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  • Yisroel Wahl

As Long as Our Children Feel like Failures

I owe Yaakov* a debt of gratitude. He doesn't know it, but he changed my whole approach to mental health. Whether it's with children, teenagers, or even when working with adults—my entire approach was altered because of my interactions with him.


I had been hired to work with Yaakov after he was thrown out of school for severe behavioral difficulties. He had been disturbing the class and fighting with other students. The school had shown tremendous patience, but after one incident where he beat another child so severely that Hatzalah had to be called, the school had finally had enough and sent him home. His problems didn't end in school, though. He had significant difficulties at home as well.


Besides for all this, he was struggling academically. Unsurprisingly, by the time I started seeing him, he was down and out and despondent.


After working with him for about six weeks, we had made progress, but things weren't moving as fast as I would've liked or expected. Something was off, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I expected more significant strides and just couldn't figure out what was holding him back.


Until that day! I can still picture the exact scene as it played out. I remember exactly where he was sitting and his facial expressions. His words will forever be etched in my mind.

I had been telling him something, when in the midst of our conversation, it seemed as if something snapped within him. He became tremendously animated and said to me words that I'll never forget. "I went to two people, and they were the biggest professionals in your field. They're so big that you probably even ask them for advice! They told me that I'm smart in many areas, but my head doesn't work for Gemara." He was shouting now, and the next words came tumbling out. "You keep on telling me that I can be successful, but I know that I can't!"


I recently spoke with Yaakov's parents and heard that baruch Hashem he is doing very well. He attends a great yeshiva and is learning well.


It took a lot of work, though.


I owe Yaakov a debt of gratitude because he changed my whole approach. At the time of this story, I would generally focus on working with a child and his/her parents. Today, I have a three-pronged approach: I work with

the child on their struggles,the parents on how best to interact with their child,and the school and tutors to create academic success.


This approach has been a critical reason for my success. I have also trained tutors in a unique approach that is now being used with children and teens across America. All this is only because of Yaakov.


Yaakov taught me that as long as our youth feel like failures, there is no behavior system, therapy, or education system that will work. If our children are leaving school feeling like failures, if they are coming home and feeling like failures, if their life is all about failure—what can we really expect? When our children meet failure day in and day out, their will to keep on trying is destroyed. We must make our children feel successful if we are going to help them live successful lives.


When dealing with children acting out as well as with other behavioral and emotional difficulties, it's easy to be confused and deal with symptoms without realizing that what we see can be an outgrowth of a child feeling that he or she can't succeed. In truth, many difficulties arise that would never have occurred if our children would have felt more successful. Often, dealing with the specific issue isn't the best course of action because if we would instead work with the core component—the feeling of failure—these issues would be resolved.


I wonder at times whether I would accomplish more by training more people at the academic end and spending less time on the other components of mental health, because so many children, teenagers, and even adults wouldn't be struggling if they would simply feel successful.


What can parents do for the children that are struggling? What can we do for our children who come home from school feeling this ugly feeling of failure? Simply complimenting our children will often fail because our children see right through empty words and cheap phrases.


The first thing we must remember is that more than children listen to what we say, they watch what we do; but even more than children watch what we do, they know what we feel. Giving compliments that we ourselves don't believe doesn't work in the long term. We have to work on ourselves to see our children’s one moment of success within their failures. We must genuinely view their one correct answer as a success even with the nine incorrect answers. It's this outlook and belief in our children's potential that gives our children the spark to go on and succeed.


But even after we do believe in our children, it can be challenging to get our children to believe in themselves. Here's where a tool I call "Indirect Explanation" can be tremendously powerful. The concept behind this tip is that telling our children that they're great or wonderful falls on deaf ears, but indirectly painting pictures of success in their minds leaves strong impressions. What we want to do is to get our children to feel successful by explaining their accomplishments, but doing so indirectly. When a child comes home with a sixty on her test, telling her that she did well won't work, but when we look at one question and wonder out loud "How did you figure that out?" the child feels that she accomplished something and starts to believe in herself.


In future articles, I hope to b’ezras Hashem delve deeper into the idea of “Indirect Explanation” with examples as well as with practical advice on how we can help our children reach their fullest potential.



*Names and details have been significantly changed to protect client confidentiality.


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