My 15-year-old son has always been a bit shy and nervous. Not the bravest kid, he doesn't really take chances or challenge things. BH, he is a good kid and is doing well in mesivta. His 2 older brothers have struggled a lot with their yiddishkeit. Our son now would like to go to therapy to help him be calmer and more confident. A lot of his worries have a frumkeit aspect to it. He seems to look up to his older brothers and seems to be becoming more interested in their histories. To the extent that we are concerned that he is looking for a therapist to help him get rid of his nerves and become more confident so he can be less frum. I understand that it isn't being afraid and worried that should be keeping him in line but I am concerned about what would happen if the "lid came off" so to speak. How do frum therapists such as yourselves deal with something like this and what recommendations can you give me?
You appear to have two possibly conflicting concerns related to your son’s anxiety and lack of self-confidence. You want him to be more confident, but you want to be sure that any newfound confidence does not lead him astray. You seem to want to help him increase his sense of confidence, but also want to help him maintain his level of religiosity.
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, as our children grow older, we increasingly lose our ability to control their lives. This loss of our ability to control our children coincides with our ultimate parenting goal—for them to become autonomous and self-reliant. This means that—hard as it may sometimes be—there are points at which we need to let go of certain levels of control.
The control to which I refer is not only practical and concrete. A significant aspect of control (in general, and in particular with regard to our children) relates to how we feel. When we obsess about our children’s choices, we are in some way attempting to regain the sense of control that we have lost. Often, as our physical ability to control something wanes, we compensate for this by trying to gain mental or emotional control.
Of course this is a normal response. Logically, however, it doesn’t make much sense. Theoretically, if we recognize the need to let go physically, we should do the same on an intellectual and emotional level as well. This, naturally, is easier said than done. As in most areas, acknowledgement of our emotional needs and the recognition that they are not helping us (despite our unconscious minds’ best efforts to make it seem so) are prerequisites to fully letting go when appropriate.
You alluded to the idea that being frum is not about blindly following rules, but rather about “being” frum. There is no exclusive relationship between confidence and being frum. Any such relationship is not linear or easy to define. There are many conscious and unconscious aspects to being frum, just as there are many such aspects to self-confidence. Additionally, there are many underlying advantages to confidence. As an example, perhaps your son’s lack of confidence is leading him to try and create his individual sense of self outside of what he feels compelled to “be.” If so, building an appropriate sense of self can, in the long run (and perhaps in the short run), help him to maintain his religiosity.
If your son truly does not want to be frum, for how long—and to what degree—can you stop him from pursuing this? If, however, his lack of confidence has him confused, increasing his level of self-esteem can help him to settle his confused thoughts and feelings. Regardless, positive self-esteem—preferably intrinsically-based—can help him immeasurably in many areas of his life. Although we cannot hope to continually control our children, we can support them emotionally so that they are more likely to choose the proper path.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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