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November 29, 2014 / 7 Kislev, 5775
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Instilling Derech Eretz

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Dear Dr. Respler:

I enjoyed your recent column concerning the jealousy a girl had toward her newborn brother.

As you deal with derech eretz-related issues, I need to tell you that I am having a hard time with my children regarding this very topic. They no longer follow the rules you set in your DVD, “Chutzpah is Muktzah 2.”

I wonder if their deteriorating attitude is happening because my husband and I are arguing more often. Unfortunately my husband lost his job, and although I am working and he is collecting unemployment, he is very nervous at the lack of job opportunities. This is causing him to fight with and act very disrespectful to me. Can it be that the children are picking up on this and acting disrespectfully toward me as well? I am trying hard to be supportive; I know that this situation is very hard on him. My husband had a high-level, prestigious job and is very educated, so being home and feeling inadequate is very difficult for him.

I, Baruch Hashem, have a great job, enabling us to manage financially. Due to the circumstances, I am not making any major purchases and not putting any pressure on my husband. But between his anger and the children acting out, I am going crazy. Dr. Respler, please help me deal with this situation. While I try to support my husband, I must get my children under control.

A Mother Who Is Losing Her Mind

Dear Mother:

It sounds like you are correct and your children are feeling the tension at home, which may be adding to their stress level. This stress, in turn, may be manifesting itself in their behavior and speech. Nevertheless, you can begin to change it.

Try to speak to your children and your husband in the same manner with which you want them to speak to you. This will permit them to hear proper speech all day and it will begin to become second nature to them. You can also speak to your husband about how your children’s level of derech eretz (or lack thereof) is bothering you and that you want to start changing the way people speak to each other in the house. Tell him that if the two of you start to speak to each other and to the children in a very respectful manner, they will respond in kind. It follows the premise of practicing what you preach. This may alleviate some of the tension because even though your husband is edgy, once everyone starts to speak nicely at home, things may become calmer.

You can also start a derech eretz chart with your children. Every time they speak with derech eretz, you should give them a sticker and make a big deal about it. After 10 stickers, your children can choose a small prize or treat. The prizes/treats can be tangible or something like special time with you or your husband. Give your children a lot of positive reinforcement when they speak respectfully. They will crave this attention, and will continue to speak with derech eretz because they will want to continue to receive it. When your children speak disrespectfully, remind them in a calm and loving way of the proper way to speak – and give them a chance to self-correct. If all else fails, you can even remind them of the prize for which they are working.

In order to alleviate some of the tension, try talking to the children about what is going on. Parents generally feel that they should shield their children, and thus do not talk to them about life’s stressful things. While this may sound like the best course of action, it actually can be harmful to children. Children pick up on stress and hear bits and pieces of what is going on. This often becomes very scary to them because they know you are upset, and this upsets them as well.

Moreover, because no one ever sat down with them and told them what is going on, they may think something terrible is happening. It would be a good idea to sit with them and explain that Daddy is going through a hard time because he lost his job. He may look sad and angry, but everything will be okay and the family will be fine. You can ask the children to try to listen and talk nicely, so that the situation becomes easier on Daddy. Ask them if they have any questions and inquire about how they feel regarding what you just told them. Try to answer their questions as honestly as possible and in a soothing way. While not saying anything that would scare them, don’t lie to them. Listen to their feelings and tell them that any questions they may still have should be directed to you, not your husband. Explain to them that it is too painful a topic for him to talk about.

If after requesting a change in the way people speak to each other in the house, your husband is still not speaking to you respectfully, you will have to explain to him exactly how you feel. Do this only when he is calm and in a relatively good mood. Make an effort to use “I feel” messages. For example, instead of saying “You need to stop talking to me disrespectfully,” say “I feel badly when you are angry at me and speak to me in an angry and disrespectful way.” Explain to your husband that you know he is going through a hard time and that you want to be there for him. Tell him how much you love and respect him, and encourage him to do something that would improve his self-esteem, e.g., learn, take a subject course he finds interesting, work out at a gym.

If he does not want to do something right now, simply be supportive of him. However, you need to be firm when explaining to him that you feel very upset when he speaks disrespectfully to you and that despite understanding that he is upset, it is not fair that you are the brunt of his anger. You can also expound on your very insightful thoughts about how the children may be emulating his disrespectful speech.

Hopefully, he will hear you – and life will get a lot calmer. Hatzlachah!

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