In the May 31, 2022 issue, Mishpacha Magazine posed the following question and invited me and others to respond:
My oldest son is a smart and energetic eight-year-old. He does well in school, and his rebbi says the boys in the class like him. But at home he acts very differently. He has a hair-trigger temper, often having meltdowns when things don’t go his way, and lashing out at me or his younger siblings. The intensity of his tantrums frighten me.
I want to send him to therapy to help him learn healthier ways to respond when frustrated and to discover if there’s anything more worrisome at the root of all this anger.
But my husband is completely unfazed by our son’s behavior. He tells me that many boys get angry easily, and he’s adamant that his son does not need therapy. When I point out examples of my son’s inappropriate reactions, he just shrugs and tells me he’ll grow out of it.
I’m worried that without help, this will spiral into even more dysfunctional behavior as he gets older.
Do I force the issue and have it become a conflict between my husband and me, or should I just hope his behavior will change as he gets older?
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky once ran into a talmid and inquired about how he was doing. The young man gave a krechtz, explaining that his child had kept him up several nights in a row. “Tzaar gidul banim,” he sighed. The great gadol turned to his talmid and said, “That isn’t tzaar gidul banim, the pain of child rearing, it is just gidul banim, child rearing.”
The essential question, the point of debate between the two of you is: When do behaviors, thought patterns, or phobias rise to the level of a clinical diagnoses, and when are they normative and regular? When do they need intervention and treatment, and when do we assume the person exhibiting them will grow out of them? When are they gidul banim, and when are they tzaar gidul banim?
The line between outlier behavior that should be cause for concern and more standard behavior, where there’s nothing to be particularly worried about, is often very fine and difficult to see. But here’s the thing that I believe you must try to communicate to your husband: If you observed your child frequently losing his balance or experiencing dizziness, would you dismiss it as a growing pain, something he will grow out of? Or would you — at minimum — seek the opinion of a physician, asking a qualified and trained person to make that judgment?
What is true for physical imbalance or spatial dizziness is equally true for mental imbalance and emotional dizziness. Though shalom bayis is a core value and you correctly should be committed to harmony with your husband, when it comes to your child’s physical, mental, and emotional health, there must be no shame, no stigma, and no hesitation in impressing upon him the importance of asking an expert and deferring to the guidance you receive.
The Torah tells us (Shemos 21:19) “verapo yerapei — and shall cause him to be healed,” from which the Gemara (Berachos 60a) learns, “mi’kan she’nitein reshus l’rofei l’rapos — from here we learn that permission is granted to a doctor to heal.” In other words, the practice of medicine, seeking out the treatment of a doctor, is consistent with the will of Hashem. Why would we think it isn’t? Rashi (Bava Kama 85b) explains, “I might have thought that if someone is ill, physically or mentally, that is what Hashem wants, and we are obligated to accept it. So the Torah tells us no, Hashem has given doctors license and responsibility to heal.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 336:1), goes even further and writes, “The Torah has given permission to the doctor to heal. It is a mitzvah to do so and part of pikuach nefesh. If a doctor refuses to do so, he is guilty of bloodshed.” Many poskim, including the Tzitz Eliezer (12:18:8) and Rav Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher 2:134), apply the halachic principles and rules of physical health to mental health.
So, in the case of your question — are these ordinary tantrums, incidents of adolescent impetuousness, or is there clinical anger and rage? — a competent doctor must make that determination. Even if it is awkward or outside your comfort zone, for your son’s well-being, you should get to the bottom of the behavior.
How should you convince your husband? You should communicate in a non-adversarial way, engaging and positioning your husband as your partner, on the same side and part of one team, equally devoted to your son’s wellbeing. You should implore him to help. Follow your maternal instinct on this issue; though your husband may be right that this is something your son will grow out of, it is fair and reasonable for you to want a professional to endorse that. After all, if he’s right, there is no harm in having an expert say there is nothing more to do. But if he is wrong, your son will pay a price by his indifference and passiveness. You should calmly communicate that you’re asking him to partner and respect you on this, not only for the sake of your son, but also for the sake of you shalom bayis, to preserve the harmony that is good for you, your son, and the whole family.
If or when he goes along, your husband must not let your son know he’s doing so begrudgingly or under protest. The ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious child, is described by the Torah as einenu sho’meiah b’kol aviv u’v’kol imo, he doesn’t listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother. Why doesn’t the Torah simply say he doesn’t listen to the voice of his father and mother? Why does it repeat the word “voice” for each? Commentators explain that part of what contributes to a rebellious child is inconsistent messaging from his parents. When a child hears different voices from his father and mother, when he perceives daylight between them, he is often lost, confused, and becomes rebellious.
Confronting potential challenges with our children can push us apart or make us grow closer together. The choice of having parenting problems or compounding them with marital strife is up to us. If we are committed to speak with one voice, to respect each other’s opinions but defer to outside guidance when we don’t agree, we can not only do what is best for our children but develop a better marriage in the process.