Family in Turmoil

Q: Dear Shira,

My family situation is quite unstable now, and it seems like my nine-year-old son is like a sponge soaking up all the negativity that is going around him. I am married with seven children, the oldest being 15, and am going through severe marital problems.

My husband is very controlling and it has had a bad effect on my children and on me. He has been having continuous power struggles with my 13-year-old (who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome) until the situation became abusive. My son ended up going to a psychiatric ward in a nearby hospital and is now in a psychiatric facility, where they want him to stay until they feel that he is able to function adequately. I’m not sure if he can ever come home with my husband being the way he is.

I have tried very hard with him, consulting with Rabbanim and baalei eitzos, as well as numerous mental health professionals, but we always come back to the same issue of his “never being wrong.”

The child in the house who presently seems to be suffering the most is my nine-year-old. His anger is intense and is directed mostly at his father. My son constantly fights with his two older sisters, and his obstinacy can be impossible.

I recently found a lawyer to work with so that I can start divorce proceedings. I have tried to keep the family intact for years, but it seems that, at this point, we are beyond the point of no return.

The truth is that the negative feelings that my son has are actually feelings that we all share about my husband, their father. As the reality of divorce becomes more intense, so do the feelings of everyone at home. My husband is definitely polarizing the children: I sometimes feel like we’re on two teams and it’s color war.

Any thoughts on how to help my family, particularly my nine-year-old son?

A: Certain familial situations are more complex than others. When families go through complicated circumstances, each step taken can have a domino effect. A small action can cause a stronger reaction as family members each internalize change differently.

One child can be relieved to learn his very problematic parent might not be living with them on a daily basis. Another can have very mixed feelings. Other children can wonder if, if they only behaved a certain way, their parents’ marital problems would be solved.

Keeping in contact with those with daas Torah in this difficult period will help your family keep on track and focused with the right hashkafos.

One can suppose the cause of your son’s severe anger, but it is more essential to develop ways to better work with his feelings. Family therapy would be very helpful to better understand how each family member is processing this present period of transition. A trained family therapist can help take the “toxicity” out of the family’s current crisis and help the family members begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Children do not necessarily feel comfortable expressing their feelings to their parents, as they understand that you are going through enough pain and that there are no easy answers. Your son’s being in a psychiatric facility only adds another level of pain and confusion. Children (and adults) have an idyllic vision of how their family should appear, and when reality falls short of this, it can be a great disappointment. Imperfect human beings with imperfect middos are somehow expected to create perfect families.

Individual therapy for your son can help him explore his feelings in a safe environment. Putting blame on both parents is common in children, and a child’s verbalizing this to either parent will only intensify the “color war” between the two sides. Finding professional help is most essential to help the child mentally untangle the thoughts and feelings he or she is experiencing.

I cannot presume to know the correct responses to your specific concerns, as there are multiple factors at play in your situation. On a simple level, as a parent, any positive coping mechanisms that have been successful in helping your family function in recent months need to be reinforced. Whether it’s time together singing, telling stories of your childhood or making skits together with dolls or puppets, there are many ways to enhance the family’s daily existence.

Hatzlachah in this most challenging situation.