‘Awareness evolves through pain...’

‘... In every loss, there is spiritual gain’

Miriam Adahan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Miriam Adahan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Like a Jewish Mary Poppins with a degree in psychology, Miriam Adahan carries special things in her bag in case she comes across a child – whether one of her grandchildren or a stranger – experiencing emotional distress.
Her main psychological first-aid tool is a ruler that measures emotions rather than centimeters, using faces ranging from happy to distraught.
“I ask them to rank their feelings by pointing to a face on the ruler. Kids love that someone is listening and giving them permission to feel, validating their feelings and then helping them move on,” says the longtime clinical psychotherapist and author.
Empowering both adults and children to move on after inevitable hurts and slights is central to her approach.
“You’re going to have thousands of disappointments and discomforts and losses and frustrations. That’s what life is,” says Adahan. “I teach people skills to face these challenges and see them as opportunities to practice their mental-health skills, instead of being overtaken by anger, self-pity, anxiety or depression.”
She recently launched the Miriam Adahan mental-health app (Android: play.google.com/store
/apps/details?id=com.dmtm.rabbai.miriam&hl=en and iOS: https://apps.apple.com/ca/app/miriam-adahan/id1432662622) featuring a daily video and 39 cards – one set for kids and one for adults – to ingrain emotional maturity with a decidedly Jewish twist. For example, the card on gratitude encourages kids to say, “Thank you, Hashem!” and one adult card references Psalm 4 and counsels: “Awareness evolves through pain. In every loss, there is spiritual gain.”
Later this year, Adahan’s 19th and 20th books will be released by Menucha Publishers: a children’s book called Solution Champs for Kids and, for parents, What Really Works with Kids.
What Really Works with Kids is a compilation of tactics to raise resilient children, based on her ACT (active cortical training) method to reduce the development of mental-health disturbances and addictions.
ADAHAN SAYS parents can use ACT to foster self-control, compassion and resilience from the age of three.
“We are all born with a fully functioning primitive brain, which demands instant physical gratification. However, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), which is responsible for logic and self-control, is completely undeveloped,” she explains. “We help children develop their PFC when we show them how we face difficulties, such as marital strife, financial pressure, sleepless nights, illness and insults with faith, love and courage.”
ACT is presented to children using the terms “baby brain” and “adult brain” to prime them for moving up to a more mature level. Although a three-year-old clearly doesn’t have an adult brain, Adahan says parents can and should help children “get excited” about developing it.
“If we don’t, then when they get older and become frustrated and upset, they will lash out at others or turn against themselves using substances to drown out the pain, because they have not learned to use the pain to build inner faith and fortitude. I believe that all the painful events and difficult people we meet are here to force us to reveal our inner holy light, like diamonds that are created by being crushed.”
Adahan moved to Israel from Berkeley, California, in 1981 and started a practice in her Jerusalem home while raising four children.
Her first book, EMETT: A Step-by-Step Guide to Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah (Feldheim, 1987) established Adahan as a trusted voice in the Orthodox community worldwide. But her clients are from all segments of society.
She has discovered that family dysfunction knows no boundaries.
“So many parents are acting like little kids,” she says with a sigh. “So many children are growing up with rejection, indifference, neglect or abuse. I wrote five books just on domestic violence and how to live with angry, irritable, manipulative, overcontroling people. How to recover from trauma. How to stay sane in a world that is often insane. How to understand yourself and the people around you.”
She mentions a 13-year-old girl who recently called her to ask for help with her parents’ constant yelling. “I give kids skills to deal with parents who are immature, angry and unable to deal with their own pain. At least these kids know there is someone they can talk to,” says Adahan.
“One of my major missions is to educate people to avoid psychiatric medications in those cases where the real issue is that they are suffering from PTSD, physical or emotional abuse, inadequate sleep, poor nutrition and lack of self-expression. Most depression and anxiety can be treated by addressing these issues.”
OF COURSE, everyone handles life’s challenges differently. Adahan wrote two books on personality types, her own adaptation of scales such as the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Initially, her goal was to make personality tests more accessible to religious Jews by tailoring the material to fit a religious lifestyle and avoid examples that might be offensive to their values.
“It’s a system for people to understand themselves. It’s important for self-acceptance,” she says. “Every society has an ideal person that very few people resemble and as a result they get the ‘not good enough’ message.”
This message is personified in a devil puppet in her bag of therapeutic toys, dubbed “The Not-Good-Enough Monster.”
“In the end, all emotional pain and anguish is based on feeling you are defective in some way. Therapy has to rewire the brain so you get out of those horrible negative messages you got from parents, teachers and siblings that you’re not brilliant or beautiful or popular enough. Personality typing helps you be realistic about who you are and what you can and cannot do.”
Where does Adahan fit on her own nine-personality scale? “I’m a type 4, a deeply feeling, highly sensitive person. That’s the type that often gets rejected and bullied,” she says. Had she known this early in life, she probably could have avoided a few dead-end journeys.
“I am totally nonconfrontational, so why did I go to law school for a year? Then I tried medical school and fainted every time I had to dissect something. Once I knew I was a deeply feeling type, I understood the right direction for me.”
10 tips for parents from Miriam Adahan
1. Three-Minute Sand Timers: To calm, get them to do chores and teach patience. “Yes, it’s difficult, but just do it for three minutes.” 
2. Parrot Practice: Practice new behaviors at least 5-10 times: “When your body gets up from the chair, the plate gets up.” “When your toes touch the curb, stop and look both ways before crossing the street. Run toward the curb and then stop!” “Hang up the keys as soon as you enter the house.”
3. Number Jar: Write numbers on 10 pieces of paper. Fold and put in a jar. If they fight over who goes first, say, “Pick numbers. The highest one wins!”
4. Victory Notes: Celebrate their victories by putting a note in a lunch box, pocket or under their pillow. Also good for spouses! Instead of asking, “How was your day?” ask, “What was the best/worst thing that happened?” This way, you’ll find out what is really going on and what victories they had.
5. Foam Bat: Let’s have a “sword fight” with the foam bats to let off steam. Wrestling and pillow fights are also great “prizes.”
6. Medals: To wear around the neck when you or they have had a victory.
7. Star Charts: Teach the importance of having a routine and following a schedule. Choose five to seven tasks you want them to do each morning and evening.
8. Puppets: To act out ways to deal with difficulties.
9. Don’t Say “Don’t”: Instead of saying, “Don’t hit your sister,” say a positive alternative, “Hit the couch.” “This is what I want you to say.”
10. “When-Then” Choice Formula Poster: “As soon as you choose to ____ (get dressed, do the chore, take your bath), then we can _____ (do something fun, eat dinner.)” “When you decide to cooperate, then we can go.” “As soon as you choose to tell me what you did wrong, then we can eat.” “When you choose to calm down, then I can listen.”