Familial Communication

Q: I am blessed to have a family with a good number of children (bli yin hara), and to the world at large, we seem like an ordinary type of family. However, the level of aggression and lack of communication that exists among my children has become too intense for me.

I realize that the possible cause of this is the lack of shalom bayis that exists between my husband and me. We are careful not to argue in front of the children, but I am sure that some of the children must pick up on the “cold war” that exists between us. I also realize that this is a parenting column, and I’m not requesting advice in the area of shalom bayis. I have spoken to Rebbeim, various baalei eitzah and therapists on this topic. I have decided to stay in this marriage for a variety of reasons. As you once wrote, there are times in life when a person has to choose between bad and worse — not good or bad. I have chosen the lesser of two uncomfortable situations.

The most difficult part of dealing with this type of marriage is that it is close to impossible to create a united front when interacting with our children. Whatever ideas you give me may only have partial success because of my husband’s non-participation.

One of my daughters, 9 years old, is very self-centered and tends to throw a tantrum to get what she desires. She hits siblings when she’s not listened to, and does not accept “No” for an answer. Another, older, child is more “spaced-out” and is continually being criticized by her siblings for her various shortcomings. This second child cries often and has very low self-esteem.

I’ve tried to work on these issues, but I often end up screaming at my children myself, due to my being constantly overwhelmed (and not having the support of my husband).

Can you give me some direction?

A: Not having the support of a participating spouse makes parenting more difficult — that cannot be disregarded. You mention that you end up screaming at your children — I’m sure that isn’t your desired response. However, even spouses working together to create a united front can fall short of their desired responses.

The ideal family only exists in fictional stories. As long as we are all challenged by our various limitations (which is the avodas Hashem that is expected to be our daily challenge), self-pity is not a constructive reaction to these challenges. Families with better shalom bayis may have other problematic circumstances which cause altercations similar to the ones you are experiencing. Focusing on improved reactions to stressful sibling situations is the goal of all parents.

Regarding the child who is self-centered and throws tantrums: It would be helpful to get her version of why she needs to behave in this manner. This discussion needs to occur in a neutral time (neither immediately after such an occurrence nor when she is happily engaged in play). A person does not wish to hear of her limitations when she is quite sad or very happy.

Other ways she can respond to not getting what she wants need to be discussed together, in problem-solving mode. Possible rewards can be offered for when days go by without an outburst or for instances when the answer “No” is accepted graciously. (This does not mean that a child may not make a respectful attempt to clarify and understand the “No.”)

As for your daughter who is constantly being put down by her siblings: When she is out with a friend or relative, call a meeting of a few other siblings to discuss the issue of helping their sister. Talk about the idea of not bossing this child and stress the concept of verbalizing positive statements towards her rather than critical ones. Suggest expressions that are positive and complimentary and role-play until they get the idea.