First Aid for Emotional Pain

Q:We have a seven-year-old daughter who is the shortest girl in her class. As a result, she is sometimes teased about her height. Whenever this happens, she comes home in tears. In addition, she has a very low frustration tolerance. Whenever anything does not go her way, she whines and cries. We would like to know what we can do to help her because she is often very unhappy. In fact, she even told me a few weeks ago that she wishes she could put a knife in her heart. I do not believe she would ever do a thing like that. But it does give you an idea as to how unhappy she is.

A:I, too, am not concerned that your daughter will hurt herself. It is extremely rare for a seven-year-old to attempt such a violent act. I am concerned, however, that she is feeling so desperate.

If a young child expresses a suicidal wish, it represents a major red flag which should not be ignored. Your daughter is in a lot of emotional pain and is crying out for help. While being teased at school is very stressful for a child of any age, I do not believe that is the entire reason for your daughter’s unhappiness. From your brief letter, however, it is almost impossible for me to speculate as to the other possible causes for her sadness. I strongly recommend, therefore, that you take her to a child specialist for a thorough psychological evaluation ASAP.

Do not be concerned about this upsetting your daughter. A psychological evaluation for a seven-year-old is usually more stressful for the parents than for the child. Parents sometimes have the misconception that they will be judged or criticized by the evaluator. The child, on the other hand, almost always enjoys the attention of the nonthreatening, benevolent adult.

In the meantime, let me give you some general guidelines for emotional first aid until the evaluation is completed. First, you should tell your daughter that you realize she is very unhappy and you want to help her. This will be very comforting to her.

When Moshe Rabbeinureturned to Mitzrayim, he first met with his brother, Aharon. Then they both met with the Ziknei Yisrael, informing them of Hashem’s plans to redeem Klal Yisroel. Even though they were still very much slaves, the Torah states that, “The nation believed. And they heard that Hashem had remembered Bnei Yisrael and he saw their affliction. And they bowed and prostrated themselves [in thanksgiving].” (Shemos 4:31) Similarly, therefore, when your daughter hears that you acknowledge her distress and are seeking a solution, it will provide her with the all-important hope that she can feel better.

The next thing you need to do is to help her articulate her feelings. And the most effective method for doing that is to ask her questions. You can begin with general inquiries and move on to more specific issues. For example, “You often seem sad. Tell me, what is making you so unhappy?”

If she says she is being teased, ask for details. What did they say? When did they say it? How did she respond or react? What was she thinking at the time?

Children, of course, have the same feelings as adults. And their feelings can be hurt as much, if not more, than adults whenever they are ridiculed or insulted. The difference between adults and children, however, is that adults have learned the necessary coping skills which children do not yet have. And the best way to teach coping skills is by example.

More specifically, tell your daughter about an incident where you were embarrassed or disparaged in some way. Be sure to include all the details you remember so that your daughter will be able to really picture the scene. Then share with your daughter how you soothed and comforted yourself. Did you vent your hurt feelings to a friend? If so, let her know about that. Did you invalidate the hurtful wordsin your mind? If so, share those thoughts with your daughter so she will learn to do the same for herself. Did you compensate by reminding yourself of other more positive relationships, personal achievements or talents? If so, do that for your daughter by reaffirming your love for her and reminding her of others who love her, of her special abilities and her unique qualities.

Finally, if she complains that she is short, help her to cope by using the technique called “reframing.” This means that you should help her to see the same thing in a different way. For example, tell her that, “Good things come in small packages.” Or, remind her that many of the Gedolim in our generation were very short.


 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.