Teaching Coping Mechanisms

Q: As my young children become more verbal, I see that whatever my husband and I say is often repeated verbatim by our children. Not that my words are so problematic, but when I hear a three-year-old complain or sigh, it’s kind of an eye-opener to me. I’m not the most optimistic person, but I know that I can’t become Mrs. Sunshine overnight (even though it would probably be helpful for my children!). The famous cliché “Do as I say, not as I do” is only too true. Are my children stuck with internalizing my negative traits because that’s generally what they see? How can I be a better role model?

A: Children who possess dispositions and personalities similar to their parents can provide the parents with an opportunity to deal with the particular character tendencies that they share (for better or worse). Whether you prefer to emphasize nature or nurture as the cause of your child’s behavior, this situation is a G-d-given opportunity for both of you to work on this aspect of your character.

You do not have to become “Mrs. Sunshine” to be a positive role model for your child!

Sometimes it is helpful to express ways we have learned to create appropriate coping mechanisms for ourselves, thereby pointing out that human struggles are universal.

Take the following example of a teaching/learning moment. You’ve been waiting patiently for a car to pull out of a parking space and suddenly, before your eyes, another vehicle zooms in and “steals” the spot. You step out of your car and inform the driver what she did, but she ignores you and finishes parking. Depending on your response, this may be a teaching opportunity. Did you think, “This must be my challenge today from Hashem — to see if I’ll get angry or not”? Verbalize this thought to your child. Or, perhaps, “I am sorry for that woman — she finds it hard to understand another person’s feelings” — thereby teaching compassion rather than sinas chinam. Were you dan l’chaf zechus? Wonder aloud: “Who knows what happened to that lady today? Maybe she got fired from her job!”

The greatest gift, on a practical level, that a parent can give a child is to teach and help him or her to integrate helpful coping mechanisms. A person can acquire all the “advantages” in life that one can imagine, and still be an unhappy individual. Knowing how to respond appropriately to life’s challenges separates psychologically successful people from those who experience continual emotional suffering.

What is the source of appropriate coping mechanisms for Bnei Yisrael? A strong emunah in Hakadosh Baruch Hu and appropriate hashkafos help a person cope with life’s many disappointments and challenges. If a person truly internalizes the concept of judging others favorably, people’s responses would hurt much less. If one truly worked on hakaras hatov towards the many people one encounters daily, one’s ahavas Yisrael would grow tremendously. This is especially true regarding children who focus on the limitations of their rebbi or morah (limitations which exist in all human beings, not just the ones who teach our offspring).

To truly believe the concept of “gam zu l’tovah — this, too, is for the best” — changes one’s perspective on a continual basis. Besides actually giving our children direction (as is the job of horim (parents) — l’harot (to help them to see), there is the job of showing them how to respond to the many opportunities for growth that Hashem puts before us.

Hatzlachah rabbah!