I have one child who has struggled with impulse control for much of his life (and those reading this who know my family will know exactly who I am talking about).
Calls home from camp and school about his behavior were a daily occurrence. When he was a toddler, we were told he was immature for his grade because he was the youngest. When he was in preschool, we were told that maybe he had sensory issues. When he started elementary school, he was diagnosed with ADHD. And I have no doubt that these were all true.
The one conversation I will never, ever forget, however, was with his therapist in first grade. She asked him, “Does it make you feel good to hit people?” And, much to our horror, he enthusiastically answered “yes!” After reassuring us that our child was not on the path to becoming a serial killer, she explained that it not only was completely normal for him to enjoy the rush of adrenaline that comes with violence, but that it also was extremely important to recognize and validate our young son’s honesty.
It’s easy for me to look back now and see moments like these — critical parenting moments where we teach our children which of their thoughts and feelings please us and which scare us, which are acceptable to say and which they should keep inside — and to feel that I failed. I think of the many times when one of my children came to me with a feeling or a thought that frightened or upset me and I replied “You don’t really feel that way” or “That’s crazy! Why would you say that!?” Oh, how I wish I could go back in time and say, “I’m interested to explore why you feel that way, because it seems confusing to me.”
During this month of mental health awareness, it’s easy to list the signs of depression and tell parents to seek help. I assure you — if it were this simple, there wouldn’t be a mental health epidemic of such epic proportions rocking our nation. People are suffering silently not because they don’t know where to turn, and not because they don’t know all the signs, but because they have been taught since they were very young not to trust their own emotions and not to believe what their hearts and minds tell them about what makes them happy and what doesn’t.
Many of the most empathic, loving, and bright people care so deeply about not hurting others that they put on a happy face to please the world. They endure silent pain to avoid any risk of hurting or saddening a friend or loved one. It is so important from a young age to please parents or friends that children hide emotions that might upset others, and this constant disconnect between what they feel and what they show the world creates deeply confused teens and adults who have learned not to trust their own emotions.
As parents, as teachers, and as leaders we are teaching our children from the youngest age not to trust their own emotions. We place judgment on other people’s thoughts and feelings instead of teaching them how to validate, understand, and manage them successfully. We place our own need for acceptance and comfort over all else, and they get this. Innately, our children understand that we need them to feel a certain way for us to remain comfortable.
And this is the beginning of a vicious cycle, one that sadly ends with teens and eventually adults who appear happy and feel scared, who seem content but feel sad and lonely, and who give up searching for true happiness because they aren’t even sure what that means anymore.
The Jewish new year is upon us, and a new year is always a gift. It is a gift to have lived another year full of joy and also full of pain, and all the emotions in between. This year, I have decided to use this new year as a fresh start to give a different kind of gift to my kids. I am going to focus my energy on helping them find their own happiness, understanding their own pain, and validating that I have no judgment on where or how those emotions originate.
In reflecting on all of these complicated thoughts around mental health, I have been remembering times where I felt completely the opposite of what was expected of me. There is one example that sticks out in my mind so clearly. As I was finding my way to observant Judaism, I was struggling to connect to the synagogue experience. Yom Kippur was coming, and my then-fiancé was desperately trying to find a service that felt traditional enough for him, but would allow us to sit together so that he could help me follow the service (and that also had last minute tickets available!).
I spent that Yom Kippur — my first time ever fasting — at מכון הדר ישראלon the Upper West Side. Services were in a crowded basement full of strangers, and on Yom Kippur day there was no break (gasp!) for a nap. I prayed, I sang, and I took it all in. And, most importantly perhaps, except for my fiancé, there was no one watching me. No one judging how I was connecting or how I was feeling. I will never forget the feeling of pure joy that I felt as Neilah was ending. I was crying tears of pure happiness and joy on what most people would imagine to be one of the most difficult days of the year.
It’s hard to replicate that now. As amazing as a community is, you always have people watching you. As sad as it makes me to say it, I sometimes care more about looking connected than I do about feeling connected. There are two sides to every coin, as they say. Amazing community means no anonymity in my actions or reactions.
Sometimes joy, and pain, come from the most unexpected places, and that’s OK. We must assure our children from the youngest of ages that what they feel is always OK, it’s always right to trust their own emotions, and we that will love them, accept them, and validate them even if we don’t always understand them.