Getting Kids Used to a Stepmother

Getting kids used to a stepmother is the kind of thing people dread—and with good reason. Whether the new stepmother comes into the picture after divorce or death, she’s seen by the children as a usurper: someone who stole the real mom’s place. Someone who sleeps with their dad. Even if a child has longed for a new mom, it’s awkward letting this new person into your everyday life with all its small intimacies. This situation requires major adjustment.

Mothers are sacrosanct, irreplaceable. And you’d be surprised at the strength of a child’s loyalty and rebellion against any attempts to offer a substitute. Even where the child maintains a good relationship with the biological mom, there’s bound to be a defensive reaction against a stepmother’s attempts to fit in.

Stepmother as Cool Aunt

When she became a stepmother, Jessica Thompson of California adopted a mantra that served her well: Don’t try to be Mom. Thompson found it was better to think of the stepmother to stepchild relationship as “different.” “The child may want to relate to you as a mother, but not necessarily. Do not force the issue, or take it personally if she never embraces you as a mother. You don’t have the same standing as a mother, so don’t try to discipline as if you are one,” says Thompson, who suggests the natural, biological parent take the lead when it comes to the difficult area of rules and discipline.

“Sometimes stepmoms get the awesome deal of being the ‘fun,’ ‘cool,’ or neutral parent. Aiming for a ‘cool aunt’ type of relationship is a good initial goal. I quickly became the confidante, and a safe place for my stepdaughter to voice frustrations when things got challenging with dad, or at school, and that was a really rewarding relationship. You can be a neutral escape valve and voice of reason, as well as be the one to take the lead in fun activities,” says Thompson.

Age Matters

Parenting Coach Dr. Richard Horowitz, feels that adapting to a stepmom depends, to a large measure, on the age of the child as well as the child’s relationship with the biological mom. “If the biological mother is not part of the child’s life and the child is fairly young (not yet preteen) the stepmother can assume the full role as a mother (nurturing, discipline, etc.). The older the child and the presence of a biological mom makes the situation more challenging. In this case the stepmom along with the biological father must discuss with the child what the stepmom’s role will be and what expectations there are for both parties. This is especially crucial in setting household rules and in determining when stepmom will have standing in regards to rule-setting and enforcement,” says Horowitz.

Have the Talk

Psychologist Wyatt Fisher says that if at all possible, there should be a discussion with the child before the stepmom assumes her new role. This helps prepare the child and lessens the shock of receiving a “new” parent. Once the stepmother comes into the picture, Fisher offers four tips to new stepmoms:

  1. Go slow. Wait until the child warms up to you rather than force the relationship.
  2. Be inviting. Greet the children with smiles and warmth.
  3. Encourage father/child time. It’s important to encourage your husband to spend lots of quality time with the children so they don’t see you as taking their father from them.
  4. Be respectful. Always speak with respect when referring to the child’s biological mom.

Rosalind Sedacca CCT, founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network and author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? agrees with Fisher that adapting to a stepmother is a slow process. Sedacca offers the following six tips for making the transition as smooth as possible:

  1. Introduce children to a potential stepmom very slowly so they have a chance to get acquainted and develop a caring relationship.
  2. Never insist that a stepmom is a replacement for their own mom. Children will be more resistant if a stepparent is imposed upon them or their biological mom is removed from their life.
  3. Stepmoms should never be the disciplinarian to the children. Give Dad that responsibility.
  4. Stepmoms need to earn the trust and respect of the kids which is a gradual process. Dad can be very helpful with this process.
  5. Talk to your kids, listen to what they say, validate their right to feel the way they feel. Don’t make them feel bad or wrong if they are having trouble accepting their new stepmom.
  6. Seek out the support of a family therapist or coach experienced in working with step family dynamics.

In the case of divorce, the main issue with getting used to a stepmother is the fact that “every child wants, wishes, and longs for their mothers and fathers to stay together,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV. “The breakup of the family unit is traumatic—even in the most amicable divorce.

“Kids have a range of feelings that can change at any given moment. Emotionally, children feel sad (about the loss of the exiting parent); angry (‘Why my family?’); worried (about logistics including where will ‘I’ sleep?;  who will take me/pick up from school?; will I still see both sets of grandparents?; and on and on). Behaviorally, you may see your child’s academic grades drop. You may observe her sad (not smiling) or angry, resisting, opposing, or defying you and your rules and expectations,” says Walfish.

Permission to Feel

“As her stepmom, you need to give her permission to have powerful emotions about the huge disruption in her life. Encourage the open direct expression of these feelings,” adds Walfish, cautioning, “Stepmoms, don’t be afraid of her anger. The more comfortable you become with her verbalizing her anger the more validated and accepted she will feel—flaws and all.”

Walfish treats many kids from separated and divorced families and like Sedacca, suggests that counseling can make a difference. “Sometimes, it helps your child to talk to someone outside of Mom, Stepmom, and Dad, like a teacher, counselor, or therapist. Kids may feel worried and guilty about hurting their parents’ feelings. Talk with your child about whom he can go to for comfort and support. Ask him to name people for instance, Grandma, Aunt Susie, Uncle Bob, teacher, or best friend.”

Children are going to have strong feelings as the stepmother enters the scene. “Offer karate, dance, singing, art, or gymnastics classes as a physical outlet for expelling strong feelings,” says Walfish, who says the most important thing is to grant kids permission to love and respect both biological parents. “She is half her real mom and half her real dad.

“If she hears you or her biological mom put her father down it is putting down a part of her. If her biological father makes derogatory remarks about her biological mother tell your stepchild that divorce is a grown-up matter and sometimes moms and dads are mad at each other, but it is not the kids’ fault or responsibility to fix things.”

Blending the Family “Soup”

Parenting Expert Donna Bozzo suggests that finding ways to include children in the process of blending the family is the way toward acceptance of a new stepmom. “Include the kids in the wedding ceremony. Instead of a bride and groom cake topper, how about a full-family cake topper, with kids in tow?” says Bozzo, who suggests that families find fun ways to make things work going forward.

“Think of your new blended family as a kind of soup where different members of the family add their own favorite ingredients to the pot. Like peanut butter and jelly sometimes the sum of two (or more) parts, is greater than the whole,” says Bozzo.

Talking to Kids About the Orlando Pulse Massacre

Talking to kids about the Orlando Pulse Massacre—and yes, that’s what I call it, a massacre—is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do. And talk about it, you will. You’ll have no choice. Because it’s been plastered all over the news. It’s what people are talking about. Unless you blindfold your child and stick earplugs in his/her ears, there’s no getting around it.

Why don’t we want to talk about the Orlando Pulse Massacre with our kids? Let me count the ways. For one thing: there’s the problem of intolerance. We don’t want to teach our children to be bigots, and Radical Islamic terror is at the heart of what happened in Orlando.

Then there’s the fact that it, the Orlando Pulse Massacre, happened in a gay bar. The murderer, Omar Mateen, purposely targeted homosexuals. At what age do we want to speak with our children about matters sexual? How much do we need tell them? Do we use euphemisms, talking about love when we really mean “sexual preference?”

Orlando Pulse Massacre: Innocent Victims

And of course, there’s the violence: the brutal murder of innocent people, just out having a good time, by someone who didn’t know them. Someone who didn’t know, for instance, Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, there to celebrate her victory over cancer and to support her openly gay son, and who ended up shielding him from gunfire with her own body. How do we explain how someone brave and nurturing like that, a mom, gets shot to death in a case of mistaken identity?

How does God and/or society allow something like that to happen to a mom?

How do we explain violence and evil? How do we explain the pros and cons of gun control in a fair manner, so they can learn to use their critical thinking skills? How do we discuss a passionate issue with both compassion and logic?

These are just some of the challenges we have as parents when we begin to talk about Orlando. (Remember when “Orlando” was just a reference to a fun time at an amusement park?)

The most important piece of advice I have for parents is to let your children be your guide. Listen to their questions. Answer their questions with honesty, giving them the facts they’ve requested and no more. Your children’s questions tell you what they are ready to hear. In fact, they may want to hear more than you feel comfortable discussing. Nonetheless, a child’s questions are your best guide in choosing what to share and what to keep to yourself.

If that question and your response bring further questions, continue to provide factual information, keeping your responses to the point. The point being to answer the question and not give a long, drawn out lecture. Keep it short and sweet. If they want to know more, they’ll ask, but only so long as you prove to them you’re not going to drown them in data or tell them things they’re not ready to hear.

What does it mean to give factual information? It means that if your child asks why the murderer did what he did, you tell them the truth: Omar Mateen believed in killing those who were different from him in some way.

Because that is the truth.

If your child then asks why Mateen believed as he did, you can add a fact: Omar Mateen believed that God wanted him to kill people who were different from him.

The next why can be answered with, “Some Muslims believe that they are supposed to kill people different from them.”

The next probably question will be: “Do all Muslims believe this?” to which you can truthfully answer, “No.” (For more about discussing Islam with children, see: http://www.kars4kids.org/blog/talk-to-children-about-islam-world-gone-mad/)

At some point, your values system may dictate how the conversation goes, and that’s fine. But remember to preface any statement of belief with, “I believe that,” or “I feel that” or “Our religion says  such and such.”

There may be gaps between questions as your child thinks things over. Be ready for questions to come out of the blue. And always serve the truth straight up.

If you sense your child is distressed, try to offer your child an outlet for his/her feelings. For instance, ask the child how s/he feels. If it is difficult for your child to express emotions, give the child paper and crayons and let them draw how they feel. Then look at the picture together and let your child explain what the drawing is about. Try not to freak if there’s blood or violence in your child’s drawing. It’s there because your child is upset about that, about the blood and violence that are part and parcel of the Orlando Pulse Massacre.

If your child has trouble sleeping at night or has his or her sleep disturbed by nightmares, try to include some calming rituals before bedtime to soothe your child’s troubled thoughts. A warm bath scented with chamomile flowers, some soft music, a cuddle: all these things are very concrete ways to help your child find comfort and a way to sweeter dreams.

As part of your conversation about the Orlando Pulse Massacre, you’ll want to discuss how to prevent such a thing from ever happening. You may also want to help your child do something kind to counteract the cruelty. Perhaps your child could write a letter to the survivors and remaining family members, expressing condolences. You might suggest your child might give charity, or do an act of kindness for a neighbor, and dedicate these acts to the memory of the victims. There are many creative and proactive ways your child can memorialize the massacre and this can’t help but be healing, both for your child, and for the world at large.

If your child remains disturbed about the Orlando Pulse Massacre for a lengthy period of time, or continues to ask questions every day, often, remember that grief and loss have no set time frame or expiration date. People need to wrestle with things for as long as they need to wrestle with things, and children are no exception for the rule. It’s all a process and it’s how we arrive at acceptance.

As parents, we might wish this subject would go away. But we don’t always get what we wish for. This is one of those times that parenting just really seems to suck eggs. Because we feel like we’re destroying our children’s’ innocence, like we’re robbing them of their childhood.

But actually, that would be Omar Mateen doing that to them.

In fact, when your children grow up, they’re going to remember how you helped them understand the Orlando Pulse Massacre, forthrightly, but with compassion. They are going to love you so much for getting it right. Because it’s times like this that build your legacy as a parent. Times like the Orlando Pulse Massacre.

What kinds of questions has your child asked regarding the Orlando Pulse Massacre. How have you answered your child’s questions? What have you done to soothe your child’s fears and concerns?

Art Therapy And Your Child

Art Therapy And Your ChildArt therapy is a form of treatment that uses art to help people work out their feelings, and a tool that can help experts diagnose their patients. Children and many adults may find art therapy easier than other types of therapy, because they may not have to use too many words to get relief. Instead, in art therapy, it is often the art and its symbolism that tell the therapist how that person is feeling inside. This is important for patients who find it hard to talk about their feelings or for the young child who may not have the words to describe a traumatic or painful experience.

Besides helping patients express their feelings, art therapy can help patients cope with difficult situations. The act of making things, creating art, is relaxing and reduces stress. Painting on a canvas or squeezing a piece of clay feels good. It’s also a great feeling to watch an art project take shape, something you make with your own hands.

Imagine a child with a chronic illness, or a child who has been bullied or abused. Such a child might use art to express how he or she feels about the experience. In this case, the art project he creates in an art therapy session, offers testimony to what he’s going through. The child can also look at and touch the art project, and show it to others. The art object itself may serve as validation for what he feels inside, or even be his voice: “This is how I feel.”

Whether a painting, drawing, or other type of art, an art object can become a symbol of the child’s experience. Having that symbol helps the child to put distance between himself and his medical or emotional issues. A sick child might, for example, draw a picture of a painful or frightening treatment. In the case of a child who was abused, he might draw a picture of the abuse. Once the child sets it down on paper (or in clay, or some other art medium) he has acknowledged what has happened, made it real, and now he can move on to be the person he is, outside of the painful treatments or abuse.

Art Therapy Creates Powerful Truths

Children would rather do something with their hands than talk about their feelings. They may worry that adults won’t believe their stories and sometimes that happens. It is painful for children when they are telling the truth and no one believes them. Art gives children a powerful tool for saying how they feel.

The child looks at the artwork she has made and she feels good. She created it, and to her, it’s very real. Her artwork gives form to what she feels and thinks. It’s something she can point to that expresses her feelings with credibility. It’s all there, without any need for words. Art is believable.

Creating A Healthy Distance

Through art therapy, a child may come to see that his illness or his bad experience is something separate from his identity. He may make a painting, for instance, that is all about pain, shame, anger, fear, helplessness, or disappointment. Expressing his feelings in an art project gives the child a concrete symbol he can then see as something outside of himself. He can point to it and say, for example, “This is pain.”

Then again, the child with cancer, or the victim of abuse, may want to use art not to express these unpleasant feelings. The child with cancer may want to remember that she is also the child who adores the color purple, loves flowers, and has a silly sense of humor. That too, can be in a child’s painting. Through art therapy, children can come to understand that they are people beyond and outside of their illnesses or experiences.

It’s important to note that children don’t have to be talented at art to receive art therapy. The purpose of art therapy is not to create art for art’s sake but to serve as a means for:

  • Exploring feelings
  • Self-expression
  • Boosting self-esteem
  • Self-examination
  • Coping with illness or difficult experiences and feelings
  • Communicating feelings and ideas with others
  • Digging deep into the unconscious and finding and expressing the feelings buried deep inside

Art Therapy As Diagnostic Tool

Sometimes it is difficult to know what is bothering a troubled child. A trained art therapist may be able to diagnose the problem by examining a child’s art. Dr. Carole Lieberman is one such expert. A Beverly Hills psychiatrist and bestselling author who treats children and their families, Lieberman has experience in interpreting children’s drawings.

Dr. Lieberman also acknowledges that a parent or teacher may be able to tell something is bothering a child, just by looking at that child’s painting or drawing. A child may be putting out distress signals through art and parents should be watchful. “Parents should worry if their child’s drawings are mostly in dark colors, since this is a typical sign of depression. A child’s world seems very dark when they’re depressed, so that’s what they draw.

“If a child draws something and then scribbles over it in long dark strokes, it means that they are very angry. And if you can still see what they were covering over on the page, you will have a clue as to what they are angry about.

“If a child draws a dilapidated house, with no flowers or trees around it, and no sun, it means that they see their own house as being unhappy.

“If they don’t draw windows, it can mean that they don’t want people to know what goes on in their house, or they think they are not supposed to tell what goes on there,” says Dr. Lieberman, who cautions that parents should consult with an art therapist before jumping to conclusions about a child’s art and what it means.

To sum up, art therapy offers a stress-reducing, tangible, and nonverbal way to explore and deal with feelings and issues. If your child hates to talk about her feelings, art therapy may be just the ticket. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) website links to a directory for licensed art therapists in the United States, broken down by location.

 
Has your child used art therapy to cope with chronic illness or a difficult experience? We’d like to know about it. Write to Varda at Kars4Kids dot org with your child’s success story.

Parker Loves Life: A Lesson for the Heart

Parker Monhollon, Parker Loves Life                                   Parker Loves Life, you can see it right here in this screenshot.

It came up in one of the Google+ neuroscience groups I follow. Heather Ward was putting out a distress signal: her daughter’s friend Parker Monhollon had just been diagnosed with an inoperable pediatric brain stem tumor.

“HELP find a cure for DIPG. My daughter’s friend Parker was just recently diagnosed with DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma) a brain tumor located in the Brain stem, which is inoperable. There is no cure and only has a life expectancy of less the a year! We need to find a cure for this poor girl and for all victims of DIPG! A lot of people are not aware of this disease and needs attention ASAP!”

I deleted the notification without reading through to the end. I really did not want to read about this, did not want to allow my heart to get involved with yet another pediatric cancer victim who was in all likelihood, doomed.

Despite my reluctance, my inner voice screaming, “NO. Not again,” I found myself using gmail’s undo function to restore the notification, to take a closer look.

The thing is, I’d allowed myself to get emotionally involved with another pediatric cancer victim, 6 year-old Elisha Cohen. I’d prayed for him. I’d passed around the petition begging the White House to grant a compassionate use exemption for an experimental therapy. And I’d followed his mother’s heartbreaking posts on Facebook.  (I still follow his mother’s heartbreaking posts, now that Elisha is gone, his life stolen by the “monster in his brain.”)

It was too sad and too difficult to watch a 6 year-old child die. Could I deal with reading about Parker, getting emotionally involved in HER story, her illness, a family’s grief?

Yes, I chastised myself. You most certainly can. It’s the least you can do. Where is your humanity?

And so I clicked through to Parker’s Facebook page, Parker Loves Life, and started reading the posts, about all the people who were doing whatever they could to give Parker and her family, hope, support, and love. Pushing their faces into whipped cream pies, wearing purple, selling slushies, anything to offer their support.

Because Parker Loves Life

And because I was hooked. Parker had stolen my heart, just as all the people doing things to raise awareness of her plight had had their hearts stolen by this little girl, Parker, the girl who loves life itself.

Parker just bubbles and sparkles with charisma, she’s a beauty. She’s absolutely adorable. And the precise reason she glows  and radiates light is this:

Parker Loves Life.

And it’s the most heartbreaking thing in the world to know that she is so gravely ill and that no one really knows how to heal her.

So I liked and followed her page and despite the fact that my life is overrun with emails and notifications, I chose to receive notifications of all posts.

Because Parker Loves Life

Does it do Parker any good at all that I randomly follow posts on her page and eagerly watch for updates on her condition?

I believe it does. For no logical reason at all.

I believe that caring for others and spreading the word about others’ difficulties can move the heavens in our/their favor.

And for this reason, I am rooting for Parker Monhollan, a sassy 8 year-old from Silver Lake, Kansas, who was diagnosed January 15, 2016, with DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma), a spider of a tumor that has woven its many-stranded tendrils in a tangled web over and around this little girl’s brainstem, threatening her very life.

In my mind’s eye, I am hugging Parker and her parents, who are going through something unspeakable—something a lot worse than too much email. And I’m letting them in to occupy my heart and soul.

Even if it makes me cry.

Won’t you do so, too?

#ParkerLovesLife

Rav Yaakov Don: When Your Child’s Beloved Teacher Is Murdered

Rav Yaakov Don: When Your Child's Beloved Teacher is Murdered
The grave of Rav Yaakov Don. (photo credit: Dave Bender)

It was Thursday evening when I heard the sirens and knew without a doubt that terror had once more struck my community. There’s something about the way sound carries from the highway to my home and I hear every ambulance, every fire truck and police car. And I know that when I hear several of them in succession, several sirens, this means there’s been something out of the ordinary, and it’s either a very bad accident, or a terror attack.

It being Thursday, I just knew it was the latter. For several weeks in a row, there have been terror attacks on Thursday evenings in the same general area, the Gush Etzion Junction. There’s a gas station there, the only one for miles around, and there’s a large discount shopping center there, too.  Those not privileged to own cars can also catch a bus from there, or hitch a ride home or to town.

It is here that three boys were kidnapped and murdered last year in an attack that made it into mainstream international media. And there have been many more attacks before and since. The terror waxes and wanes and right now it’s waxing.

Playing Earth Mama

I was brushing beaten egg onto risen loaves of challoh bread when I heard the sirens. I’d signed out of work for the day and was getting my Sabbath baking done, as I always do on Thursdays. Thursday is that day in the week where I live: the day that people shop and bake and cook for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath that comes every week at sundown Friday night. The oven was preheating, my kids were doing their homework in the living room, and I was in the kitchen, being Earth Mama. It would have been cozy, had been cozy, until I heard the sirens.

I tried to count, to note how many ambulances were being called, to judge how many casualties. I said, “It’s a pigua.”

“Pigua” is Hebrew for “terror attack.”

My almost 17 year-old son, Yitzchak said, “No. It’s just an ambulance. I only hear one.”

“No,” I said. “I can hear at least three. It’s a pigua.”

“I only hear one,” repeated Yitzchak. “Anyway, it’s probably just an accident.”

“No,” I said. “It’s a pigua. There’s been one every Thursday night for weeks.”

When Terrorists Strike

That is when terrorists strike. They strike on Thursday nights, when the junction is jammed with people shopping at the Rami Levy Supermarket, and trying to get home after the long work week, to get home to their families.  Where I live, Thursday is the equivalent of TGIF. Friday is a day off. But Thursday is that last day of the week where all are hustling to get their acts together before Shabbat.

I sprinkled poppy seeds over my loaves of bread and slid them into the oven. While the challoh was baking, I sat down in the living room to check my mail. Asher, my 15 year-old son, was sitting at the PC and Yitzchak was sitting on the couch, looking at his phone screen.

“It can’t be,” said Yitzchak, so quiet I didn’t respond, thinking he was talking to himself. “It can’t be,” he said again, louder this time.”

The mustache as big as his smile.
The mustache as big as his smile.

“What?” I asked.

“They’re saying—but no. It can’t be. They’re saying Rav Yaakov Don was injured.”

“What??” asked Asher, jarred enough to tear his eyes away from  the game he was playing.

“Where? What?” I asked, trying to clarify. “Who is saying this?”

“The school Whatsapp list. The teachers,” Yitzchak said. “First they said he was shot, hurt—they’re taking him to the hospital—to pray. But now a lot of people are writing ‘BDE.'”

“BDE” is the acronym for the Hebrew phrase that means “Blessed be the True Judge.” It’s what Jews say when someone dies. It’s an affirmation of faith during the worst that can befall a person: death.

“It can’t be,” said Yitzchak again in disbelief.  Then, “Oh my God,” he said, his voice breaking. “He died.”

“What??” said Asher. “It can’t be. Oh my God.”

“Baruch Dayan Emess,” I said, “Blessed be the True Judge,” affirming faith in a room filled with the scent of baking bread. A cozy room where nothing bad ever happens. Where children are always safe.

Both boys stood up. They didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves. How to defend against this news with their gangly teenage bodies. “You don’t know, Eema,” said Yitzchak. “He was the best teacher in the school.”

Hugging a student at graduation.
Hugging a student at graduation.

Asher chimed in. “The best!”

“Everyone loved him,” said Yitzchak. “Everyone.”

No wonder he was killed, I thought. This sort of thing never happens to regular people. Only to the really special people. Like the one teacher everyone loved.

My phone chimed with a Whatsapp message. It was the family Whatsapp group. After every terror attack, we check to see if all of us are still alive. I tapped out a message. “We’re okay. Yitzchak and Asher are home with me. Abba  just decided to postpone his Shabbat shopping, so he is okay, too. But we heard some bad news. One dead so far and we know who it is, but they haven’t notified the families yet, so not announced.”

“Who?” typed Natan, 25.

For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to type the name. Instead I spoke into the microphone, “Rav Yaakov Don.”

At a celebration, dancing with a Torah scroll.
At a celebration, dancing with a Torah scroll.

Rav Yaakov Don

There was a stunned virtual silence as all the keyboards of all the members of my very large family fell into disuse,  13 keyboards  awaiting fingers  that were too shocked to move above the keys. Everyone knew this man, Rav Yaakov Don. He was a beloved and charismatic personality in our local high school. He had taught Yitzchak, Asher, Natan, and my 18 year-old son Moshe, too.

The oven timer beeped. I pulled a challoh out of the oven, and rapped on its bottom to hear that hollow sound that says, “I’m done.” I thought about Rav Yaakov Don’s wife missing her husband on Shabbat, his children, missing their father, having no one to preside over their Shabbat table.

I set my challohs on racks to cool and asked my children to tell me stories about Yaakov Don.  I thought it might help them process the shock, the first real loss they’d ever experienced, but not a normal loss. They’d been robbed by terror. Someone who represented all that is good and true had been erased by evil. Evil had been the victor. Good had lost.

Rav Yaakov Don and Dov Goldstein
So full of life.

How could it be?

And how could anyone be so evil as to kill this particular man, who was so fine, so beloved a teacher?

A former student bids farewell to his beloved teacher, just before the Sabbath. (photo credit: Dave Bender)
A former student bids farewell to his beloved teacher, just before the Sabbath. (photo credit: Dave Bender)

It could not be understood with the logical mind, nor with the heart.

The kids were yearning for some relief from this terrible truth. It was too much. So they did as I asked, hoping  that reciting a story or two would erase the terrible discomfort of a beloved teacher, murdered. Asher tried. He said,  “Once, he challenged us to see what was the longest time we could sit without making noise. He had us sit in a circle. He sat on the floor with us. He looked around at us, we all looked at each other and at him. We were so quiet. We always wanted to do whatever he asked.

“Then one of the kids broke wind. Rav Yaakov Don couldn’t help it and laughed out loud. He was the first one to make noise, to laugh.”

“He was always smiling, always laughing,” said Yitzchak.

We all fell silent, thinking that never again would they see his smile, hear his laugh.

The school called for an assembly to be held at 9:30 PM. The boys would go and talk about their teacher, remember him.  But it was only 8 PM, now. Yitzchak asked if they could break into one of the challohs. Sometimes I let them. They love to eat the fresh baked bread with butter and honey. None of us had the heart to prepare supper.

A student leaves a candle at the site of the murder of Rav Yaakov Don.
A student leaves a candle at the site of the murder of Rav Yaakov Don.

And so we sat in a cozy room and broke bread together,  the salt of our tears melting into the warm bread, cutting the sweetness of the honey, mixing with the butter. The boys told tales of their beloved teacher. The one teacher who had loved them no matter how they dressed or behaved, no matter what they said. His huge mustache and heart had been known to all. He had been a presence at the school and in the community.

He’d been absolutely irreplaceable.

Rav Yaakov Don, 49. Beloved husband, father, teacher.
Rav Yaakov Don, 49. Beloved husband, father, teacher. Absolutely irreplaceable.

Drama Therapy and Your Child

Drama therapy is a form of treatment that uses playacting to explore feelings in a safe environment. In drama therapy, participants may use storytelling, improvisation, and performance to solve problems, vent feelings, or work toward emotional goals. Drama therapy can succeed where other forms of therapy fail, because first of all, it’s fun. Second of all, drama therapy helps participants experiment with different behaviors and responses to events without any risk, because it’s all play, with none of it real.

Another reason drama therapy works so well is that it touches more of the senses than simply sitting and talking with a therapist: it’s multisensory. Getting up and acting something out makes it more real, than talking about what you did and what you might have done instead. In drama therapy, too, the goals are modest. You’re not looking for some incredible breakthrough. You just want the party to get comfortable with his or her feelings.

Drama therapy is a great way for kids to work out how they feel about things, or to vent feelings they’ve been too afraid to share. Kids already use drama therapy every day, without being aware that they do so. When they play “house” or play with their dolls, they are role-playing and exploring their feelings about parenting and family dynamics.

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Playing the Clown

A child may not know how to tell a grownup that she experienced abuse. But in drama therapy, she may be able to play act the whole thing with dolls. A child who experiences terror, and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may need to let out pent up scary feelings in order to face them and move on. Telling her story in drama therapy, as if it happened to someone else, may feel safer than just talking about what happened.

Sometimes children have a hard time making friends. They feel awkward talking to their peers and might not know how to break the ice. At other times, a child may be so afraid of rejection that she becomes a loner by default: she (let’s call her “Jane”) is too afraid that Miranda won’t want to jump rope with her, so Jane doesn’t bother to ask. She just sits in a corner by herself.

In drama therapy, Jane can practice asking Miranda to jump rope and imagine the different responses Miranda might offer. She can practice having Miranda say yes, and she can role-play Miranda saying no. She can role-play her own part as well as role-playing Miranda’s part, too. Jane can play-act every possibility of this interaction and see how she feels in each case. In this way, Jane has a chance to see how she feels in the worst case scenario of rejection, and get used to how that feels.

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In drama therapy, the child is the star of his own drama.

But there are still more possibilities. Jane can then go back and see why Miranda said no. Was it because of the way Jane phrased the request? Did her fear of rejection come through and color Miranda’s negative response? In exploring every facet of this pretend interaction, Jane might find a more effective way to behave in social situations. In so doing, she gains a measure of control over what looks like a hopeless situation in which she is helpless: Jane can learn how to make friends.

Role playing is the most common tool used in drama therapy. Another common tool in drama therapy is mask making. When a child creates a mask, he is expressing emotion with paint and paper. Making a mask can be a relief for a child who has trouble talking about his feelings. Wearing a mask is like putting on a new mood or personality. A child who has been forbidden by his abuser to speak about the abuse, may find masks a safe way to show what happened and how he feels about that.

Drama Therapy Methods

Drama therapy is more than acting. Here are some common methods and tools used in a drama therapy session:

  • Scripts and script-writing
  • Role-playing
  • Making and using puppets
  • Games
  • Improvisation
  • Creating and performing rituals

One reason drama therapy has become so popular in recent years is that it doesn’t have the same stigma as just plain therapy. A school child or teenager would be embarrassed for friends to know she’s seeing a “shrink.” But going to drama therapy doesn’t have that same kind of negative connotation. It sounds more like an extra-curricular activity, a fun thing to do, than a way of getting in touch with feelings or dealing with emotional problems.

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Mask making is a tool that is commonly used in drama therapy.

Drama Therapy Uses

Drama therapy can be helpful for these conditions, as well as others:

  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Behavioral problems related to Autism
  • Peer and Family Relationship issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief
  • Learning disorders

Drama Therapy Goals

Some of the goals of drama therapy are to:

  • Encourage positive changes in behavior
  • Improve social skills
  • Increase self-awareness, self-esteem, and personal growth
  • Improve quality of life

In short, drama therapy offers a safe, fun, and effective way to explore issues. If you feel as though your child is getting nowhere in her therapy, you may want to look for a qualified drama therapist. The North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) website, has a search page for finding drama therapists in the United States and Canada.

Has your child had a success with drama therapy? We’d like to know about it. Write to Varda at Kars4Kids dot org with your child’s success story.

 

Is There a Right Way to Teach Kids About Death?

Is there a right way to teach kids about death? Death is a touchy subject for most parents, right up there with the birds and the bees. You wish you didn’t have to explain it to your kids. For one thing, it’s awkward. But there’s no getting around it—death is a part of the life cycle, and it’s something that confronts all of us. It’s just one of those things: explaining death is a parental duty a parent cannot escape.

A child’s first experience with death may be the sight of a baby bird fallen from the nest, or the death of a family pet. Sometimes however, a child’s earliest acquaintance with death comes when a family member dies. Now even on a regular day, when there’s no death on the horizon, it’s difficult to broach the subject. But death is an especially touchy subject to convey to children when the need to explain the import and finality comes during a time of painful personal loss, when the brain is befogged with heavy emotion.

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That’s why it is ideal for parents to teach kids about the lifecycle from the abundant examples in nature as opportunities present. Outings are great for generating clear examples of pregnancy, birth, aging, illness, death, and decay. By making the lesson an ongoing event, a child has a chance to leave the subject only to revisit it again and again in a natural way, so that the lesson is more fully absorbed, providing firm footing for later, more personal experiences of human loss.

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A child may see a pregnant pet or a mother dog with nursing puppies, or perhaps he will see a dead insect and wonder why it doesn’t fly away. The seasons and plants also serve well to explain the lifecycle to children. Plant a bulb with your child. Revisit the site and watch as first there is foliage and then a flower bud or buds. The flower blooms and then dies after which the foliage turns brown and shriveled. But the bulb with its potential for new life, remains underground, even when it cannot be seen.

The lifecycles of the plant and animal kingdoms can coincide, as in spring. A trip to a farm or a zoo can help to illustrate this. Point out to your child that all around is new green plant life at the same time as so many baby birds and animals are born.

Just as spring is a time of rebirth, autumn depicts a lifecycle about to end, with winter approaching as a time of hibernation. A homemade compost pile is a green way to teach children about the lifecycle too, relative to the breakdown of plant material. Composting illustrates to a child how even in decay, there is fertility and life, as vegetable matter becomes fertile soil that can nourish a garden.

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Even with all this preparation and if you’ll excuse the expression “groundwork,” when a child loses a dear relative, such as a grandparent, the situation is no longer philosophical or academic. As a parent, you will want to know how to help your child come to grips with the event. It’s crucial that he is made to feel comfortable with expressing his feelings relative to the sad event. Here are some tips on how you can guide your child through this confusing time that is so difficult for a child to comprehend:

  • Find out all you can about the manner of death so you can respond to your child’s questions in a manner that is both truthful and factual.
  • Keep your responses simple and clear cut.
  • Don’t play down the event as something minor—it’s not.
  • Be ready to accept your child’s response, whether he expresses a great deal of emotion or very little (both are perfectly normal).
  • Give your child lots of ways to express and play out his feelings, stress, and tension: drawing, talking, strenuous physical activity such as a workout or swimming, singing, writing, or whatever suits your child most.
  • Remain ready to listen to your child if he feels like talking about the death, either now or later—even much later.
  • Listen to your child with your full attention.
  • Never become fed up and decide it’s been “long enough” but give your child all the time he needs to feel, speak about, and come to terms with his experience of loss and grief.