by Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg, Dean, Torah Academy, Minnesota
I was recently in a school where I was presented with one of the challenges that every principal dreads. Two children from one family came to school with significant red marks on their cheeks. The teachers, after speaking to the children and trying to learn the cause of the red cheeks, were concerned with the possibility of abuse. They presented their concerns to the principal and I was asked to help determine what was happening.
While there are some legal considerations as to what a school must report to the authorities, those reports should not take place until a complete assessment has been completed. There are countless stories in which reports were made for no good reason and the families suffered miserably. These situations are very tricky as there is no room for error. If the child was abused, action must be taken immediately, but if the child was not abused, action should not be taken.
I first called the father and asked him if he had any idea as to the cause of the redness on his children’s cheeks. He responded with total puzzlement. The mother did have a response, however, and said that it was the result of the children being kissed by her that morning before they left for school. To be frank, you would have also had a difficult time accepting that version.
To make a long story short, the red marks were the result of a kiss from the mother with too much of a lipstick stain. Some warm water and soap took care of it perfectly and we were all able to breathe a sigh of relief.
I begin with this somewhat humorous story as an introduction to the topic of warning signals. Growing up in today’s world is often frightening for children. In many cases, the burden of childhood is too much for a child to carry without active assistance from parents or other adults in their lives. Some children have the tools to let adults know that they need help and/or that there is trouble. However, many of the problems children experience go unreported as they suffer in silence. We, the adults in their lives, cannot say that we cannot help because they are not telling us what the problem is. It is our responsibility to seek out the problems and help them even (or especially) when they can’t express it on their own.
As adults, our real challenge is to learn about the children’s problems and observe and detect the warning signs that children express. Even a child who is not comfortable expressing a problem, will exhibit many warning signs. It is our responsibility to detect these signals and respond to them effectively.
A parent once shared with me that his child was very happy and had no real problems. The following is the conversation that I had with the parent.
Me: Is your child happy?
Parent: Yankella is a very happy child and has no real issues.
Me: How do you know that?
Parent: Yankella told me that he was happy and that there was nothing bothering him.
Me: What made him share that with you?
Parent: I asked him if he was happy and he said yes and I then asked him if there was anything that was bothering him and he said no.
Me: When did you have that conversation with Yankella?
Parent: I don’t remember exacty,y but it was about two years ago.
Your reaction to the above exchange should be both laughter and sadness. Asking a child if anything is bothering him and hearing no is like asking a child after a day in school what he learned and he says nothing. It is sad that a parent would reach a conclusion as a result of a simple question and answer without any further inquiry for two years.
I wish there would be a tool that could measure happiness in children and detect problems. That would make our job so easy. Still and all, there are important warning signals to look for:
• A change in grades or study habits can be a sign of trouble. Most adults assume that there is a connection between the signal and the cause, meaning that if the child is suddenly getting poor grades or loses interest in school, it must be a learning problem or something that is happening at school. That is a false and dangerous assumption. A conflict with a sibling or some phobia can translate into a change in grades or study habits, even though they may have no connection.
• One of the easiest signals that tell us of trouble is distraction. Your child may become easily distracted while doing homework or can even appear to be in another world at dinnertime. These distractions are usually signals of problems when they occur suddenly and abruptly.
• The child who begins seeking only perfection and the best grade in the class is showing signs of a newly-formed stress. This is one example of a sudden change, but, in reality, any sudden change should be a sign of concern.
• The child who was always enthusiastic about schoolwork and suddenly exhibits an attitude of I don’t care is a child who is crying out for help. The child who has suddenly become restless and jumps from one activity to another is another example of a child reaching out for assistance.
• A large number or the total lack of friends can be very telling about what your child is experiencing. I am referring to a sudden change as it relates to friends. This change can be the type of friend your child is suddenly spending time with or the sudden increase or decrease in the number of friends. Some children tend to be friends with children who are either older or younger than they are. However, if that has become a sudden behavior change, regard it as a warning sign. Obviously, if a child is suddenly spending a lot of time with an adult, it requires some investigation.
• Sudden mood changes and dress style changes are also signs to investigate. Many of these changes are normal and a part of growing up. It requires great siyata diShmaya to detect what is part of growing up and what is out of the ordinary. The adolescent child who suddenly acts in a rebellious manner is not necessarily a warning sign. It can just be part of that child’s development and growth. In this case, if the parent makes it into a big deal, it will develop that way.
• Some of the more obvious signs of trouble are sudden weight gain or loss, problems with sleep (too much or too little), sudden major changes in personality, fascination with death and signs of any substance use.
Believe it or not, some (few) children go through childhood with few problems. They achieve high test grades, their teachers love them and they love their teachers, they have many friends, etc. I am sure that you have met a few of these children over the years, but only a few. For the overwhelming majority of children, there will be many potholes. Some of the challenges will be resolved on their own, while others will require much help and support from parents.
Before we can address solving our children’s problems, we must be able to detect them. Finally, our tefillos for success with our children should include asking Hashem to make apparent to us our children’s calls and that we should be receptive to the signals.