Moderator: Elchanan Schwarz LMHC
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Thank you so much for your informative column. Once again, the importance of being diligent regarding the emotional and physical safety of our children has been hammered home. I was hoping that based on your years of experience as clinicians you could offer some guidance and advice as to what we as parents and members of a community should do to best protect our children.
Mordechai Weinberger, LCSW
Author of “Mastering Relationships” and “Alive”, and radio host. To hear recordings of previous radio programs call 718-298-2011.
In one word, the answer is “communication.” Then we need to think about what to communicate, as well as when and how to say it. One of the beauties of Yiddishkeit is that every topic has its time and place. We don’t thrust children’s minds into matters they are not ready to process unless life has already given them that exposure and then, they need guidance. For instance, we don’t discuss death with children until it is age appropriate, or it arises in their life. We don’t talk to them about crime, the Holocaust, or other such matters until they have enough life experience and perspective to handle it. And if we do have to introduce these subjects, we make sure to do so in an age-appropriate way.
The issue of children’s physical and emotional safety is now one that our gedolim and educators agree should be addressed with children. Darcheinu, a project of Torah Umesorah, recently published a guidebook for parents which helps them navigate recent, disturbing news in this regard. It is aimed at ensuring that if children ever feel a threat to their safety, they will immediately seek help; and if they’ve been harmed, they know they are not at fault in any way; that Hashem will ensure that justice is done; and that despite the presence of evil in the world, Hashem wants us to live with simcha and trust in Him. This booklet is available for download on Darcheinu’s website.
Another useful tool for parents who want to open this conversation but are not sure how is a book by children’s author Bracha Goetz that is endorsed by gedolim called, Talking About Private Places.
Of course, prevention is far preferable to dealing with a crisis. We cannot prevent people from choosing the path of abuse and exploitation; we can only try to remove from their environment any potential victims. Two assets help children steer clear. The first is a healthy level of respect for their own bodies. This is something parents work on from the earliest age, subtly teaching our children what is private and what is public. They learn to shut the door to the bathroom; they learn what they can wear in a swimming pool and what they must wear in the street; when they are no longer being diapered by parents and babysitters, they learn what parts of them are to be touched by others and what may not be touched. The value the Torah places on modesty and dignity are our greatest defense. Our aim is to give our children a strong sense of sovereignty over their body, and not a sense of shame.
The second prong of this approach is to give them confidence in themselves and their worth. They must feel empowered to say a loud, definitive “no” to anything that makes them uncomfortable. There was a program called Innocent Heart that ran for two years in schools across the United States. They used role playing to help children learn how to defend themselves. They were taught to respond to an unwanted touch with a loud, clear, “You are touching me. Take your hand away now!” Confidence is also vital in avoiding being lured into the situation.
Children need to receive instruction on how to protect themselves from the ploys that predators use to ease their way into an exploitive relationship. The first step is to help them understand that in this instance, they are not required to respect the adult. Even if it’s an adult who holds some position of authority in the child’s life, once that boundary is crossed, he loses his claim on his authority. If the adult claims that he cares about the child and loves him, the crossed boundary once again cancels the validity of this claim. If he claims to be a special friend who will be hurt if the child doesn’t return his friendship, the child must know that normal adults do not rely on child to be their close friend. This must be drummed into a child’s head. People who exploit have no right to demand respect or loyalty. Every mitzvah has its exceptions; for instance, we must drive on Shabbos to save a life. Likewise, we must violate the instructions of an elder if he is behaving in an inappropriate manner (this must be done in the most respectful manor that almost all our leaders are trustworthy and merit respect).
Secondly, a child has to know that any adult who wants him to keep a secret from his parents is doing something very wrong. There should never be a secret between another adult and your child.
Furthermore, the child has to beware that an adult might threaten to hurt him, hurt a family member or even to hurt himself if the secret is shared. He might claim that he will become very sick and die, or that other people will try to hurt him, and it will be the child’s fault. Our message to the child is, “Nothing that happens because of you turning away from this adult, or because of telling his secret is your fault. If he does something harmful, it is his fault. You are right and good for speaking.” Every parent must ensure that his child knows that if anyone makes them uncomfortable with words or physical contact, “Come to me and tell me and I will protect you.”
If your child is in a situation in which he spends private time with an adult, such as a mental health therapist or a tutor, talk to the child occasionally about what transpires in their session. While physical, speech and occupational therapists have a hands-on component to their jobs, tutors and mental health therapists do not. And even in terms of the former, the physical touch must be confined to therapeutic activities. Ask casually what went on in the session in broad terms, without delving into details. Ask if he enjoys his sessions. Ask if there’s anything he doesn’t like about it. As he answers, watch his facial expressions and tone of voice. If you notice that the therapist touches your child, even in a friendly manner, you are well within your rights to tell him that you do not want there to be physical contact.
The second line of defense is to be able to detect when something disturbing has happened. The more intense the event, the longer it lasts, the more times it is repeated, the deeper the trauma. If we are fortunate, we catch things before any of these elements come into play. This does not negate the impact of even a one-time event, but it can give parents hope that in some cases, healing comes more readily.
What are the signs that a child might be undergoing abuse? One is that the child begins voicing disgust with his or her body without an apparent reason. This outside the normal teenage complaints of “I’m so fat,” and “My skin is gross.” Another is that the child’s grades take a precipitous drop without any changes in teacher, school, or coursework. A third sign is withdrawal from friends and social life.
If you notice these signs, you will want to open a conversation with your child. Let him know that if anyone is making him feel uncomfortable, he should tell you right away, and that you will make sure he is protected from any push-back. Then let your child talk. Don’t interrupt. Don’t try to reinterpret what happened to make it seem less traumatic. Believe your child, thank him for confiding in you and even if you are trembling on the inside, be calm and reassuring. Give the child a hug and tell him how brave he is for speaking to you. Then get professional advice as to what to do next.
Abuse does its harm by creating a feeling of worthlessness and self-loathing. Taking the topic out of its dark corner has helped to mitigate some of this shame, and many new therapies have been developed to help the healing process along. These include EMDR, Trauma-Focused CBT and Internal Family Systems, as well as new pharmaceutical approaches such as Ketamine infusions and MDMA-assisted therapy. There are also many support groups that have been instrumental in helping victims regain their footing and go forward to a healthy, productive life. After so much suffering for so many years, Klal Yisroel is now taking a pro-active stance. Victims are no longer being silenced, and help is at hand. Let’s heal and make sure that we keep the respect for our ways of life and our respected Leaders.
Aviva Biberfeld, Psy.D
Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice
This is a crucial subject. Teaching our children how to be safe and stay safe is one of the most crucial responsibilities that we have as parents. The conversation about safety, physical and emotional, needs to start when our children are young. It needs to be a matter of fact, part of what we give over to our children. Just like we reach them to wash their hand with soap after they use the bathroom, and we teach them how to safely cross the street, we also teach them about what’s okay and what isn’t when it comes to their bodies and privacy, and the bodies and privacy of others.
Just like there are books that talk about going to the dentist, and books that tell the story of starting school for the first time, there are child friendly books about all types of safety issues. The book Let’s Stay Safe, is colorful, eye catching and includes all types of safety issues in a non-frightening matter of fact manner.
Children will take their cues from us as parents. If we are clear and confident in how we talk about safety issues of all types, and we are clear, verbally and non-verbally, that we are comfortable talking about all different types of safety, and that if there are any questions or concerns, we are available, our kids will feel safe and confident coming to us with questions, concerns and Hashem yishmor emergencies.
We need to very clear with them that anyone that tells them to keep a secret from us, they need to come to us right away. And that includes, teachers, rabbeim, older siblings, and other relatives. Unfortunately, we need to teach our children that just because the person is older and known to them, and supposedly trustworthy or in a position of power, it doesn’t mean our children should keep their secrets. And we need to talk about this in a way that isn’t alarmist or frightening. We know there are dangers in the world, but we also know that the vast majority of people our children will come into contact with are trustworthy and involved in avodas hakodesh for the right reasons.
Our children need to know very clearly, that no matter what they tell us, we won’t yell, scream, accuse, or blame. We will take them seriously and believe them. We won’t react in impulsive, alarming ways. We will take steps to protect them and help them in whatever way they need.
When I do parenting consults, I am often incredulous when I ask parents about whether they have spoken to their children about safety, what to do if they get lost, unwanted touch, secrets etc., and parents ask me if I really believe it’s necessary. I hope if we have learned anything from recent tragic events, it’s that our children need to know what is okay, and what’s not. What is not okay for anyone to do to them, or for them to do to anyone else. We need to model appropriate boundaries, but we also need to speak openly to our children. These talks do not need to be a violation of tznius and kedusha. Quite the opposite, they enhance our children’s view of themselves as precious and sacred.
There are b”H more and more rabbonim, leaders and organizations that are working to create a world where all children are safe, where this sort of threat can’t exist anymore in our communities. Halevai it should happen very soon.
Esther Gendelman, MS, LPC
Therapist in a private practice in Toms River, NJ. (248-915-9122). Coauthor of “The Missing Peace” firstname.lastname@example.org
The fact that you are asking the question is the most important aspect of the answer. Awareness that sadly, there are people who harm children and do their best to hide their behavior is the first step. Abuse thrives in secrecy. Education for parents and children is known to make a huge difference. There are books such as “Let’s Stay Safe” which can be a steppingstone for conversations between parents and children. There are experts such as Debbie Fox LCSW who has spent years researching and educating and founded a safety organization educating parents and schools so they can prevent and protect our most precious children. The importance of familiarizing yourself with those recommendations that are known to work cannot be overemphasized. Equally important is establishing an open and nurturing relationship with one’s children. Children need to know that if they ever feel scared and threatened, their parents will take them seriously and do everything in their power to keep them safe. Some children are afraid they will not be believed, or worse that they may be punished or shamed for actions that were done to them. They need to know that b”H most people are safe and not out to harm them. They need to feel safe in the world. And they also need to know that no matter who the person is if any adult tells them to keep a big secret from their parents or only wants to meet without anyone else around, that is a serious red flag. Young children can practice saying no and going to tell their parents much like a fire drill.
If a child does come to a parent with a report of some inappropriate touch, the first reaction is crucial. Children must be reassured that it is not their fault and that the parents will do all in their power to make sure this never happens again. Empathy, understanding, and compassion need to be lived moment to moment for anyone who has endured such a confusing and traumatic experience.
Parents will also need their own support so turning to professionals experienced with this type of trauma as well as a trusted rov is essential.
There is so much pain for people who have endured abuse especially at the hands of people they trusted and turned to for help.
When power preys on our most vulnerable, the pain has no words to contain the experience and the shame.
And we as parents can do our best to be proactive in securing a safe world for our children while we all daven for a time where questions and responses of this nature will no longer be needed.
Ronen Hizami, MD
Board Certified Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist in private practice
Thank you for raising this important question.
The world can be a dangerous place. Sometimes the news reminds us how dangerous it can be. Hakadosh Boruch Hu places children in our care and charges us to turn them into productive members of society. This involves teaching them what they need to succeed, as well as giving them the tools to protect themselves from danger.
Any reasonable course of action requires several steps. First, one must identify the danger. This is done by assessing all its aspects in great detail. Only then, can a solution be devised. An example would be the dangers of bike riding. Bike riding can be dangerous. One can assess the risk of head trauma, broken bones, etc. Once this is understood, protective measures can be taken- wearing helmets and other appropriate safety tools.
Not all dangers are so obvious. Some are physical. Others are emotional and/or spiritual. Some dangers are even worse. The same approach must be taken. Identify, assess, and plan. Education is the core of every safety plan.
Of course, there are legitimate fears in this process. In educating our children about the risks facing them, there is always the concern that we could be opening their eyes to new concepts or ideas. Parents are sometimes taken aback when I ask their children certain questions. They fear that in asking a question, their child will suddenly be more likely to have these symptoms. This is not true. We are not so gullible or impressionable. Of course, questions need to be asked in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
Education requires imparting information. We inform. We teach. We introduce. We do it appropriately. Different communities within klal Yisroel have different standards regarding this. Some speak more openly about things. Some speak less openly. Everyone MUST speak! There are certain basic concepts about appropriate and inappropriate behavior that must be introduced. There are certain basic concepts about touch that must be introduced. These concepts must be universal. There is nothing inherently inappropriate about creating rules for small children about what types of touch are appropriate and which are inappropriate. There is nothing wrong with introducing that even going to the doctor to get checked requires Mommy or Tatty or a Nurse in the room. These are obvious good rules for life. Education must be tailored to the age and developmental level of the child. Education must be practical. If this happens- scream, run, etc.
Boruch Hashem, today there are programs in place to help us accomplish this. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz has put out children’s books in Hebrew, Yiddish and English introducing some of these safety concepts in an appropriate way. If certain kehillos find these books too explicit, they can work with mental health professionals to put out their own books or safety plans.
In addition to educating our children we must create a safe space for our children to communicate with us. They must be able to come to us, without fear of any recrimination, with any reports of inappropriate behavior or anything else. This requires cultivating a relationship of trust and love from an early age. Some readers may think this is obvious. In some families it is not. There are individuals that suffer in silence for decades because they fear their family’s response. There are those that will open up to others who may just make things worse. By creating this relationship paradigm, we have a greater chance of controlling exposure and introducing treatment early on.
When our children see that we create an atmosphere of open appropriate communication it teaches them that this is how we solve our problems. We speak to those that are close to us and charged with our chinuch. This gives them a blueprint for life.
May Hashem grant us siyata di’Shmaya to protect ourselves and our children form harm!
Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
Psychotherapist in private practice, Woodmere, NY; adjunct professor at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work; author of “Self-Esteem: A Primer” www.ylcsw.com, 516.218.4200
It is indeed unfortunate—in fact tragic—that discussions of this nature need be had. The fact that such discussions have become commonplace is due to numerous factors, some positive and others decidedly negative. Our community, and indeed the world community, has accepted the fact that human predators exist, and that it is our sacred duty to put safeguards in place for our children’s safety. Just as we teach our children not to touch a hot stove or run into the street, we should teach them of the dangers of predatory behavior. Discussions that have been taboo in past generations have been recognized as necessary.
Of course, each individual child and situation is different, and specific advice should be tailored to each. Generally, any child can become a victim of various types of abuse. Without specific instructions, it can be very difficult for a child to clearly discern the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. This is especially so when the behavior is performed by an adult, and even more so when that adult is in a position of authority.
It is incumbent upon us as parents to educate our children as to which behaviors are inappropriate, and to immediately report inappropriate behaviors to a proper authority figure and to their parents. Children often feel guilty despite the fact that actions were perpetrated by an adult. It is therefore extremely important to convey the message that the blame lies solely with the adult. This makes it easier for them to discuss shameful actions with the proper parties.
As a community, we have come a long way in vilifying perpetrators—as opposed to blaming the victim. We have also become more knowledgeable about the steps that should be taken in the event of a problematic situation. The message is being given to both potential perpetrators, as well as to potential victims, that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.
There can always be improvement in our processes, and we should always strive to do better. We need to remember that our children are vulnerable and should be our primary focus and concern. Although we may feel for others involved (like the family of a perpetrator), this should be no concern at all until we have assured the safety of our children.
It must be made clear that as parents and as a community we will not tolerate any type of inappropriate touching or other types of intimacies. Making it unambiguously clear that as a community we will act immediately and vociferously to punish evildoers can help to achieve two major goals. It can help to deter potential victimizers, and it helps send the message to our children that the onus for any inappropriate behavior lies with the perpetrator.
Chaim Neuhoff, Ph.D.
There is much to say on this topic. One year ago, the noted Lakewood posek, Rav Yaakov Forchheimer, met with a large group of mental health professionals to discuss this, among other topics. I prefer to answer this question by quoting from his wise and astute comments. Please consider any mistakes to be mine.
1) Awareness: We are not doing enough to protect our children and the first step is awareness. Most parents don’t understand this issue and it is certainly a toeles for them to seek to understand this topic. They should be informed that part of their parental duties is to make sure that their children are well-protected. This would help prevent many tragic situations.
2) Protection: With younger children, we cannot be too explicit as we don’t want to frighten them. In addition, we don’t want to put new ideas into their heads that they had never thought of. Therefore, the primary focus is for parents to be aware of where their children are and what they are doing at all times.
3) Education: Older children can be taught to be careful as well as general safety messages. I don’t believe that a public family newspaper is a place to discuss this in detail so it may be advisable to reread the information that camps send out before the summer. You can also feel free to email me at email@example.com for details or questions.
4) School programming: There is a benefit in bringing comprehensive programs into schools to create awareness and education. The Rov emphasized that there will be misnagdim, but it is worthwhile to do the right thing despite them.
5) Role of Rabbonim: The rov noted that rabbonim need to become aware of the nuances and details of these issues so that they should be able to pasken when these matters are brought to them.
Yehi ratzon shelo yishama od shod vashever bimachaneinu.
Relief resources is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide access to the best mental health resources available. This is accomplished through Relief’s highly-acclaimed referral service, where a trained referral specialist will help you navigate the process of finding the best resources for your particular need. For assistance, call 718-431-9501
A Formidable Adversary
In modern times, we have become accustomed to news items that transpire on the other end of the world that feel as if they happened in our neighborhood. Thus, when a respected and esteemed individual is exposed as a predator, the trauma is not just felt by the local community. Instead, the shockwaves reverberate around the globe. The trauma of horror and betrayal that we all feel inevitably leads to the obvious question of how is it possible that someone who conducts himself in every other way as an upstanding and G-d fearing person is involved in such sinful and fiendish behavior? How can that person look at himself in the mirror and be able to live a double life with such ease?
The simplest answer to this question would be that the Yetzer Hara can infuse a person with such strong urges that sometimes the person will take the bait and fall prey to the Yetzer Hara’s power. The problem with that theory is that it still does not explain how the person can manage to live with himself. Additionally, to imagine that the Yetzer Hara has only one trick up his sleeve is to minimize his craftiness. Indeed, he is a formidable adversary with a wide range of strategies that he can apply to lead someone off the straight path and still have that person be able to sleep peacefully at night. One of those tricks is compartmentalization.
Compartmentalization is a psychological defense mechanism that allows a person to mentally separate conflicting thoughts, emotions, or experiences to avoid the discomfort of living a contradiction. The uncomfortable feeling of having contradictory thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes is known in psychology as cognitive dissonance. Human beings abhor that feeling and will do anything to avoid it. The most obvious strategy is to simply stop the conflicting behaviors and live a more wholesome and integrated life. However, some people choose a different approach, and that is to compartmentalize.
When one compartmentalizes, he or she is dividing their life into two realms, and they are one person in this setting and another person in the other setting. This allows an individual to perform terrible and monstrous acts and then switch off that persona and become a “G-d fearing” individual. When one bites the bullet of compartmentalization, it becomes possible to shuckle with zeal on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and then turn around a few hours later and become a completely different person without feeling any guilt or sense of hypocrisy.
This kind of behavior is nothing new, and Yeshaya Hanovi (Ch. 58) bemoans this when he decries the duplicity that some people demonstrate on a fast day. “You fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist. Don’t fast today just to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush, and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day that is favorable to Hashem?”
This message is so important and the risks of compartmentalization so high that this is the Haftarah that we read on Yom Kippur. Indeed, during Mincha on Yom Kippur, we read from the Torah the prohibitions of forbidden relationships, as if to say that just because you are acting so holy on Yom Kippur does not mean that you are secure from succumbing to the most illicit temptations.
In the annals of American Jewish history, there is a famous (or perhaps infamous) example of classic compartmentalization, and that is the story of Sam “Red” Levine. He was a gangster in the first half of the twentieth century, the most active hitman for hire of Murder, Inc., and he was also (on some level) an Orthodox Jew. He always wore a yarmulke under his hat, ate only kosher food, and did not do any of his “work” on Shabbos. Hence, from sundown on Friday until Havdolah, he did not do any of his murders. If he felt he had no choice, he would make sure to put on his Tallis and daven before doing his job. That is classic compartmentalization. I am an upstanding Jew, but I also have to do certain things on the side for “Parnassah”.
This in no way absolves the individual from culpability. Compartmentalization is a strategy that the individual embraces using his free will in order to continue with his “lifestyle” and not be bogged down by feelings of guilt or shame.
We often think of this kind of phenomenon as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A more accurate description might be a formless being that sometimes wears the wolf’s clothing and sometimes wears the sheep’s clothing. If it sounds complicated that is because it is.