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03/31/2020 07:03:49 PM


Rabbi Eitan Zerykier, LCSW

Home Remedies

With Rabbi Eitan Zerykier, LCSW

Dear Eitan, I have been trying to stay calm and only discussing what is going on with my husband when the kids are not around. But I’m sure they still get a sense of my fear and nerves. How does my anxiety about what is going on effect my children? 

Sincerely, Cause and Effect

Dear Cause and Effect,

Thanks so much for asking such a significant and important question.  Under normal circumstances, parenting can be a thrilling and exhausting endeavor (both within the same three minutes!). During times of stress, it is even more important for us to know what to do. 

The old adage "a child doesn't come with an instruction manual" is really no longer true.  There is useful and powerful evidence we can rely upon to know how to help our children thrive, even in difficult situations.  How?  There are two important aspects to parenting during hard times:  a) How parents act with their big emotions, and b) how parents react to a child's big emotions.  

I wish it would suffice to say that staying calm is the most important thing you can do for your child in any and every situation you face.  But instead, we can try to understand what goes through a child's heart and mind when they see their parents react poorly to big emotions.  Imagine you are experiencing an earthquake, and if that is not unsettling enough, you are also blindfolded.  In other words, you know that you don't feel safe and, everything you know is turning upside down, and you do not know where to turn for help or safety, but you are also not exactly sure why.  A child relies upon their parents when they feel "big emotions" for direction and validation.  If they lose both, they become confused and feel incredibly alone and helpless.  There is a neurological and physical response to these situations.  Children may begin to shake, feel physically ill, dizzy, confused, nauseated, fatigued, or freeze up.  We do not always notice these experiences if we are in a fit of our own.  

"Big emotions" are intense physical and emotional responses. Every emotion comes with an urge. "The bigger" emotions come with stronger urges. Those urges usually overcome children’s (and adults’) ability to cope, causing us to act strongly, by either exploding or imploding physically or verbally.

So what is a parent to do with their own anxiety and worry?  What are we to do with our child's anxiety and worry?  If we are stressed, and we act out in a way which scares those around us, children learn that emotions are scary.  If a child's stress evokes negativity from a parent, then the child learned that their own emotions are unacceptable.  

Let us look at the alternatives:

1) Mind the gap:  If you are feeling unhinged and stressed, that's normal.  The question is how you respond.  There's a millisecond gap between when you feel your stress and you react.  Try to respond rather than react.  Oh, and try to take some time each day to be alone and de-stress. Like on airplanes - Adults should put on their own mask first, before attempting to assist a minor.  If your cup is empty, you will not be able to fill theirs.  (Tip: Counting to ten when noticing yourself upset can widen that gap and help you chose how to respond.)

2) Be honest: There is no reason to hide your emotions. Expressing them calmly in non-panicky language can model good communication. If we are anxious and we let our kids know we are anxious, and communicate calmly that we need a minute to breathe or drink a cup of tea, it is a much better lesson than lashing out so they will leave you alone.  (Tip: Create limits combined with empathy, as in "No, since you put off doing your home work until 9PM, I cannot do your homework with you.  But you can do it quietly, without help, at the table next to me while I have a cup of tea and read a book.")

3) Let children talk: When kids are upset, ask them what they have to say.  Then listen.  You don't have to fix anything. The most important thing is to let them know you are ok with their big emotions, and won't leave them alone to navigate without direction.  (Tip: repeat back what you heard.  Seek first to understand.  Then don't bother trying to be understood.  They just need to know you listened, not that you know more than them!) 

If you find these ideas helpful, you can read up on "attachment-based parenting", the theory behind the ideas provided here. The tips are based on mindfulness and CBT techniques.

Stay healthy, stay sane.

See you soon,


By: Rabbi Eitan Zerykier, LCSW

Mon, May 29 2023 9 Sivan 5783