Q: I have a 19-year-old son who suffers from severe anxiety and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Therapy and medication have been helpful in allowing him to function on a daily basis. It’s hard to know which behavior we should tolerate and which we should ignore. Sometimes it really impacts our lives, but I don’t want to cause him more anxiety by putting additional demands on him. When he tells us “You’re really stressing me out,” we all feel guilty. He doesn’t usually have panic attacks, but it could happen.
A: The appropriate parental response between chessed and gevurah that one strives for is an eternal challenge. In this and many other situations, the “correct” answer is often “time limited.” What may work for a child at age 10 may not work six months later. As circumstances change, a child’s responses and sensitivities may change as well.
This is especially true when issues of mental health are involved. Your son’s fear of becoming overly stressed-out is not an exaggeration. A parent has to believe in a child’s ever-expanding potential, while being realistic about his present standing in life.
Though studies show that symptoms of OCD often decrease when the sufferer is faced with the continual exposure of the “feared stimuli,” it is not a family member’s job to take on the role of therapist. A therapist can (hopefully) judge when and if a person can deal with his fears and obsessions in a more direct fashion. A family member cannot tell a sibling with emotional pain to “get over it already and stop this compulsive behavior!” It is not only insensitive but also unrealistic to expect that such verbal intervention will be productive.
Discussing your concerns with your son’s therapist and psychiatrist can help you get a sense of the parameters of his problems. They will be able to give you guidelines as to what your family’s responses should be to his problematic behavior.
However, your son needs to get a sense of your family’s expectations and what different people’s toleration levels are. A person needs to know how he affects his environment. If a sibling is continually coming late to school due to his
older brother’s obsessive-compulsive behavior which prevents the younger child from leaving the house on time, this needs to be addressed. Too much toleration of any undesirable behavior is ultimately unhelpful. Society at large will not have much patience for problematic behavior, and a balance needs to be achieved — even in the secure environment of the home.
Problem-solving the issue with your son can be helpful. Does he need to get up earlier to allow him to get ready in the morning so that he and his sibling can get to school on time? If he is expected to take his sibling to school, giving the job to someone else is giving up on normal expectations of him as a big brother. If the situation is severe and you must make accommodations, you must make it clear that this is only a temporary solution and is not expected to be a permanent response to your older son’s present limitations.
Much to our chagrin, a large portion of our parenting skills are deduced from trial and error. There is no simple formula to deal with children with issues of anxiety or depression, as the ramifications of these issues are far reaching. As each specific case has different causes, individual solutions are needed. As in all of life’s challenges, one always needs to daven for special siyatta diShmaya to guide us.