Dear Mr. Weisbord,
When my husband and I were dating, we spoke about the future. We both hoped to have an open house with many guest for Shabbos, and in the beginning, we did. Then as children starting arriving, that slowly changed to one meal per Shabbos. We have a beautiful family, but one of our children is very, very hard. He is 10 years old, bright, and very cute (while sleeping), but he doesn’t listen to a word I say – not to me and not to my husband. He is very obnoxious, only cares about himself, and is mean and selfish towards his siblings. I believe Hashem gave us our other children, who are extra-special, because of this child. I do not understand how this son can be so different from everyone else, as they are all brought up under one roof.
My husband wants to invite company sometimes, but I feel so overwhelmed with this child. If I were busy with company, I don’t know what he would do. My husband says that this child cannot rule our life. We talk about sending him to summer camp, but I do not think he will last more than one night before they send him home. We need some advice on how to handle him and this situation. We have tried charts, prizes. Nothing works. He just has a knack for getting into trouble and even tries to get his siblings in on the act. Please help!
Never Bargained for This
Dear Never Bargained for This,
It sounds like you are grappling with some very significant issues: Your son’s behaviors are very difficult to manage, and on top of that, you are feeling that your life is not going the way you had envisioned. It is easy to see why you feel overwhelmed by this, especially when so much of your energy is taken up by just trying to prevent negative behaviors in your home.
I think it might be helpful to see these as two distinct issues that are interrelated and impact each other. One direction of this interrelationship is easy to see – that it is hard to have the guests you want due to focus you must place on your son. The other aspect is that if, at some level, you feel that your son is responsible for the negative outcome in your life, it is very hard to have the feelings towards him that are needed to help your relationship with him develop positively.
When discussing parenting, there is the practical component, and then there is the emotional component. The practicalities include what to say and how to say it, ideas such as making charts or behavior plans, all of which can be very helpful. However, the way that a parent feels about a child makes an enormous impact on the way that child acts. Without feeling kindly and loving towards your son during your interactions, any attempt to manage his behaviors turns into a power struggle. You want to ensure that he does or does not do something, and he resists. With the loving feelings in place, the same interaction can be benign and beneficial, in that you set a limit or make a statement of consequence, and he chooses how he wants to respond.
It is all too easy for a parent to begin to respond negatively most of the time to a child who consistently is “getting into trouble.” The problem is that this exacerbates the difficulty, because the parent is then often irritable towards this child, which deprives the child of the love and support he needs to begin to manage his behaviors better.
The psychologist Ross Greene writes that a child does not succeed because he wants to, but because he can. If we believe a child is good whenever he wants to be, we tend to try to force him to want to be good more often. We do this by offering incentives when he is good or negative consequences for when he is not good. However when we realize that it is natural for a child to want to be successful – then when confronted with one who is not, we need to think about what the child is lacking that is not allowing him or her to succeed. Sometimes children are lacking certain skills or abilities and, through no fault of their own, do do not “succeed” by our definition of the word. We need to work to understand their deficits so that we can help them meet their needs and succeed.
When you can see that your son has the same desire to succeed as your other children and yet, for some reason, is not managing his behaviors, you can perhaps begin to consider that your son is more than just the sum of his behaviors. Yes, his behaviors may be obnoxious, mean, and selfish much of the time – but that does not mean that he is not more than those behaviors. He just needs more guidance and assistance than his siblings to express his innate goodness.
We also need to remember that children are as sensitive to shame as adults are. I don’t know your occupation, but if you have ever had an employee evaluation, you may be familiar with the feeling that comes with getting some criticism about your work – and that is even if your boss is pleased with you overall. Imagine if your boss felt that you were doing almost nothing right! That would be so devastating that I can imagine many people might start looking for another position. I assure you that your opinion matters to your son far more than your boss’s does to you. The difference is that he cannot communicate this to you directly with words – so he uses his actions. He has gotten you in a position where you cannot leave him alone, albeit in a negative rather than a positive way. This may be exactly what he wants, because he may feel he has no choice; he knows you view him as hopeless.
You don’t want to be like a bad boss to your child! He needs to hear that you see positive qualities in him, and that you can acknowledge things he does that are positive. I would challenge you to identify these positive things , no matter how small, and thank or acknowledge him for them. Even if he is just throwing out his trash, or doing some small thoughtful thing, such as carrying a bag from the car. This will help you remember that he is not a monster; and will help him consider his good side once he hears you noticing him in positive ways. You can deepen the impact by sharing his good deed with someone else within his earshot.
I would like to address the idea of acceptance for a moment. We have only limited awareness of our specific purpose in this life. We know that Hashem gave us a Torah and that we must keep and learn it to the best of our abilities. We know that there is always room to improve our middos, our personality traits. Sometimes we may also think that we are supposed to be making a specific contribution to the world, and we can envision how that should look. However, this does not mean that this is what Hashem has in mind for us. He has ways of letting us know what He, in His infinite wisdom, wants from us. His primary means of communication is by placing us in situations that don’t go away and that we must find a way to handle. Your son is one such Communication! Hashem is telling you clearly that, while it was wonderful watching you host guests at your Shabbos table, and hopefully it will be again one day soon, at the moment, this is not the avoda (service) He desires from you. He wants you instead to reach deep inside yourself and find your love for your challenging son who does not listen to you. He is asking you to stretch yourself, and to let go of the image you had of yourself as a perfect parent and hostess.
This is not easy work, and it is much easier to say than do. But once you do let some of this go, you will find a joy in caring for your son, and you may be able to relax sufficiently to see what he contributes to your family. As you embrace the lot you have been given, you will be freed from the resentment and the pain that is blocking your natural mothering ability. You may even discover that guests enjoy interacting with him, and that he responds positively towards them.
Here are some other ideas that can help you feel better about your son and also meet his emotional needs: Give him a lot of hugs! Since you find him so hard to manage, it is possible that you are avoiding him, even without realizing it. Give him a hug when he comes home and tell him you love him and are happy to see him. Even if it is not totally true, saying it will make it closer to the truth.
Spend 10 to 15 minutes a day with him as his time. Try not to give directions or teach him lessons during that time; you can take a walk with him, play a game, or something else he wants to do. You might want to ask him about himself and just listen without judging his responses. It is a good idea to do this with all your children weekly, but at this point he needs a lot more of it. You can accomplish the same thing on occasion by taking him with you on an errand, just the two of you. It is good to end it by getting him a Slurpee or something he enjoys.
I wish you much hatzlacha on this challenging journey. May Hashem grant you patience, wisdom, and support you will need to undertake this and progress to the point where you will have nachas from your son and the rest of your family.
Yehuda Weisbord is a licensed counselor and