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Issue 177 - A Clinical Analysis of “Building A Life on Quicksand”
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Mishpacha Magazine

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The previous column focused on a searing letter that I received from a 19-year-old bachur vividly describing his stressful home life and the challenges that it posed to his emotional development.

In order for our readers to gain perspective on this letter through the eyes of a mental health professional, I asked Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, an outstanding clinical psychologist, to share with our readers his analysis of the bachur’s letter – and its ramifications for all parents. Here are his comments:

The bochur’s letter describing his struggle growing up in a home with no sholom bayis touched me deeply. While I have, obviously, always known that the lack of parental sholom bayis deeply wounds their children, reading the heart-felt, eloquent words from the victim himself really brought the message home.

Common sense would suggest that children who are exposed to parental conflict over a prolonged period of time would get used to it. But many studies show that this is not the case. The reason for this is because children’s exposure to parental conflict increases their feelings of emotional insecurity, thus decreasing their capacity for regulating emotions and behavior, leaving them more prone to feelings of fear, distress and anger.

In fact, there is overwhelming research and clinical evidence on the association between chronic marital conflict and children’s adjustment difficulties. There are numerous factors, such as the child’s temperament and the specific circumstances of each situation, which will shape each child’s response to parental conflict. For example, the degree of perceived threat (the extent to which children believe that the conflict will escalate, result in harm to oneself or family members, or threaten the family’s existence), and self-blame (the degree to which children hold themselves personally responsible for parents’ quarrels) are all important factors in shaping children’s internal and external reactions to parental conflict. Children who are pulled into their parent’s conflict are at risk for becoming targets of parental hostility, which might heighten perception of threat.

Parents often exacerbate the negative impact of their conflicts on their children by actually telling them that they are responsible for the parental conflict and by undermining their children’s confidence in their own coping skills by constantly criticizing them.

A serious obstacle to helping children deal with parents who lack sholom bayis is the pervasive denial common by both parents and their children regarding the seriousness of the marital conflict. Even when the therapist uncovers a picture of serious spousal conflict, including verbal and physical aggression (it is important to note that parents who are abusive to their spouse are also likely to be abusive to their children), the parents will confirm the details but will vigorously dispute the characterization suggested by the therapist. “No one has a perfect marriage!” they will protest. The denial becomes particularly strident if someone suggests that the child’s difficulty may have something to do with the conflicted and hostile environment he grew up in.

Ironically, the same parents who very readily blame their children’s difficulties on the influence of “bad friends” or a mediocre teacher will bristle at the suggestion that their children’s development is strongly influenced by the environment they grew up in!! Many in our community are very eager to attribute teenagers’ deviant behaviors to the influence of the Internet – but react with accusations of “parent bashing” if the suggestion is made that parental conflict may be the cause.

Let us return to the bochur’s letter, where the theme of shame runs throughout his comments. There is research and clinical evidence that when parents are unable or unwilling to be attuned to their children’s emotional and developmental needs, they create fertile grounds for the development of pervasive shameful feelings in their children. This is especially true if children are a focus of parental conflict and certainly when they are the targets of chronic criticism. The child develops the unconscious feeling that his unmet developmental yearnings are manifestations of a loathsome defect or an inherent inner badness.The bochur’s reactions of emotional withdrawal andtrying to stop his parents’ fighting are both typical reactions. He also well articulates the horrible dilemma of children whose parents induce terrible fear in them but they can’t turn to the very people Hashem designated to give them solace, comfort and reassurance.

The bochur’s reaction to the shame, i.e., trying to become perfect and the development of a “false self,” are phenomenon I have often observed in my clinical practice. His fear of marriage is also, sad to say, a common and very understandable reaction to his experiences growing up in a home lacking sholom bayis.

I am glad to read that he has at least found people who are providing him with the support that his parents never seemed to give him. One can only hope that all parents who read his letter take his heartfelt plea seriously so as to avoid these preventable tragedies.

Dr. Sorotzkin can be reached at (718) 377-6408 or via email at


-Cummings, E. M. & Davies, P. T. Effects of marital conflict on children: Recent advances and emerging themes in process-oriented research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2002, Vol. 43 (1), pp. 31-63.

-Davies, P. T. & Cummings, E. M. Marital conflict and child adjustment: An emotional security hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 1994, Vol. 116 (3), pp. 387-411.

-Gerard, J. M., Buehler, C., Franck, K., & Anderson, O. In the eyes of the beholder: Cognitive appraisals as mediators of the association between interparental conflict youth maladjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 2005, Vol. 19 (3), pp. 376-384.

-Grych, J. H. & Fincham, F. D. Children’s appraisals of marital conflict: Initial investigations of the cognitive-contextual framework. Child Development, 1993, Vol. 64 (1), pp. 215-230.

-Morrison, A. P. & Stolorow, R. D. Shame, narcissism, and intersubjectivity. In M. R. Lansky & A. P. Morrison (Eds.), The widening scope of shame (pp. 63-87). 1997, Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

-Sorotzkin, B. Understanding and treating perfectionism in religious adolescents. Psychotherapy, 1998,Vol. 35, pp. 87-85. [An edited version is available at]

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Related Articles:
Issue 173 - Building A Life on Quicksand

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