Educator Shifra Miriam Erlich gives workshops, in which she trains parents to teach kids to bounce back from difficulties, and turn lemons into lemonade
Fifteen years ago, when Shifra Miriam Erlich was a first-grade teacher in Boro Park, she began to notice a trend: Too many of her students were having “allergic reactions” to life —they couldn’t handle when things went wrong. The kids would melt down if they weren’t chosen for something or if the homework was too hard.
Reaching out to parents about the issue, Shifra Miriam encountered the same helplessness she saw in the classroom: the parents themselves felt overwhelmed or distraught when their child faced a challenge, be it academic or social. That’s when Shifra Miriam realized that teaching resilience to her students would only go so far — she had to work with the parents, too.
Her chinuch workshops for mothers and teachers (with specific training in anxiety and self-esteem for children and teens) have been such a success that today she’s certified and employed by the Board of Education, working as a professional development coach in the local frum schools.
Challenge is Opportunity
“If Hashem wanted life to be smooth, He could make it that way,” Shifra Miriam emphasizes in her workshops. “But He wants it to be challenging so there’s opportunity for growth. If everything were perfect, our children would never have to exert any energy and learn about this thing called ‘life.’ ”
In fact, she continues, the fact that things go wrong has been built into the very essence of the world. She quotes an idea from Rabbi Avraham Chaim Carmell, who cites the Maharal and Rav Dessler: “On each of the six days of creation, something went ‘wrong,’ yet the Midrash says that at the end of creation, Hashem marveled at His work and said, “V’hinei tov meod — Behold it is very good,” despite, or maybe because of, the imperfections.
“Even if on Day One, the light was too strong,” Shifra Miriam explains, “and on Day Two, the waters fought over their distance from Hashem, and on Day Three, the trees’ bark wasn’t edible as intended, and on Day Four, the moon wasn’t happy about its size, and so on, that was exactly how it was meant to be.” So, too, in our lives: However things work out, whether we perceive it as good or bad, it’s tov meod.
But kids today often lack that perspective. “They’re part of a generation that was brought up on instant gratification,” says Shifra Miriam. “And because they were never taught to plow through difficulties, the minute life doesn’t go their way, they fall apart.”
It’s undeniably hard to watch children struggle with problems. “When our children suffer, we just want to fix it for them,” Shifra Miriam acknowledges. “But if we don’t teach them to handle difficulties and we wipe away the boo-boo, they become allergic to life, blowing up over the smallest of things.”
In her workshops, Shifra Miriam points out that all children have their portion of pain written down in Shamayim — and nothing a parent does can take that away. What we can do is be emotionally supportive and model helpful ways for them to navigate their challenges.
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Imagine your child or teen comes home in a huff. How do you usually respond? (You might identify to some extent with all three typical responses below.)
If you’re “the nonchalant mother,” you merely brush off your child’s complaints with a “Nah, it’s nothing,” or “Don’t worry, you’ll see it’ll work out,” or you distract her altogether with a “Look what I got you!” to avoid the headache of discussing it. That tells your child that a) you don’t take her seriously and b) negative emotion is a bother to be avoided at any cost. Now your child has not one, but two problems: one, the initial problem; two, her mother doesn’t deem her feelings important and real.
If you’re “the judgmental mother,” you throw the blame onto someone — the child, the school, the society, or even yourself. “I shouldn’t have let you go to bed late,” or “Why didn’t you listen to the teacher?” This directs her anger in a different direction but it doesn’t make her feel supported. Temporarily, it might even feel good that someone else is to blame, but in the long run, she won’t be able accept responsibility, which makes her feel weak and have low self-worth. Again, she now has two problems: one, the initial problem; and two, you don’t understand her.
If you’re “the bubble-wrap mother,” you overprotect your child to ensure she never suffers pain. “She hurt you? Don’t play with her again,” or “You didn’t manage to learn? I’ll write you a note.” You don’t make her clean her messes or apologize for chutzpah, lest it trigger her emotions. You’ll do whatever it takes for your child not to be upset. Yes, you’ve eliminated the problem and even shown her understanding, but by denying her the opportunity for growth, you’ve given her a long-term problem: weak emotional resilience.
How we respond to our children’s problems is often mirrored by how we react to our own challenges. When life throws you lemons, do your children see you wince, or do they see you make lemonade? Do you run to fix the problem, spending whatever it takes because “it’s a disaster in the making” or do you accept that what happened is min haShamayim and tov meod, and only then seek to solve it?
According to Shifra Miriam, a resilient response starts with acceptance. You accept that this problem is part of your child’s tailor-made journey and growth in This World (and yours, too). Once you’re operating from a place of “this is fine, it’s part of life, I accept this is the situation,” you take the hysteria out of the equation and can distance yourself somewhat from the motherly pain of watching a child in distress. And from there, you can support your child from a rational frame of mind.
“Why am I, as a parenting coach, sometimes more successful than parents trying to reach their children?” asks Shifra Miriam. “Because it’s not my responsibility, so I can think rationally. I certainly give it my all, but I’m clear that it’s not in my control to fix the problem. This allows the child to grow at his own pace and make changes on his own, not because I told him to.”
Some of today’s mothers, she explains, are overly emotional. They’re so enmeshed in their children’s problems that they end up taking ownership of them instead of allowing the children to sort things out.
“It’s the mother’s job to support the child through the problem, but it’s not the mother’s problem. No matter how much the mother solves the child’s problem, the child will eventually have to manage challenges on his own. Life will say no, even if you don’t. Let him figure out how to manage it early on.”
A parent who’s enmeshed and feels compelled to fix her children’s problems “because that’s what makes a good mother” needs help in removing herself and becoming a background presence and support. Often, when the mother learns to do this, the problems resolve on their own or with minimal intervention.
“When a child has fever, the child goes to bed — not the mother,” Shifra Miriam says. “In the same way, when a child is in a social or emotional bind, the mother shouldn’t adopt the problem as if it’s hers and dissolve into depression. The child has a ‘fever,’ not her. She has to be strong for her child.”
But isn’t a Yiddishe mother all about innate sympathy and pain for our beloved offspring?
“You have to know when it’s damaging,” Shifra Miriam says. “If you’re not eating and not sleeping from the heartache, it doesn’t help anyone. On the contrary, you’re not even available for the child.”
Shifra Miriam brings up a classic example of a boy falling off his bike. “If no one is around and it didn’t hurt, he’ll likely pick himself up and move on. But if his mother appears and starts panicking, he’ll automatically burst into tears. Don’t experience the emotion stronger than the child. You’re the support; you need to be stronger and show your child confidence that this can be handled.”
As the Yiddish idiom goes: “Tzaras nemt men fun Himmel, tzar nemt men zich alein —Tzaros one gets from Above, tzar one helps oneself to.”
So what should we do with those sometimes overwhelming maternal feelings? “Direct your sadness to Hashem and daven,” advises Shifra Miriam. “If you want to show motherly sympathy, be kinder and more patient with your child while he works through the challenge.”
Parents have to evaluate what their role is in any situation, whether they’re dealing with potty-training or shidduchim. Is it the parent’s responsibility or the child’s? For example, is it your responsibility to march into school and chide the teacher about an incident, or is it your responsibility to stay in the background and act as your child’s sounding board and support system?
Shifra Miriam illustrates this point with a personal story: One night, she was at the door, about to go to a chasunah, when a glass broke. She quickly delegated jobs — “take the baby away from here,” “get the broom,” etc. — to clean the mess before leaving. Later, at the chasunah, as the waiter cleared the table, a glass dropped to the floor. She describes how she merely moved away and let the waiter sweep up the shards. Why? Because in her house, it was her responsibility; in the hall, it wasn’t.
The only time there’s no question about parental intervention, Shifra Miriam clarifies, is when there’s a clear danger to your child, either physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Then it’s 100 percent the parent’s responsibility.
Clinching a Connection
Once you’ve accepted that your child needs her nisayon to grow and build resilience, it’s time to show her understanding and validate her experience without judging or giving advice.
If a teen complains that she’s fat, don’t brush it off with, “You’re so not! You’re beautiful!” In that instant, the teen feels her thoughts are absolutely true, so you won’t get anywhere by denying her claim.
Instead, go with the flow instead and sincerely acknowledge her emotions. “You think you’re fat? It must be so hard to feel that way.” By showing genuine understanding, you clinch a connection. Now you can address why she feels fat and what you could do about it.
Or if a kid complains about the supper you made, instead of saying, “Too bad, this is what it is,” grab hold of his emotions and say, “You don’t like it? Such a pity…” What you do afterward is your choice, whether you insist he eat it or give him something else. Most times, once you acknowledge his pain and show you take him seriously, that fuzzy feeling of being understood does half the work in appeasing him.
Shifra Miriam pushes parents to validate feelings even if they seem entirely unfounded. “My son once took a sip of milk and then immediately spit it out, claiming it was spoiled. But I knew it wasn’t — I’d just had coffee. So I insisted it was fine,” Shifra Miriam shares.
“But I soon realized that there had been salt in his cup. He was right. I was judging. If a kid says it’s spoiled, then for him it’s spoiled, no matter how strongly you insist otherwise. It doesn’t matter what we think, it matters what they feel. Otherwise they might doubt themselves and their feelings.”
By acknowledging your kids’ feelings, you also affirm that they’re normal. To be upset about acne or frizzy hair is normal. To feel frustrated when you study hard for a test and get a C is normal. Even adults have to be encouraged that their feelings are normal. When parents call Shifra Miriam with parenting problems, she continuously reassures them that “it’s normal.” In fact, her daughter heard her repeating that remark so many times to callers that she suggested her mother open a recorded hotline to save her the repetition. “The first option,” quipped her daughter, “will be ‘To hear that it’s normal, press one.’”
Even infants need acknowledgment. If a toddler has a diaper rash and the mother smears cream, he’s going to scream in protest. Sympathize and say, “Oy, I see you don’t like this,” so he knows you’re feeling his pain.
Research backs this up. A study was conducted to see which reaction worked best at calming a baby during immunizations. One group tried distraction, like offering a lollipop, a pacifier, or even making jokes; a second group did nothing, and the third mirrored the child’s expression. The children in the last group, whose mothers clearly validated their pain, were the easiest calmed.
When a child senses that his parent doesn’t validate or understand his concerns, it can create a bigger issue than the problem itself. On the flip side, if the child feels a parent’s genuine understanding, it makes him feel empowered — he see that it’s two against one, that you’re in it together.
Six Tools to Build Resilience
Now that your child’s feelings have been validated, half the job is done. The next step requires incredible patience on the parent’s part: You have to give the problem time to work itself out without intervening.
What if that doesn’t work? You still shouldn’t solve the problem yourself, but you can guide your kids to a resolution with one of Shifra Miriam’s workshop “tools”:
1. Make the choice
Tell your child, “This is your life, your choice.” He can mope and be in a mad mood all day, or he can accept the situation and make the best of it.
Let’s say Huvi’s older siblings went to Bubby for Shabbos, but her mother says she’s too young to go. Huvi throws a tantrum and threatens that she won’t come out of her room until after Shabbos.
“It’ll be really sad if you choose to do that,” Huvi’s mother tells her, “but you can come out when you feel ready. We’re going to be having fun downstairs.” She gives the choice to Huvi while still acknowledging her pain. She lets Huvi know there’s a better way, but that she’ll also be okay if her daughter decides to brood in her room all day.
“If Huvi chooses to closet herself in her room for the next 25 hours, she’ll find out for herself how miserable and foolish that choice was, which will be better than a hundred speeches from her mother,” says Shifra Miriam.
2. Let go
If a child is holding onto a grudge so tightly that his entire day is effected, you can show him tangibly how it’s crippling his productivity.
Give him something chunky to hold, like a bunch of markers, and tell him not to put them down at all. Soon he’ll be complaining that he can’t get dressed, can’t eat, can’t write; he can’t do anything with his occupied hand.
Explain that the brain works the same way when it’s too occupied with a negative thought. Coax him to accept the situation and let go — or to consider ideas to improve the situation. That will ease up his brain, and his life.
Encourage your child to come up with solutions to the problem. If he blurts out “Dunno” — which he likely will — you can offer some thoughts of your own, putting it down on paper as a spidergram for a more visual child.
“Handing them ideas is not ideal,” says Shifra Miriam. “We want them to learn to come up with solutions on their own. But if you start them off, they’ll be pushed to brainstorm, for the simple reason that they probably won’t like your mature, way-too-sensible suggestions and will scramble to come up with something more appealing!”
What if your child won’t participate in the brainstorming process and insists he doesn’t have any ideas? Then give him another day to think.
“It’s crucial that the child be part of the brainstorming,” Shifra Miriam says. “Frustration comes from helplessness and not knowing what to do. Teaching your kids early on to cross that hurdle gives them a tool for the future. You won’t be there to spoon-feed them in school, nor in yeshivah or seminary, and certainly not in their marriage. Instill that skill now.”
4. Weigh it out
Once the ideas are down, discuss each one’s pros and cons. To deal with a nasty classmate, for example, you might suggest the following three solutions: admonish her, don’t say anything, or avoid her altogether. Weighing the benefits out, you might together realize “If you admonish her, it’ll be uncomfortable for you and, as a bully, she probably won’t listen. If you move on and try to find new friends, it will be hard at first, but you may end up happier, etc.” You can discuss it together, but let the child make the final choice.
5. Stick it out
It’s okay to have problems and we need to teach that to children. They don’t always have to run away from issues or make them immediately disappear. This concept will likely be challenging for kids — in our instant generation, where everything is available and replaceable at the click of a button, kids often aren’t used to waiting things out. So how do we train them?
Shifra Miriam shares one method that can work with real anxiety, too: Buy a glass jar and every time a child delays gratification or stays in an uncomfortable situation without needing to desperately fix it, she can pop a coin inside, which will be saved up for a family treat. So if she hates the fishy kitchen smell and wants to run out, or if she wants you to sign her homework now, this game teaches her to… one, two, three, w-a-a-a-it.
Once her brain gets used to being delayed and is “deprived” of instant results, it changes the brain’s need for it. Parents can play the “jar game” too, because nothing speaks louder than example.
6. Blame game
Kids love to blame. That’s why Shifra Miriam highly recommends the blame game (or “excuse machine,” as her family dubs it) and even plays it randomly at home or in the car. It’s about letting the child throw the most extreme blames for his problem at anyone and everyone who might have remotely contributed and then you discuss what to do about it. It’s a good way to de-stress your child and get him to reason with you.
While we said earlier that blaming may be a temporary solution to a problem but not a long-term one, with the exaggerated form of blame going on here, it’s clear that the blaming is not the end solution, but purely a means to the end, albeit in a fun way.
For example, one of Shifra Miriam’s young clients lost his shoe. He missed the bus. He was late for school. He had a meltdown. Later in school, Shifra Miriam sat the boy down and let him rant about whose fault it was. After picking on the cleaning lady, the toddler, the bus driver — everyone but the shoemaker — he got to the principal, who created the school’s schedule, and then to the president for inventing such a dumb thing as school. Finally, he blurted out, “Actually the whole of America’s to blame!”
“Why on earth?” Shifra Miriam exclaimed.
“Because in America everyone wears shoes and in places like Africa they don’t!”
The two of them shared a hearty chuckle at how far he’d taken it, and, with the wrath out of his stomach, he was amenable to discussing how to prevent a shoe loss in the future. In no time, he suggested parking his sneakers near the doormat so he could find them easily.
In trying to teach resilience, sometimes fun and games is the answer, sometimes not. Shifra Miriam’s tips cross the gamut of options and should go a long way in minimizing our children’s allergic reactions to the “lemons” Hashem sends their way.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 613)
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