Dear Dr. Yael,
I read your column about being silent during a shiva visit and it struck a chord with me. You see, I have challenges with silence in general. I think they come from not being heard or understood as a child. My father would often say, “When are you going to get it?” This made me feel frustrated. Later, on I was diagnosed with ADHD, which I understand was the underlying cause of many of my issues. Yet, I still carry within me the child who felt unloved and invalidated. I yearned for a positive relationship with my father, but I didn’t know how to achieve it. And neither did my father. He was a Holocaust survivor who spent the war years in Siberia and parenting did not come easy to him. Can you address some of this in an upcoming column?
Thank you for writing about this very important issue. You are correct that validating and understanding children’s feelings are some of the most important ingredients in childrearing. In order to do so, you must keep your ego and desire to lecture in check. Validating means acknowledging his/her feelings without judgement, sometimes it helps to repeat what your child said in other words. When you are empathetic, loving, and patient with your child, even when he/she is not being lovable in that moment, you are teaching your child a few important things:
- a) You will always love him/her no matter what.
- b) You are teaching discipline by not losing your cool.
- c) Validating feelings is not condoning bad choices or giving in to defiant behavior.
Additionally, research has shown that conveying deep empathy for your children will build their self-esteem and reduce defiant behavior. This can, and should, begin even with very young children. Generally, when young children are upset, we distract them or try to fix it. But talking to them about their feelings can be helpful. If you know your baby is crying because he or she is wet or hungry, you can say, “It must be so hard to be hungry/wet” while you’re preparing the bottle or changing the diaper. Using an empathetic voice and repeating yourself in a soothing manner will soothe the baby and teach him or her that feelings are important.
It’s imperative to keep this type of communication open as your child grows. Even saying, “It must be so hard to be a little boy/girl,” if you don’t know what’s wrong or, “It must be so hard not to get what you want right away,” in a situation where you can’t do what your child wants, can be helpful. Even when your child is being defiant, he or she needs this kind of validation. This does not mean that you should give in, it means speaking in a voice that conveys true empathy and is not at all mocking.
Having ADHD as a child must have been difficult for you, especially at a time when kids with ADHD were not usually understood or taught in a manner that was effective for them. Having a father who suffered in Siberia during the Holocaust could have exacerbated that situation and affected your relationship with him. I am sorry you did not get to have the relationship with your father that you wanted. If your father is still alive, maybe work towards a positive relationship with him. If this is not possible, know that you likely did the best that you could have and work on having a better relationship with your own children. Thank you again for highlighting this important topic. Hatzlocha!