What if we could step away from the power struggles, and have stronger, healthier relationships with our children?
Shelley Malka is working to make this a reality
We humans are ever growing. We transform, we metamorphose.
Sometimes the transformation is sudden, like a cactus blossom bursting into bloom after a long drought. Sometimes it’s like ivy creeping steadily but silently up a sunny stone wall. Often it’s only in retrospect that we can spot metamorphosis, that we can recognize those critical eras that propelled us out of one stage of life and into another.
When I met Shelley Malka, I had no idea I was about to enter such an era.
I started out as a client of hers for EFT, Emotional Freedom Techniques. This therapy was so effective, I decided to study it, and now offer it to others. Yet I received an even greater gift from Shelley: her online parenting course, called EmPowered Jewish Parenting (from the Hebrew eim, mother).
I’ve studied psychology, taken parenting classes, and delved deeply into different techniques over the years, so I was prepared to learn another method that would take me one step further in my parenting.
But Shelley’s classes turned me into a different parent entirely. Instead of continuously bracing myself for the next storm, I began to accept the presence of waves while improving my stroke.
Shelley, too, had an aha! moment that shaped her future. One of her kids had been throwing tantrums in class. The school suggested Shelley see Sarah Trenyo, a CBT therapist and parenting coach.
“Sarah’s approach is different,” Shelley explains. “She believes that what kids want more than anything is a connection to you, the parent, and their behavior is an expression of that.”
“I’d heard these same ideas before,” Shelley says, “but this was an integral part of who Sarah is and what she offered. I started putting her techniques into practice with my child.” Shelley’s eyes light up as she thinks back. “I saw instant results! My child simply stopped having tantrums. Just like that! They disappeared in a puff of smoke.”
That was just the beginning. One day not long after she’d started seeing Sarah, her other daughter, a child she usually left to her husband to deal with, came storming down the stairs. As soon as Shelley heard the thunderous footsteps, her heart started pounding.
She knew she had to free herself of her usual anger and aggression, but how? “She’s just trying to connect, that’s all,” she reminded herself. In the three seconds it took the child to appear in the kitchen, the stomping ceased. In a timid voice, she said, “Ima, would you mind making me some pasta for lunch?”
It was the most dramatic turnabout Shelley can recall as a parent. “I thought, ‘I’m in the middle of a Harry Potter novel. This isn’t real.’ I’d seen results with my younger child, but to see it work with this one, who’d been like this for years, was simply unbelievable. I decided this was an approach I wanted to learn inside and out.”
Simultaneously, Shelley was doing a lot of trauma work with people, and she found that no matter what the presenting problem was — anxiety, depression, phobias, relationships, shidduchim, marriage, peak performance — it almost always boiled down to trauma. She’d been considering ways to take her therapy work online. Since she’d been so taken with Sarah’s approach, Shelley decided parenting would be the focus. After all, parenting issues are invariably connected to trauma, since we bring all our unresolved issues with us into parenting.
Shelley, originally from South Africa, made aliyah 20 years ago. Interestingly, though she’s been working for 15 years as a trauma therapist, Shelley’s PhD is in English literature. Shelley says literature was the best possible foundation she could’ve had.
“Reading people is very much like reading text. There are themes, plot lines, narratives, atmosphere, tonalities, rhythm, pace, style, persona, multiple levels of mind, and subtext… and of course, language. The words people choose to express themselves are not chosen at random, and the particular way they use language comes directly from the subconscious mind. When one understands how to read the written text, one understands how to read the multiple layers and dimensions of the human ‘text.’ ”
In addition to academic study, years of being in therapy herself, with a broad spectrum of approaches and schools of thought, provided her with great insight into how the theories look in practice. This, together with her literary training, was the perfect foundation upon which to practice EFT.
In a nutshell, EFT, like other trauma therapies, understands that emotional and physical pain are the result of life events that have not yet been fully processed. If we ingest food and it isn’t digested, it will rot inside. This is what happens emotionally, energetically, and psychologically when we go through events and they’re not metabolized.
As children, we download everything in our world. And yet through that most crucial period, birth through age seven, we don’t have the tools or experience to process what we’re experiencing. One of the major brachos of being an adult is that we have the benefit of a rational mind and the tools we lacked then.
With the help of a therapist, we can revisit childhood experiences, make sense of them, and digest them, which allows us to reframe. We can see the past from a very different perspective; we can reinterpret and change the effect events have on us. Instead of being confined to a small box, our thinking can expand, and our limiting beliefs can be reevaluated, so energy can start flowing, and the emotional and physical blockages are removed.
Dina went to Shelley for help with her nine-year-old daughter, Malki, who despite a psycho-didactic evaluation that came back normal, had learning issues that resisted improvement. Through EFT tapping, they uncovered Dina’s false belief that “If I can’t fix my kids’ problems, I’m not a good mother.”
Shelley intuited that Malki’s behavior was an unconscious “oxygen pipe” connecting her to her mother, that Malki thought, “I must keep making Mommy feel she needs to fix my problem, or I’ll be unimportant to her, lose my connection to her.”
Subsequent sessions revealed that Dina’s mom had been an uninvolved mother. Little Dina had concluded that her mother didn’t care about her, and she resolved that she’d always be there for her kids, so they’d never feel unimportant. Through EFT, Dina understood how her own attachment issues prevented her from letting go of the need to solve Malki’s problems.
The reframe, “Hashem has given this child everything she needs to be successful” could only resonate once she’d identified the trapped issue in her own history and felt all those difficult feelings. Once that happened, Malki’s school work started improving.
When this process of reframing is done through the prism of Torah, the limitations of Western society also lose their hold on us. The concept of blaming parents for their children’s choices due to “bad parenting” is not a Torah concept. “We have to go through everything we went through, including traumas, because it’s by working with those experiences, grappling with and overcoming the obstacles with Hashem’s help, that that we become who we are,” Shelley says. Rather than being something negative, trauma becomes a springboard for spiritual growth.
Shelley brings in a plethora of Torah sources that support her method: Rashi, Malbim, Rambam, the Baal Hatanya, Rav Dessler, Rav Shimon Shkop, the Steipler, Rav Kook, Rav Wolbe, and Rav Hutner, to name a few. She also quotes contemporary chinuch experts, such as Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Rav Zecharya Greenwald, and Rav Leff, and credits Rebbetzin Heller and Rabbi Aryeh Nivin for having had a tremendous influence over her life and work.
EmPowered Jewish Parenting
Sarah Trenyo, Shelley’s parenting mentor, bases her parenting approach on a technique by Bilha Shefer, who studied with Rudolf Dreykurs, a student of Alfred Adler. While Freud believed that behavior is driven by irrational inner forces, Adler believed that all behavior is essentially goal-oriented.
The Shefer Parenting Approach posits that children misbehave in order to elicit emotional reactions from their parents. When parents play into this, children gain the upper hand, and instead of the child needing to adapt to the adult world, the adults are busy adapting to the child’s every need. Besides the chronic guilt felt by the parents, there’s a breakdown in authority.
EmPowered Jewish Parenting is also based on the Adlerian concept that children’s behavior is goal oriented. However, Shelley puts a lot of emphasis on the parent’s emotional equilibrium, and she introduces many other tools into her approach — most notably EFT. “What I’ve brought to this approach is not just the tapping in EFT, but its whole philosophy, the principles.”
EFT engages the entire neurological system. The tapping points on the face exactly trace the trigeminal nerve, a major cranial nerve enervating the face. In addition, simultaneously tapping and tuning into a specific memory detail, body sensation, or limiting belief seriously challenges working memory (EMDR does something similar). Multiple systems are engaged simultaneously: the limbic (emotional), cognitive (prefrontal cortex), and nervous system. As such, issues are shifted or released from the mind and body at the same time, and the results are much faster than would be accomplished with just talking.
EFT breaks down emotional issues into small, specific pieces, and you unpack these small pieces one at a time, pinpointing the exact time and place that gave rise to intense emotions. Resolving these issues can cause a profound, significant shift in the person.
When learning a new parenting concept, very often a mother will truly believe the idea and want to incorporate it into her parenting. But just as often, the same mother will add a “but.” “But I’m too overwrought to…”; “I’m not calm enough for…”; “I could never….” That’s when Shelley brings in tapping. When a person is stuck at an impasse and feels like she’s hitting a wall, the tapping melts the wall.
Still, not everyone is comfortable tapping, so it’s optional. Shelley incorporates many other methods as well: cognitive tools such as the ABCD model for anger management, and emotional tools, such as picture therapy, the One Frame Fairy Tale, guided visualization, coherence therapy techniques, role play, Internal Family Systems (IFS), and somatic experiencing.
The EmPowered Jewish Parenting course is designed to give mothers a deep understanding of what the parent-child relationship is supposed to look like. As Adler emphasized, children want more than anything to belong to the family. This underscores everything they do, and all their behaviors point them in that direction. How does a child know he belongs? Even more than your time and attention, the child is seeking your emotional energy (which can actually be measured scientifically, because every emotion has its own unique physical vibration) — it’s his oxygen.
When he feels your emotional energy, whether positive or negative, he feels he exists, he belongs. Therefore, he will continue to behave in a manner that creates and reinforces a strong emotional connection between the two of you. If he can’t generate this energy in a positive way, he’ll generate negative energy (which is, after all, much easier to acquire). Since children cannot survive without this oxygen, this emotional connection, they’re willing to pay a high price for their misbehavior, whether at school or home as it connects them to their parents.
After seeing the benefits of Shelley’s method, Tanya Schwartz trained under her to become a parenting coach. She relates that one of her children was small and skinny and ate almost nothing. This was a constant source of tension between them.
After she took Shelley’s parenting course, Tanya completely stopped talking about food. She did a lot of internal work so her gut no longer twisted when she thought about her daughter’s eating habits. Once she stopped engaging in this power struggle, the results were incredible. “I closed off the oxygen pipe,” she says, “and within in a month my daughter was eating like any other kid. It simply became a non-issue.”
One of my kids is, shall we say, reactive. We’ve long known that he gets something out of his intense reactions, but it was hard to fathom how constant friction between him and the rest of the family was serving him. It was the word “oxygen” that made it clear to me what the payoff was for him, and so my husband and I decided we would no longer listen unless he spoke in a respectful tone. My husband didn’t find this challenging, but I needed to do some serious internal work until I stopped feeling attacked.
When we were both able to calmly let him know that we’d be happy to listen when he spoke respectfully, the transformation was dramatic. Today not only does he regulate his voice, but his siblings have all begun to respond to him in the same calm way. When I wake him up in the morning, instead of the growl I used to be greeted with, the first thing he does is pop his head up and give me a huge smile, saying, “Thank you, Mommy, for waking me.”
Hashem created the world with a hierarchy. In any given group, there is a pyramid structure. In a family, Mom and Dad are at the top of this pyramid, and kids are at the bottom. When one child demands undue attention, and Mom feels guilty for not giving it to him, the child is pulling Mom’s energy toward him in an unhealthy way, and the pyramid gets flipped over.
When the pyramid is upside down, with the kids at the top and parents at the bottom, the parents enter a perpetual scramble to figure out how to give kids everything they think they need (even when neither parent nor child is consciously aware of those demands). This creates a feeling of chaos and instability in the family.
With her usual disclaimer that there will be resistance to the new concept she’s teaching, Shelley dedicates one class to the idea that in the family pyramid, it’s actually Dad who’s on top of all matters spiritual, and when Mom tries to take over his responsibility, it also induces chaos.
“I grew up in a super-feminist house in a feminist era,” says Estie, mother of five. “There was no concept of women giving men authority.” She felt an equal partner in every way and thought that meant she had to regulate everything. At the Shabbos table, she’d try to bring more divrei Torah, or hint to her husband that his devar Torah was too long and he was boring the kids, or that they should sing more zemiros, or less zemiros…
“Finally, instead of sitting and judging, I learned how to let go.” Besides having a more peaceful Shabbos table, the best part for Estie was that it was so liberating for her. And once she let go in this way, she started to let go of other areas.
Who’s the Boss?
“What,” Shelley asks in the second of her ten-part series, “is our parental responsibility, and to whom are we responsible?” Participants’ answers included “ourselves” and “our kids.” The truth is that our responsibility as parents is to Hashem. We’re commanded to put our child on the right path (with bris milah and pidyon haben), help him want to do the right thing (by teaching him Torah and finding him a wife), help him become independent (teach him a trade), and teach him how to protect himself (teach him to swim).
We should care for our children and do for them not because they’re demanding and needy, but because that’s what Hashem wants us to do. Since our obligation is to Hashem and not to our children, we’re not expected to be perfect. Instead of feeling guilty or like a failure for not being able to keep up with the kids’ constant stream of needs and demands, you can flip the pyramid back to its rightful position.
You, as the group leader, set the tone of the house. You set the standards, you decide which issues require attention, which behaviors will draw your energy. And suddenly, almost miraculously, you discover that instead of you sinking down to the kids’ level, they rise to yours.
Meira, mother of six, had three kids still living at home, ages eight, ten, and sixteen. Even though there were two “little” kids and one “big” kid, there was so much fighting that Meira was actually worried for her younger kids’ safety. She constantly asked herself what she’d done wrong, and her chronic refrain was, “This is absolutely crazy. What will be?”
While taking the parenting class, she tried a new tactic: When her kids started to fight, she got up and calmly walked out of the room. She’d remind herself that this was just an oxygen pipe, and that she was going to close that pipe.
“As soon as I was able to neutralize my thoughts, remind myself not to get into any judgments about myself or my kids, that was it.” She admits that her kids do occasionally fight, but they know she’s going to walk out of room. “It hardly ever happens anymore,” Meira says. How long did this dramatic transformation take? Less than two months.
Results are not always so quick or so dramatic. There’s no guarantee that the impulsive ADHD child will magically become calm and focused. However, he might quickly sense (unconsciously) that breaking toys and pushing his siblings doesn’t leave you feeling rattled, and that using his energy to mop the floors makes you happy. Though the dyslexic child might not be a star student in a month’s time, she’ll begin to experience herself as much more than the sum of her problems.
The Power of Beliefs
In her course, Shelley stresses that we’re not talking about an external reaction to your child’s behavior. As the mom, you’re entitled to do or say as you see fit. The main issue is the internal process, your journey to emotional health.
When you can truly internalize the fact that children have free choice, and that when a child makes a bad choice that doesn’t make you a bad mother, you can let go of both the guilt and the need to control. The frustration melts away, the power struggles disappear, and you open up the door to a place of calmness and compassion — for yourself and your child. Your child will listen because that is how he connects to you, how he feels he belongs, not because you force him to do what you say. This idea is central to Shelley’s course, and it is what makes her course so different from other parenting courses.
One of my children had trouble waking up in the morning. He set numerous alarms, one louder than the next. While he blissfully snoozed through music, beeps, and bells, the rest of us were going crazy from the noise.
“I’m happy to help you wake up in the mornings,” I told the child. “You may set one alarm only. And I will attempt to wake you — once. But it’s your responsibility to get up.” A few months went by, during which he missed many things that were really important to him. He was upset that we wouldn’t work with what is obviously his nature, until one day, when he suddenly began to take responsibility for himself. He got himself out of bed, and has been doing so ever since.
While there are some techniques offered for certain types of situations, it’s vital that parents regain trust in Hashem, that they believe He has given their kids everything they need to succeed in life, and He’s given us parents everything we need to parent these particular kids.
The parent is the best judge of this, not the child. This is perhaps the biggest casualty of Western child-raising philosophies. We’ve been taught to think that the “right” method is “out there” somewhere, when in fact Hashem gave these parents to this child, and therefore gave them the knowledge and intuition to provide the type of upbringing that child needs. Once the doubt diminishes, you no longer have to contend with the incessant inner voices that tell you you’re not a good mother.
As Rav Matisyahu Salomon says in With Hearts Full of Love, “The Ribbono shel Olam has instilled in each and every man and woman the inherent ability to bring them [their children] up properly… We do not need special training for this… Outside advice, in the form of books and courses, which is not tailored to their children, may do more harm than good. It can confuse and bewilder parents and lead them to disregard their own natural instincts…”
Is it really that simple?
It can be. When my older kids were teenagers, we had no family computer and no smartphones. “Everyone else in my class has one!” my children argued. The constant battle gnawed away at me. Were we being unrealistic? Were we pushing our kids to find sneaky ways to watch movies or go online?
When I internalized the fact that I as the parent have a right to make that decision, the struggle — with my kids and with myself — was simply over. I felt confident and pulled out of the tug-of-war. Do they test the waters every so often? Sure. And my feathers remain unruffled.
What if my kids do seek out other ways of accessing technology? In other words, what if I’m wrong? The answer is, there’s no right and wrong. Hashem gave me these kids, and He gave me the instincts I need to raise them. I’m doing what I feel appropriate, and they have free choice whether or not to follow my rules.
Shelley quotes Rav Dessler in Strive for Truth: “Parents cannot affect the actual bechirah of their children. The act of free choice is something which every human being must do by and for himself”; and Rabbi Rav Leff in Outlooks and Insights: “Children are not objects to be fashioned at will, but human beings who have their own free will and can reject, if they so choose, even the best chinuch.”
So what happens if the kids break the rules? What if the kids’ behavior is really bad, and they don’t magically pick up on our new attitude and align their behavior accordingly?
Though parents may not be getting emotionally worked up, that doesn’t mean they aren’t giving consequences for their children’s actions. In our family, every child has a job. One child was disinclined to help. Ever. After years of cajoling, reminding, arguing, and occasionally punishing, I pulled out the emotional plug. His non-help was his problem, not mine. I didn’t just turn a blind eye, I detached from the problem on both a practical and emotional level. By letting go, I closed off the oxygen pipe.
Within a week, he began to apologize and make excuses why he couldn’t do his job. I didn’t answer, I simply changed the subject. I spent a few minutes every day visualizing him doing his job, smiling while he worked (in the beginning I used Shelley’s recorded guided imagery, then I started doing it on my own whenever I had a free minute).
A few weeks later, he asked me to pay for piano lessons. I calmly told him that a relationship works both ways, and that while I like to provide him with extras, I first needed to see that he was also contributing to the family resources, not just taking. He started to argue with me. I changed the subject and the matter was dropped.
The next day, he began doing his job. While his track record is not (yet) stellar, he consistently displays interest in being a contributing member of the family. But the most profound result was that our relationship improved tremendously, as this major source of friction disappeared, and I stopped unconsciously defining our relationship as adversarial.
For me, the hard work of parenting always felt like… work. A challenging journey. I kept my eye on the destination, hoping that someday I would be able to look back and breathe a huge sigh of relief after having raised healthy, G-d fearing children.
Today, I don’t see the journey of parenting as a narrow road with a finish line. I still work hard, but I feel the wind on my face, see the blue of the sky, and enjoy the ride.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 670)