, it’s to makes us aware that we must make amends with the person we may have let down.
It’s true that the system or individual person may have failed us. In general a singular incident or school year will not destroy a student. It requires previous lack of self esteem, a weak support group, and a lack of empathy during that difficult year. A second thought that I remind parents is that successful people focus on their contribution to a problem. Unsuccessful people focus on other people’s contribution.
When considering the many possible contributing factors parents must consider not only what was done incorrectly but what was necessary to do and wasn’t done. Many busy parents and/or parents who lack the ability to connect with their child, for instance, have done nothing wrong. But they’re still guilty (remember guilt is about tomorrow, not yesterday) of not doing what was necessary.
Not doing what is necessary is usually an intangible. Who’s to say how much time is needed to spend with one’s child? Who is to conclude if the parent is impatient or if it’s the child who is being difficult? Add to it a tangible failure on the part of the school or neighborhood family and the parent is able to escape any blame for their child’s lack of success. If the child was the youngest little needs to be done. Sadly, in many cases it’s an older child. An honest assessment on the parent’s part is important if the parents are going to be able to avoid repeating their failures with their younger children.
Children are both rewarding and difficult. The exact proportion is individual with every child. Despite the huge amount of effort our younger children require, I offer parents’ the following advice; the more effort you place in them when their young, the less you will have to place with them when older. SO give them as much attention as they may possibly need. But don’t forget to enjoy them along the way.
Photo Credit: MACIEKLEW from rgbstock.com