When a child is rigid…

(Four minute read)

Hi. I love the weekly posts. It could be you already covered this topic, but if you didn’t, I’d love some ideas on helping a kid who sees things as black & white.

For example, his Rebbi (whom he loves & respects tremendously) said that it’s assur (forbidden) to go places where people aren’t dressed tznius’dik (modestly) and so he gets upset if I go to Walmart.

How can I get him to soften up a little? It’s not like he’s inflexible in general, just in a few areas.



Thank you for this important question. In a way, it’s a bit tricky since we want our kids to respect their teachers and rebbeim, and to take what they learn seriously. On the other hand, we don’t want our kids to develop religious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which happens to be quite common among frum religious Jews.

How do we teach children the balance? Generally, I’m inclined to use an RGBT social behavior story in a situation like this. Or even a series of social behavior stories to help the child understand the intent and perspective of the teacher or rebbe.

Interestingly, I recently worked with a teenager who had OCD regarding certain halachos (Jewish law), such as making brachos properly, not committing any aveiros on Shabbos, etc. It was grueling work for himself and his family to shed the OCD behaviors. When the parents finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, a younger sibling started showing signs of OCD as well, particularly after his rebbe told the class that some things were “assur” and other things were “absolutely required” despite that those rules were not halachic ‘absolutes’ at all!

I encouraged the mom to call the rebbe and explain to him the family challenge, and that his use of strong words such as “assur” or “absolutely required” were triggering OCD symptoms unnecessarily. The rebbe was super understanding and very apologetic. He immediately changed his choice of words in class so that there was flexibility built into his teaching. For example, instead of saying that something was “absolutely forbidden” when it halachically wasn’t, he said that “ideally one should…. but in certain cases when it’s difficult, it’s ok if…” This helped the student strive for the ideal, but he was also able to be flexible and okay when the ideal wasn’t possible.

I remember years ago seeing one of the Chasidic girls schools in Brooklyn teaching their students halacha in a brilliant way. Each halacha sheet had three columns or three levels:

1. Halacha according to the Torah
2.Halacha according to the Rabbis
3. Minhag Hamakom – rules and conduct of the local community

This enabled students to understand what was absolutely required by the Torah, what were some of the stringencies placed by the rabbis and accepted as the rule, and how the local community conducted itself with respect to that particular halacha.

Halacha was no longer black and white, either all or nothing. Instead, if a student did not wish to follow the Minhag Hamakom, she did not have to completely throw away the entire halacha. Instead, she could ensure that she was at least following the first or second level.

Here’s a link to a great article on OCD and religion.

Stay cool in the summer heat!

P.S. Please ask your local Orthodox Rabbi who is knowledgeable in religious OCD and mental health issues if you are concerned about teaching the proper religious balance, especially for a child who has tendencies toward OCD.

Disclaimer: This blog is not a substitute for Rabbinical guidance.

Dr. Devora

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