Parenting: Crisis as Growth
Essays 2018 / Finalists
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
Parenting is not easy. It is no wonder why hundreds of books on the topic are published yearly. From psychology books about birth order, to practical advice on how to speak to your child, it is obvious that the task is no walk in the park (despite the endless walks in the park us parents have taken through the years). While children are a source of great joy, parenting is undeniably time consuming, physically straining and often emotionally draining. To some the experience is filled with anxiety and stress.
The process of transforming from baby to adult is equally arduous. Growing up is wrought with crisis and change. In fact, noted Jewish psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the phrase “identity crisis” to describe stages of human development. In his theory he examines eight stages of crisis that when successfully integrated lead to healthy adulthood . However, crisis is not only an external and psychological expression of growth. It is actually a phenomenon embedded in the very spiritual makeup of humanity. If we as parents internalize this, it can allow for deeper and more authentic coping mechanisms. When we understand that the tantrums and fights, the cracks and the breaks, are G-d’s blueprint for transforming an ambiguous baby into a defined person, we might be able to take a breath and say—this is all part of the plan.
The following essay will explore the complex yet necessary process every human being goes through in becoming a matured adult through a Chassidic perspective. By understanding our children on a spiritually theoretic basis, the parent will have the objective distance to give space and guidance when and if necessary.
Later we will also explore Chassidic methods based on the Baal Shem Tov to provide ourselves with tools to survive the chaotic and destabilizing process of being parents to growing children.
THE PROCESS OF GROWING UP:
Ironically we can understand the spiritual process of growing from child to adult through a man and woman who never went through childhood at all—Adam and Eve. As we know, Adam was made out of the earth straight into an adult and Eve was later created out of Adam’s rib to provide him with a partner .They never went through babyhood, toddlerhood, or adolescence nor did they have parents who had to cope with the shifting nature of human development.
Yet there is also a second version of the creation of mankind which embodies in it the secrets to every human relationship and process known today. In this version, Adam was actually a hermaphroditic figure that contained both a male and a female fused back to back . G-d then separated the two in a process called “Hanisira” translated loosely as “the sawing” so that Adam and Eve can become two autonomous individuals who can turn face to face and engage in a mature relationship .
While this process is often conjured to describe the development of a relationship between a man and woman, it is actually a prototype of nearly every relationship we have with anything—be it a mother and child, between friends, and can even describe the relationship forged in a creative process.
So what is this process?
Adam and Eve begin their joint life together literally conjoined back to back. On a spiritual and psychological level, this alludes to a complete and total unconscious immersion one with the other. There might be a primal and simple realization that there is something else besides me but it does not challenge me or force head on interaction since it is a symbiotic and primal connection.
A way to understand the back to back relationship is to imagine a pregnant woman and her fetus. Clearly there are two entities yet they are literally absorbed one into the other so that the ability to forge a mindful relationship composed of two differing forces is impossible.
Every relationship starts in this primitive state. The initial beginnings of any relationship are based on a solipsistic outlook that everything is merely an extension of myself.
Indeed the back to back fusion is the child’s first relationship with his parents and vice versa. When a baby is born it cannot differentiate between the boundaries of his body and the world. He is in way fused in an unconscious and primitive way that does not allow him to differentiate himself from the other .
This fusion continues into toddlerhood as well. The child is literally suckling information about himself and the world in a large portion according to how his parents view him and the world. On this initial level, the child is molded in their image. The child is an embodiment of their hopes, fears, and dreams.
As the child grows, parents begin to experience glimpses of the child’s unique personality. Often beginning with the notorious terrible twos where the child begins to learn the word “NO!” creating the first separation between his desires and his parents desires . Also well-known is the “threenager” era, when at the age of three a child almost mimics the rebellion of teenage years. This is particular interesting from a Jewish perspective because the age of three is a unique milestone in which the G-dly soul enters the body a bit more (more on this soon).
This is a natural healthy and necessary beginning to autonomy and self-knowledge and this is where a child forges his ability to rely on himself .
If the child is perpetually derided for his rebellion, he is also being stifled from the ability to accept himself as G-d intended—not as a reflection of his parents but as something that stands for himself with no connection to the nurturing figures in his life.
The story of Adam and Eve continues with G-d putting them into a deep slumber and then proceeding to saw the apart . When they wake up, they are still back to back but separated. The harmony of the unconscious fusion is disturbed. In this moment there is a great deal of self-awareness starting literally from discovering the boundaries of one’s body, feelings and thoughts. Yet along with this miraculous process, there is also pain and alienation when one realizes he is distant and separated from the other. This becomes more complex as the inevitability of conflict arises—a natural consequence of two separate people sharing space. There might be anger at having been fused in the first place or estrangement as the separated entities experience power struggles or differences of opinion.
This process peaks in adolescence. It is a time when often the young adult begins to feel their uniqueness and start to differentiate himself from his parents and find his voice. Like Adam and Eve’s sudden separation, the harmony of being a mere extension of parents ceases to exist and in fact, is a sore subject (“stop telling me what to do/ wear/ say ” etc.). In some cases, some adolescents will purposely go against the lifestyle norms they grew up with. This can be a frightening experience for parents because they feel they are losing their child. In reality, their child is finding himself and his autonomous choices [8a].
Through this G-d given rebellion, a young adult learns what he feels thinks and believes. It is in a way, a second birth where the child emerges from the fetus-like harmony and learns to create boundaries, connect to his inner voice and neshama (soul), and find his place in the world .
As Shneur Zalman from Liadi, writer of the Tanya explains, the human soul is made up of an Animal soul and a G-dly soul. While the Animal soul enters the body straight at birth, the G-dly soul’s entrance occurs in stages. First at birth, then a little more by the age of three (as mentioned previously). It completes its entrance into the body at age 12 for girls and 13 for boys. This is an extremely important fact in understanding the journey G-d put us on this earth for .
The Animal soul is a culmination of the individualistic attributes of a human—namely his personality, selfish desires and wants. It is also the dominant aspect in the human makeup. The Animal soul’s motive is fulfilling personal gains. Its experience is one of separation.
The G-dly soul, in contrast, is the aspect of the soul that desires fusion with G-d. It is about connecting to oneness, to spirituality, to the understanding that we are actually, literally, all parts of a whole. The G-dly soul is naturally submissive to the will of G-d and desires nothing but complete immersion back into its source.
The minute there are two souls pulling a person in different directions, the person on the one hand has a greater inner struggle between two opposing desires, but also has more free choice. When there is only one soul at large, the child has no real choice. He is governed by one system and is indeed “trapped” inside of it. This is the reason why a boy and girl are not considered responsible for mitzvahs or in fact, any of their actions, until they become of bar and bat mitzvah age—or until their G-dly soul is actively present giving them a choice between their Animal soul and G-dly soul.
This is perhaps one of the reasons that the age of three can be marked by a newfound stubbornness and demands. There is more awareness since more of the G-dly soul is present in the body which creates more awareness and therefore more struggle between two opposing forces within, and the opposing forces (in this case, the parents) from outside.
This is also perhaps why adolescence is such a fiery time for many young adults. A mini war begins within them as they become responsible for making the choices composing their identity. They are no longer functioning on a simplistic system running on automatic, but now have a complexity that can be difficult to cope with.
On a deeper level, teenage rebellion is also prompted by the Animal soul feeling “threatened” by the G-dly souls pull to fuse with G-d. As mentioned, the Animal soul’s motive is selfish fulfillment and separation. The animal soul is (wrongly) threatened by the idea of being obliterated into the oneness of G-d. This is translated in the teenager’s opposition not only to his parents, but often in the inner war waging in oneself.
After Adam and Eve are separated into two separate bodies, they are still pointing back to back as mentioned before. However there comes a time when the two separated bodies realize they have a choice to turn around and come face to face and reconnect. When this occurs, each can truly see the other and begin to form intimacy and understanding. This is also a process of maturation when one can accept the differences and integrate some of them into oneself. It is a unique moment when one is no longer enmeshed in the other, but can now form a connection while retaining one’s individual properties. It is also a time when one is not scared to return to his “home” because there is no longer an existential threat of being absorbed back into its source and essentially disappearing.
The way Shneur Zalman describes this reconciliation is that the ultimate purpose is not for the G-dly soul to “win” over the Animal soul. In that case, the Animal soul has good reason to feel threatened and rebel. Rather, the real purpose is to use the power and force of the Animal soul to serve G-d  . Ultimately, the inner purpose of teenage crisis is to solidify a clear identity that will later serve the world in a positive way. This can also describe the reconnection the child has with his parents. His autonomous individuality is willing to “fuse” back with his parents because he is no longer threatened of being obliterated or reabsorbed but feels that his unique personality can play a part in the relationship.
Most humans will reach a point when they turn around to their parents and say “Thank you.” It is a moment of recognizing the good intentions, forgiving the mishaps, and rebonding as two people who can see one another. This is also a time when the parent’s haze of concern and worry no longer overshadows the ability to engage in a respectful and mature relationship with their child .
It is important to recognize that while the major separation and reconnection occurs mainly in adolescence and adulthood, this process is never ending. There are always aspects that remain enmeshed, or aspects that are still separated and have yet to be reconciled. However the child is no longer struggling for his core identity and therefore when conflict arises, it is not all consuming but can relegated to a certain subject.
The process explained above occurs in its most drastic form in the child as he or she forms his identity but it also occurs in the parents. From babyhood in which the parents have complete control, and experience a very primal and natural connection, to coping with seeing their child separate from them and form his own life, to the point where the parent can then turn around and see their child as adults and respect them for their own choices.
However throughout this process parents have the benefit of life experience and the advantage of mature awareness. Therefore their process must have an element of proactive consciousness, which lacks in the child. In essence, they must also go through an inner process that parallels the child’s instinctual experience.
The Baal Shem tov talks about a threefold process called submission, separation, and sweetening which provides the parent with the necessary distance to weather the stormy times without getting swept into the hormonal hurricane .
What is the parental process?
The first stage is called submission. At this point the parent submits his will to a higher will and in essence surrenders control to G-d in deep faith that everything is truly under his watchful and thoughtful eye. This releases the instinct to immediately resist and fight and replaces it with the softness of surrendering to G-d and his “hashgacha pratit” which means G-d’s personal interaction with the details of every person’s life. In many ways the act of surrendering requires an element of faith and is less about an intellectual process.
Some surrendering thoughts are:
*I surrender that this is exactly the child G-d wanted me to have
*I surrender to the fact that G-d believes I am the perfect parent for this child and therefore entrusted this child in my hands
*I surrender that I can try to do my best but the results are in G-ds hands
*I surrender that I have been given all the tools to cope with this particular situation and child
*I surrender that G-d is with me in these very moments and guiding me even though things might look crazy right now
*I surrender to the belief that my child will make the right decisions when he is ready
*I surrender and believe that this is happening to help not only my child grow but to help me grow as well surrender that I don’t have all the answers
*I surrender that I am not perfect and that’s okay
*I surrender that my child is not perfect and that’s okay
*Prayer as an act of surrender
Part of the separation process is literally taking a step back and removing oneself from the difficulty thus being less entwined emotionally and gaining objectivity.
At this stage, the parent also begins separating the good from the bad or the child from the actions. This is also the time to sift through our own actions in regard to our children and make order so that the conflict doesn’t seem so large and unmanageable. It is important that this process is based on the previous surrendering so that it doesn’t become stressful or suffocating.
Some separating thoughts are:
*My child’s newfound distance is not because of me but is a G-dly process of becoming an adult 
*I know my child. My child is thoughtful caring and responsible. Right now his actions are careless obtuse and irresponsible. I will not allow this temporary behavior to be confused with his innate character. I will try to have a discussion with my child and not a fight with the behavior.
*I know that I must create boundaries in behavior that are dangerous or unacceptable in my house. Yet I also must allow a degree of freedom in allowing my child to experiment and experience consequences. What behaviors must I put a stop to and what behaviors although not ideal, can I let go of control and allow my child to learn from his mistakes.
* I will try to create safe moments of connection without forcing it on my child or becoming overbearing. Where can I ask my child about his life/friends/studies? How can I give over that I trust his ability to make the right decision but supporting him when possible when he makes the wrong one.
*Where does my responsibility end? How much responsibility can I take and where must I let go? How can I give my child the feeling that he can talk to me yet also be a responsible parent with clear rules and opinions.
When the parent reaches the “sweetening” process he begins to see the good in the “bad.” He connects to the light within the darkness or the inner positive process versus the outer negative expression.
Some sweetening actions are:
*Recognizing and encouraging the positive aspects of the child’s rebellion. Perhaps the child has discovered a talent or passion, or a unique intellectual spirit, or emotional depth that was not there before. The parent must also acknowledge and boost these newfound aspects and in fact, enjoy them.
*Encouraging the good things the child does—we must remember that a young adult now has choice unlike the young child. Therefore when he engages in positive behavior, it is out of choice not natural tendencies. These should be respected and acknowledged as well.
*The parent might discover that his child has creative solutions and ideas of his own. By giving the adolescent some authority to integrate his own ideas in the house, everyone can benefit.
*Most important—the parent must experience joy and pleasure with his child. It can be as simple as taking a ride in the car and just being together. It is those moments when the simple love is revealed and is not dependent on behavior or personality attributes we deem “good.”
These three stages generally parallel the three stages of growth mainly babyhood (submission) adolescence (separation) and adulthood (sweetening).
Of course, this process is cyclical and occurs several times within each stage of growth. More so every time crisis arises, it is simply another aspect that desires to be separated defined and owned in order to be pulled from unconsciousness to awareness or from potential to actuality.
When we understand that this process is not only psychological but the very foundation of growth that G-d embedded within the human experience, it allows us a larger perspective in which to experience the ups and the downs. When we integrate this knowledge by inviting G-d into the struggles through surrendering, differentiating and sweetening, we recognize that we are only messengers in the process to hopefully unleash a fully realized neshama into the world.
Footnotes and sources:
1. www.simplypsychology.org Erik Erikson by Saul McLeod
בראשית פסוק יט, כב, כג .2
בראשית, פסוק כז .3
4. בראשית רבא פרק 8
5. From the parent’s perspective this fusion is not so literal but still exists. A mother will unconsciously deflect her own wishes, desires and fears on the child and in a way, the child will be an extension of her own imagination and psyche.
6. Erik Erikson describes this stage as Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt where a child will discover his independence and autonomy but if criticized or controlled might feel inadequate in their ability to survive and doubt their abilities.
7. שולחן ערוך אדמור הזקן מהדורה בתרא סימן ד סעיף ב
בראשית פסוק כא . 8
8a. Erik Erikson titles this stage “Identity vs. Role Confusion” in which a child searches for a sense of self and personal identity by an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs, and goals. Furthermore Erikson says that an adolescent might experiment with different lifestyles. Pressuring someone into an identity can result in rebellion and unhappiness.
9. This does not mean that every teenage rebellion is a wild and dangerous time. Sometimes the “cut” happens in a very quiet way and is enough for the child to feel he gained a sense of self.
שולחן ערוך אדמור הזקן מהדורה בתרא סימן ד סעיף ב.10
תניא פרק ט . 11
באתי לגני מוצ”שק פרשת בא יו”ד שבט התשל . 12
13. In certain instances only one figure turns his head to face the other. This is at least one step into reconnecting and usually, the figure who is still facing backward will feel the other’s gaze and instinctually turn around as well (Ahava, by Yitzchak Ginsburg).
by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburg pages 42, 54, 67, 68, 77
14. “Transforming Darkness into Light”
15. This is of course, given that the distance is within reason. It is always important to make sure the child is safe and not experiencing something traumatic in his or her life.