In the past decades we have seen several movements that demand immediate action. Peace activists declare, “Peace Now!” Messianists declare, “Moshiach Now!” I am struck by the fact that causes for which we are inclined to demand immediate results are those that tend to be beyond our sphere of control. No matter how much I may want peace, I cannot achieve it without cooperation from others, whom I do not control. Similarly, no matter how many good deeds or mitzvot I do, I cannot forcibly bring the Messiah. On the other hand, I can control how I relate to my child, and hence, I suggest the founding of a movement, “Developmentally Attuned Parenting Now!”
When I practice developmentally attuned parenting, I see the child based on his or her individual development, capabilities and limitations. I relate to him or her based on where he or she is truly holding, and not based on a fantasy vision of where I wish my child to be. I set “SMART” goals for my child, meaning that they are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely.
In times of war, trauma and stress, we may find ourselves withdrawing into our personal, idiosyncratic place. It becomes much harder to empathize and display compassion for anyone else as we are all feeling drained and washed out. Concurrently, it’s easy to become mis-attuned to those closest to us. Our families are thus often the uncounted casualty of war.
The current situation in Israel is incredibly difficult to emotionally navigate. Many of us have a spouse or children in direct danger. Many have been evicted from their homes. Outside of Israel, these evicted citizens are referred to as refugees of war. Within Israel, they are fellow Israelis for whom we open our homes and places of business.
There is no doubt that the emotional demands placed upon each of us have been compounded since October 7. Among humans, psychologists note that the first area of functions that deteriorate under stress are referred to as executive functions. The executive functions are brain functions that allow us to exhibit self-control and regulate our behaviors and emotions so that we act mindfully rather than react instinctively to the world around us. When we act mindfully, we are capable of choosing parenting behaviors that are attuned with the developmental needs of our children. When we react instinctively, our children are at the mercy of our whims, emotions and impulses.
We all possess the capability to parent in a developmentally attuned manner, even under the current stress of war. In order to do so we need to do the following:
- Increase self-care behaviors. Under stress the instinctive reaction is to cease taking care of ourselves. We tend to think that it is selfish to engage in acts of self-care when others are in danger. This is correct if you are in an acute situation that requires an immediate response. For example, if you see a speeding car heading towards a toddler, clumsily crossing a street, you may take a risk and push the toddler out of harm’s way. Our current war situation is not analogous to the toddler. Days are turning into weeks, weeks into months, and perhaps months into years. Because we are in a chronic situation of heightened stress, neglect to self-care will render us useless to help others. If you wish to be developmentally attuned as a parent, you must take care of your personal needs first. Whether it’s physical exercise, study, meditation, visiting family and friends or praying, it is essential to take care of yourself, in order to have the basic strength to parent your children.
- Observe with wonder your child’s innate capabilities: During this time period, it is important to acknowledge that our children are aware of the degree of our stress. It is important to share verbally that times are hard for both big and little people. The iron-man or iron-maiden role that many feel compelled to project is perceived as false by our children. We are scared, and our children are scared. It is absurd and mis-attuned to state that we are not. When we validate our fears and those of our children, we legitimize the feelings and allow them and ourselves to deal with them in a constructive manner. Allow your children to express themselves with words or with drawings. Understand that some of their less than spectacular actions reflect their own attempts to cope with a challenging reality. One need not go into the gory details that are part of our fear of war; however, it is important to acknowledge that we have fears, but that we are able to live with them and not have them dictate our behaviors.
- Set limits and create “SMART” expectations based on your child’s developmental level. If you are capable of observing your child’s fears and understand that fears are a natural reaction to a scary reality, then we can set expectations that strengthen our child. These expectations are:
- Specific: We describe in a behavioral way that is easily understood what we expect the child to do.
- Measurable: We describe our expectations in a way that is measurable. For example, if you expect your child to put his or her dishes in the sink after eating, you state that after the meal you expect the child to put their personal dishes in the sink. You do not say after the meal that you expect the child to clean up the table, as this is too vague and leaves room for misinterpretation.
- Attainable: We present children with tasks that are developmentally appropriate and that they have a pretty good chance to succeed in.
- Relevant: We present children with tasks that are meaningful to them and to the family.
- Timely: We present tasks with specific time limits. In other words, we tell children when the tasks are to be performed.
- Be a role model for your child. When we engage in self-care and self-regulate our own emotions and impulses, we are acting as role models that children will internalize for a lifetime. No one is perfect and we need not strive to be something that is not realistically human. But when we role model an attempt to live in sync with our deepest values, we emerge as imperfect, human role models, and this is our highest possible level of functioning as people and as parents.
The outcome of the current war is unknown. The unfortunate numbers of casualties grow daily and are difficult to deal with. Living with uncertainty and fear threatens to overwhelm our ability to parent. At times like this, authentic and mindful developmentally attuned parenting becomes an essential arsenal in our coping and overcoming the horrors of war. Developmentally Attuned Parenting Now!
Dr. Simcha Chesner founded and directed the Bnei Chayil Yeshivot in Israel for adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and associated disorders. He published three books in Hebrew for children and adults with ADHD and he directed clinical services for the Idud National Program for ADHD of the Brookdale Institute and JDC. He currently lectures and supervises MA students in special education and psychology at Orot Teachers College and is the executive director of the Israel Academy of Social and Emotional Learning. Dr. Chesner received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Case Western Reserve University, where he was awarded the David Hudson Fellowship for excellence in scholarship and citizenship. He received his undergraduate degree from Yeshiva University. In 1991, Dr. Chesner made aliyah with his wife, Dr. Rachel Chesner. For the past three decades, they have lived in Israel with their children and grandchildren. He is the co-author of the just published book Kosher ADHD: Surviving and Thriving in The Torah-Observant World