A family affair

Supporting children’s mental health involves supporting the well-being of parents, too

In a recent article for eJP, we shared the strategies we employ to address the pressing mental health needs of students in our religious school program. It is also worthwhile to explore how we can support the well-being of parents, guardians and caregivers – not the least because the mental and emotional health of kids and their adults are closely linked

Illustration by melitas/Getty Images.

According to a 2023 Pew Research Center report, parents are struggling more and differently than before. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, from which we have yet to fully emerge, 62% of parents say that parenting is “harder” than they expected. The report showed that female caregivers are more likely than male caregivers to indicate that parenting is “a lot harder” than they had anticipated, perhaps due to an uneven sharing of responsibilities or expectations set forth by either their individual family unit or by society. Many adults lack the social support necessary to help themselves and their children thrive. Parents with children born during the pandemic, for instance, were unable to create the same communities that otherwise could have formed by interacting on playgrounds, in music or dance classes, etc. 

The issue extends beyond parents of young children, however. According to the World Economic Forum, in 1990 1 in 3 American adults reported having 10 or more friends; that number is now falling towards 1 in 10. Adults have fewer friends and may also spend less time with them. For parents who are finding their roles harder or a lot harder than expected, the lack of peer support or opportunities to learn by observing and exchanging strategies with their friends can be painful. It can mean struggling at one of their central purposes in life – and doing so alone.

Within this context, one can only imagine how acutely Jewish families are struggling after Hamas’ recent attacks on Israeli civilians and the many heartless responses to Jewish suffering. The upsurge in global antisemitic incidents since Israel’s military response to the attacks have added stress and fear to the day-to-day lives of countless Jewish families – at a time when parents, guardians and caregivers of Jewish children were already struggling. Too many are grieving and suffering alone.

While Jewish communities, and religious communities more broadly, do not have the ability to resolve the “epidemic of loneliness,” parenting challenges or mental health issues within families, we can reduce their painful confluence, focusing first on parental isolation and the need for peer support in order to take steps towards well-being. Likewise, we can provide new opportunities for positive caregiver-child interactions and alleviate the burden of providing a constant stream of activities for children.

Our community is in the process of experimenting with new approaches to improving caregiver well-being. While we do not pretend to have “the” answer to this ever-growing problem, we do present these practices in hopes of eliciting more ideas and conversation from our colleagues. In doing so, we hope that Jewish communities can become an even more valuable resource in navigating the challenges of parenting.

  • Holistic approaches to families under stress. Too often, our pastoral intervention focuses on the person who comes in to speak with us directly. Increasingly, we seek to establish pastoral relationships with entire families, or at least multiple family members. As this relates to parental stress, we have encountered moments in which children are symptoms of pain within the wider family systems. Caring for children means caring for adults — and vice versa — when it comes to helping them find therapeutic support. Sometimes, the greatest gift we have given to parents is the ability to name when things are not OK and walk with them (sometimes literally) to get professional help.

  • Proactive pastoral outreach. Too often, clergy meet with parents and families only when there is a crisis or lifecycle event. Insofar as they play an important role in identifying sources of pain and helping people to find community or therapeutic support, they need to take more preemptive action. For our clergy, this means reaching out to community members (notably religious school parents and guardians) whom we have not seen in several weeks or have not heard from. We should also look beyond clergy by engaging our entire staff and lay leadership teams in identifying pastoral needs within the community. Jewish professionals and lay people can provide important information to us about pastoral needs that might otherwise be overlooked. For our specific East End Temple community, this has included the growth of our Chesed (loving-kindness) Committee, which is entirely lay-led and provides supplemental support in situations of longer-term family and personal stress. Other strategies include informal monthly parent/guardian meetups with our clergy for a nosh and a drink as they wait for religious school dismissal. It provides an opportunity to better integrate into the community by socializing with other parents and caregivers. We also hope that this will establish stronger relationships between clergy and parents, who might then feel more comfortable speaking openly to us about their emotional and psychological challenges. 

  • Revamping our programs to alleviate parental stress. Parents need time with other parents (and away from their kids) and more supportive environments in which they and their kids can enjoy time together. Practically speaking, this means expanding child care during High Holy Day services, back-to-school nights and other adult-friendly experiences. It likewise means more intergenerational offerings: a new intergenerational choir and monthly Shabbat B’Yachad service (with a more accessible, camp-like vibe and “pre-neg” refreshments for hungry kids with earlier bedtimes); providing fidgets, books and other items children need as a staple in our sanctuary; and the continuation of our Better Together program, which brings teens and seniors together for ongoing dialogues, projects and friendship-building opportunities. 

  • Expanding definitions of belonging. Much as the needs of our community members are extensive, now is the time to show the importance of Jewish community well beyond our walls and official notions of membership. No, we cannot officiate at every funeral or provide every kind of pastoral support. Yes, we should by virtue of mission focus upon those who are members of our community. But the present crisis for guardians and children means that the wider world needs us, too. This means prioritizing the good we realistically can do pastorally for those who are not members, but periodically attend services or offerings. It means accepting meetings with friends and family of members, who have no intention of ever joining. It means more programs in the public square, like an annual menorah lighting and family holiday programs open to Jewishly interested or connected families in the community at least four or five times per year. It means understanding our mission to exist for the broader geographic areas in which our communities reside, as well as the burgeoning online sense of community that many synagogues can increasingly provide.

These are but some of the new approaches that we are trying out in response to significant needs that we see. Jewish community has an important role to play in bringing parents and caregivers out of isolation and children to a place of greater support. While the “enormity of the world’s grief” can at times feel overwhelming, there is much that we can do to make it more bearable for parents and children alike, especially if we collaborate in sharing new ideas and best practices. 

Educator Mindy Sherry, Cantor Olivia Brodsky and Rabbi Joshua Stanton serve the East End Temple in Manhattan. Rabbi Stanton is also director of leadership at CLAL.