Parenting: Ask Dr T

By

Sara Teichman, Psy D.

Dear Dr.T.,

I have always loved Pesach – as a young girl and as a mom of little ones and teens.

However, the last few yomim tovim have been trying, to say the least, and I wonder if you could help. You see, now my children are “young-marrieds” with a few children each. Naturally, they all want to come home for the seder and join the rest of the family.

So, what’s the problem? Well, though my children got along reasonably well when they were singles, when they get together for a prolonged period nowadays there is friction between the different couples and the assorted spouses. Though most of the conflict stays under the radar, I feel tense and edgy until everyone is safely out my home.

Can you help me understand what is going on here and perhaps suggest some ideas that will minimize friction?

Esther Miriam

Dear Esther Miriam,

Although this is a typical challenge, it is also a complex one. We cannot simply tell our married children – or their spouses – how to behave. We also have a limited picture – a snapshot, really – of our own child’s dynamics with his spouse and children. We see only what they permit us to see. While there is always the temptation to blame the “other” – the non-family member – it may actually be our own child who stirs the pot.

Ancient childhood issues help form our personality and dictate our way of being in the world. So, while an eldest child may have been the undisputed boss/king/queen in the family during childhood, a younger child with a spouse on his side may feel secure enough as an adult to throw off the yoke of tyranny. For an excellent exploration of sibling roles, read Dr. Twerski’s I Didn’t Ask To Be in This Family. This very readable book makes many suggestions on dealing with sibling issues.

It is axiomatic that adding different people to the equation (your married children’s spouses) changes the mix and nets different results. Added to that is the fact that most often the couples are crowded into one room, together with their children. Everyone is off-schedule, over-tired, and forced to share bathrooms, cars, highchairs, and the like. This kind of everyday stress and shared space can certainly contribute to the tension, as well.

Your child’s spouse is an ultra-sensitive topic: not one that I would ever recommend discussing with your child. While most people enter into the in-law relationship with lots of good will, there are also preconceived notions (“He’ll be the brother I never had.”) and fit issues (you are a perfectionist, she is casual; you are an extrovert, he is an introvert) that get in the way. Particularly when a family has a somewhat rigid, judgmental streak, adjustment can be difficult. So, for example, in a family where cleanliness is a religion and orderliness a virtue, the casual and non-detail oriented spouse may show up poorly in the family. Similarly, in the family that is chronically late, the punctual, to-the-minute spouse may come across as uptight and petty.

There definitely needs to be a period of adjustment (years?), an attitude of tolerance (“Okay, so she didn’t put the magazine away.”), and a modeling of openness. Make sure everyone knows that it’s okay to talk about what they need and want. Then, model the behavior you want to see. For example, you might say something like, “It’s hard for me when you take the car without telling me first.”

The key is to make your point in a respectful, non-judgmental manner. Whether it’s religion or highchairs, respectful communication is the goal. So, for example, one person may talk about how they need quiet to put their toddlers to sleep. They might suggest a mutual plan, something as simple as, “After seven, let’s have playing only in the basement.” Not only is this effective problem-solving, but it’s also an inspiration to new family members to be up front and courteous as well. By talking in a non-threatening away about our needs (provided there aren’t too many of them) we clarify our boundaries and set the stage for cooperation and mutuality.

Almost always, what we are looking at in these yom tov wars is the crush of too many people, an adjustment period that needs to take its own course, and unclear or unspoken needs or wants. Know that we have the ability to ease these tricky situations by using two of our most important tools: being proactive and having realistic expectations.

Being proactive may take many forms. Well before the yom tov starts, consider which family members mesh well, limiting additional guests, or asking for a neighbor’s guest room or back house. The plans you make should be personal and custom-made for your family; the important point is to plan for success.

Having realistic expectations is another basic tool that will minimize tension. Though we all visualize having the seder depicted in the Artscroll Haggadah, the reality is that the newborn may be crying, the tots need to eat “right now!”, and – well, you get the picture.

Knowing beforehand that life happens – wine will spill on someone’s suede Shabbos shoes and there will be fierce competition for the afikoman – puts the little things in perspective. Once we have taken on the challenge of not sweating the small stuff, it’s easier to be gracious and calm in the face of the adversities that can accumulate and multiply.

Let’s summarize: be proactive and talk to your children well before yom tov about having realistic expectations. And, hopefully you will enjoy this yom tov for many years to come – through experiences, memories, pictures, and the warm, close feelings that only family can bring.

 The Book Nook: I Didn’t Ask To Be in This Family by Dr Abraham Twerski is an insightful, yet easy read. The author outlines the basic childhood positions: the oldest, middle, youngest, and only child. He uses the world-famous Peanuts cartoons – focusing on Charlie Brown – and his own experience of being in a family.

Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com