New Israeli therapy takes a leaf out of Gandhi’s book

Tel Aviv University professor of psychology Haim Omer (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tel Aviv University professor of psychology Haim Omer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A THERAPEUTIC intervention model initially developed in Israel to help parents of children with destructive and risky behavior is drawing increasing international interest as an effective approach to coping with a wide array of conflict situations in domestic, medical and educational settings.
Non-Violent Resistance (NVR) Psychology – inspired by the political practice of using non-violent means such as protest, civil disobedience and tax strikes to achieve political goals – was conceived by Tel Aviv University professor of psychology Haim Omer some 20 years ago as part of a parent-training approach for helpless parents. Since then the approach has evolved into a comprehensive model that helps various caregivers – parents, foster carers, teachers, psychiatric staff – to respond constructively and effectively to a wide range of challenges without escalation or violence and restore a sense of balance in relationships. At a recent conference in Tel Aviv, researchers and practitioners from over 10 countries shared their experience in using the method with biological and foster parents, hospital and residential care staff, managers, and police.
“Our basic belief in NVR is that most of the time parents and teachers have good intentions, and NVR is about hope, change, and helping them non-violently to become again good enough parents and teachers,” said Dr. Irit Schorr Sapir, the director and co-founder, along with Omer, of the NVR and New Authority School of Israel.
Initially designed for parents of violent children, the approach offered constructive responses between the two poles of hitting back or capitulating. Rather than meeting force with a greater force, the concept is to change the environment in which the use of violence thrives. By learning how to remain calm and asserting their presence through neither retaliating nor retreating, parents can change the rules of the game. Says Omer, “There is a deep difference for the parents and for the child between the messages: ‘If you do so and so, I will punish you!’ and ‘I will do all I can to stop this behavior, except for hitting you or attacking you!’”
Dan Dolberger, the head of the Center for Non-Violent Resistance Psychology, says clients typically ask for tools to change other people, those whose behavior is causing them pain. “The distinct ‘signature’ of NVR as a theory of change is in the belief that to induce change in others one cannot but begin with self-change,” wrote Dolberger. “As caregivers, we cannot directly control the people we provide for... But, we are their ecology. When we change, their choices cannot remain the same.”
Prof. Eli Lebowitz, a researcher at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center and a founding member of the Association for NVR Psychology, explained that it is hard-wired into our biological nature as mammals to respond to our offspring’s distress by making accommodations to protect and soothe them. Yet, research has found that excessive parental accommodation was a factor that worsened an array of children’s problems, and that teaching parents to change their response had an ameliorating effect.
“Very simple and clear instructions that reduce parental accommodation to infants’ crying before and during sleep lead to significant and enduring improvements in a child’s sleep,” Omer told the conference. “An NVR-inspired treatment for the parents of anxious children leads to significant symptom reduction. And an NVR approach to Adult-Entitled Dependency is, to date, the most promising approach for this condition.”
A keystone of the method is building a support network to help transform what the parents or caregivers may experience as a helpless standoff with an intransigent child into a communal effort to help the family. Clients are instructed to recruit family members, teachers or friends to be part of the therapeutic process, and they in turn are given specific roles. Although clients initially resist doing this, it is instrumental in changing the dynamic of the conflict, says Omer.
“The founding event of the therapeutic process is the ‘supporters meeting,’” he said. “The supporters group might range from three to 20 people. Supporters meetings are the most beautiful moment in the treatment. Afterwards the situation is never the same again: We have gotten rid of the secret, we have gotten rid of isolation, we have new options, we can deal with all kinds of situations.”
Omer says dropout rates for other parent guidance programs range from 30-50 percent, whereas for NVR it is “about 5 percent.” He believes one reason is that traditional psychological theories are unfriendly to parents, blaming them for children’s problems. In contrast, his method establishes an alliance with parents by offering them credit for their efforts and empathy for their suffering, as well as action tools to transform the troubling interpersonal dynamic.
The main advantage of NVR psychology is the possibility of providing a brief and efficient therapeutic model even in cases where the child refuses to cooperate, said Ohad Nahum, a therapist at the Center for NVR Psychology. “Over the last two decades NVR psychology has become highly popular among both parents and therapists around the world and its applications have been extended to various situations in which the identified patient refused any form of therapy.”
Tel Aviv-trained practitioners brought NVR to the beseiged Gaza Strip, where it has been used since 2015 to combat the impact of trauma, reduce violence in family and school settings, improve academic achievements, and minimize parent-child as well as teacher-child conflicts. Child psychiatrist Michaela Fried of Austria told the Tel Aviv conference that since the intervention model had been developed for free and pluralistic societies, her team, headed by the recently deceased clinical psychologist Ahmad Abu Tawahina, had wondered whether it could be applied in Gaza – “an environment in which violence is practically omnipresent… in a culture where the use of physical force not only in education but also in other family relations, such as between men and women, is often the rule… in a society in which physical punishment in school is not only condoned, but sometimes blatantly practiced, by teachers and parents alike… in a society in which even in times of relative calm, which is to say, no bombardment, violence escalations ignite on issues such as unemployment, hunger and poverty.”
She reported that despite the towering obstacles, there had been great openness in Gaza to learn and incorporate the approach. The program is currently working in 10 schools with a team of about 20 teachers. “Our goal is to bring hope, to change something in the microsystem,” she said. “They told me that thanks to this project now they are starting to talk about sexual abuse, about violence, things that they never ever talked about before. It helps reduce violence and conflict at school and in families.”
The author is a Jerusalem-based writer and translator.