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Understanding the Educational and Behavioral Needs of Children of Divorce and High Conflict Families

By: Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R
Chaya Feuerman, LCSW-R

The following is a transcription of an address given to principals and teachers on understanding the educational and social needs of children of divorce in the classroom.  This was part of a special program sponsored by OHEL and Torah Umesorah which took place on November 7, 2014.
 
The Talmud in Sanhedrin (7a) makes a wry observation about the nature of relationships when they turn sour:

           “When our love was strong we were able to lay together on a bed that was narrow as the edge of a sword.  Now that our love is weak, even a bed that is 60 cubits wide is not big enough!”

When a relationship deteriorates past a certain point, it can reach a point where no home is big enough, no therapist is smart enough, and no mussar shmooze is potent enough to contain and manage the hostility. Many children who come from divorced homes were exposed to a level of conflict, aggression, and abuse that is difficult to imagine.  And, this is usually a situation that has gone on for years.

We have come to understand that trauma affects the mind and body in very distinct ways.  Therapists that treat trauma talk of a neural network that is etched into the brain as a result of the trauma, and as part of the human organism’s ability to adapt to and protect from perceived dangers.  Thus, when a traumatic event occurs, the brain records it in a different way, leading to a hyper-arousal and hyper-reactivity to any subsequent stimulus that bears resemblance to the original event.  This is why many of us in the subsequent days after 9/11 would jump or cringe from the noise of a plane flying overhead.  The brain and nervous system does not distinguish between actual physical dangers such as lions or tigers, and emotional events that feel subjectively overwhelming and frightening.

Children who have been exposed continuously to excessive abusive interpersonal conflict will likely become over-reactive to situations of normal conflict and aggression that take place during their everyday life.  A teacher applying stern discipline or a classmate’s goading can trigger a much more aggressive response from such children, and therefore may be experienced by teachers to be disrespectful and unmanageable.

The idea that trauma leaves a legacy of hyperarousal and hypersensitivity is not only based on psychological research but really is also a verse in the Torah:

        “And I will bring melting fear into the hearts those leftover from the defeats, and you will be chased by the noise of a rustling leaf as if chased by a sword, and you will fall before a non-existent pursuer.” (Leviticus 26:36)

It was prophesied that survivors from the catastrophic military defeats would be so traumatized, that when they would hear the noise of a rustling leaf they would flee in panic as if in response to an enemy chasing them.  This is classic trauma hyper-reactivity to traumas and stimuli that are perceived as mortal threats even when they are benign.

Many of these children will FEEL as if they are in a battle to the death with a classmate who teases them or a teacher that disciplines them, and react with force and aggression that matches such a threat, instead of reacting normally.  One of their primary developmental tasks is to make sense of these events, overcome their damaging aspects of their background and achieve full function and success. Teachers and educators must find a way to balance discipline with a fair and realistic understanding about their reactivity and background. 

There is a powerful Kli Yakar which speaks to this need.  As we all know, Avrohom was asked to leave his country, birthplace and family.  However, the Torah uses an interesting choice of words: Avraham is told “Lech Lecha -- Go out for yourself.” Bereishis 12:1) 

The Kli Yakar explains that aside from Avraham leaving his country, birthplace and family, he actually needed to leave a part of himself behind.  He came from a family that was at least dysfunctional spiritually.  The Rambam in Hilchos Avoda Zara (1:3) makes particular mention that Avraham served idols as a child, along with his family.  Hashem asked Avraham to leave his old self behind, and make himself anew.  This is what we ask each of these children to do. They must overcome the traumatic and dysfunctional patterns of relating from their families of origin and grow into new and different people.

What can teachers do to help provide an antidote for this trauma? What will help these begin to heal?  While our first instinct may be to offer comfort, not every child who is still in the grips of the stress will want to be comforted or take it well.  The child may still be too angry.  As it states in Avos (4:23), do not comfort a person while the corpse is still in front of him.  The effects of the conflict and divorce and are ongoing for years.  This is the equivalent of trying to comfort the mourner when the body is still warm, and therefore it is not so simple as to offer calming or encouraging words.

However, what we CAN offer these children is respect.  Respect is different than love, though they may also need love.  Respect comes from an attitude that conveys acceptance and recognition that they may have unique challenges and experiences and without coddling them and giving them free passes for any kind of chutzpah, we take an interest in their challenges and nisyonos and work with this understanding.

The Rambam codifies the obligation for teachers to respect all their students:

“Just as the students must respect the master, so must the master respect his students.” (Laws of Torah Study 5:12)

Children of divorce benefit especially from teachers who can provide a better example for them to live by, particularly because they may come from backgrounds where they observed and received less respect than perhaps typical homes.

But how, as teachers do we deal with the often obnoxious disrespect that some of these children may exhibit and do we help the child experience a healing kind of respect from us?   The answer lies in formulating with greater clarity what respect truly is, and what are the operational steps that a person in authority who relates to others, even in the face of chutzpah.  When it is broken down into manageable steps, then it can be accomplished even during emotionally heated moments. 

There is a story in the Gemara (Nedarim 66b) that shows how one can relate with great compassion and respect – even toward a person who is being outrageously disrespectful:

The Godol Hador, Bava ben Buta was holding court, presiding over his Beis Din, when all the sudden this apparently crazy woman smashes two oil lamps over his head. Now, of course, he had every reason to be angry and to ask his gabbaim to send this woman away in disgrace. What she did was both disrespectful, as well as physically hurtful, and probably damaging to his clothing if you can imagine oil and soot dripping all over his head and body.

However, how did Bava Ben Buta actually handle this trespass? He does not get angry, nor does he scold this woman. Instead, he asks her a very simple question: “What is this about?” And then, the woman tells him her story:  The woman states, “My husband told me to smash the lamps on the Bava.” The reader should be aware that the word “Bava” in Aramaic means doorway. Bava ben Buta began to realize that this was a very simple minded, perhaps learning disabled woman. (In fact, the story in the Talmud relates a number of frustrating interchanges she had with her husband, wherein she employed literal and concrete thinking, missing cues, and responding to his request in a comical “Amelia Bedilia” style literalness.  Who knows, perhaps she had Asperger’s?)  In any case, it was clear to Bava ben Buta that this woman had a good heart and was devoted to her husband, listening to everything that he said and asked, fulfilling it perhaps in an all-too-literal manner. For example previously in the story as told by the Talmud, her husband asked for “botzina” which in Aramaic can either mean melons or a lamp. She thought he meant lamp, so when she brought the lamps to him, and he was so hungry and frustrated by her constant misunderstandings, he angrily said, “Go smash the lamps on the Bava!” Since “Bava” ben Buta happened to be right outside her home, well, the rest is history...

Once Bava ben Buta realized who he was dealing with, instead of cursing her, he blessed her that she should have two sons like him, which indeed she did.

Most people when hearing this story would think that this was an act of great righteousness in that Bava ben Buta controlled his temper. While that is true on one level, on another level it was far simpler than that. He only needed to control his temper in the initial moments of his reaction, because once he was humble enough to be curious and compassionate and ask about her situation, it was apparent who she was and that her intentions were not malignant.

This is the key to respecting all students, in particular students who suffer from various emotional or learning disabilities. And that is, before we react, despite how egregious the behavior may seem, to be humble and compassionate enough to ask what is this about?  Psychologist refer to this as compassionate curiosity. This is not only a Gemara but really it is a verse in the Torah as well (Bereishis 3:8-11):

       "And they heard God's voice moving about in the garden with the wind of the day. The man and his wife hid themselves from God among the trees of the garden.  G-d called to the man, and He said, 'Where are you [trying to hide]?'  'I heard Your voice in the garden,' replied [the man], 'and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.'  [G-d] asked, 'Who told you that you are naked? Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you not to eat?'"

Why did Hashem, who is omniscient, ask where Adam was? And why did He further ask if Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge if Hashem full well knew that Adam did eat?

Rashi (Op. Cit.) explains this was done to "enter into conversation".

This Biblical interlude is a great lesson to authority figures who often feel omniscient, and certainly can feel they have a "right" to be angry. Even G-d himself, who is truly omniscient, did not startle or, as it were, “pounce” on Adam, declaring that he ate from the Tree. Instead, Hashem asked Adam to tell over his side of the story, giving Adam a chance to process his thoughts, compose himself and ultimately be in a position for a more meaningful conversation.

The willingness to hold off from anger-laden reaction and punishment toward perceived or actual chutzpah, and entering into the world of the student to see his life through his eyes, is the kind of respect that all students wish for, and these students in particular desperately need.

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