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What You Should Know Before Your Daughter Goes to Seminary (Ami Magazine)

“Mommy, make me a ticket to come home right now! Yes, I know it’s been only two days but I want to go home. This is a huge mistake. I have to get out of here. No, I can’t calm down! I’m leaving right now! What did you say? No, I am not waiting until the morning. I don’t want to stay here another second. No, there’s no one I can speak to.”

So your daughter got into your dream seminary, the one you and she were hoping she would go to for years. You spent the whole summer shopping and packing... and shopping some more. That is not the conversation you expected to have when she arrived. What’s going on?

As a therapist practicing in Jerusalem, I have the privilege of meeting countless seminary girls, although obviously the ones more likely to be having a hard time. Add to that some Shabbos guests and it gives me a nice sampling of the crowd each year.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of panic, anxiety and social insecurity. Many girls wonder, “Why am I even here this year?” The responses to this question include a variety of non-answers such as “I thought it would be different,” “My parents really wanted me to come,” “It’s better for shidduchim” and “All of my friends are here.”

Some girls are so homesick that they are unable to be in the present and benefit from their experience in Israel.

Where is all this coming from? Why does the anticipated best year of their lives turn into a nightmare for some girls?

My experience has shown that it boils down to a combination of unrealistic expectations, a dearth of life skills, inadequate support in Israel, and at times an underlying psychological or emotional problem. Social issues tend to crop up too, especially for girls who were comfortable with their group of friends in high school and suddenly find themselves at a loss in a new and complex environment. Depression and anxiety that were hiding under the surface can also burst into the open due to the additional stress of being away from home.

Just as many kids with dyslexia learn to mask the fact that they can barely read, many people with underlying anxiety compensate in a very sophisticated manner so that others aren’t aware that they are struggling. And they themselves might not realize the full extent of it. A young woman may subconsciously have developed an elaborate safety net that protects her from hurt, pain and loneliness, and she might not be on anyone’s radar screen as someone who needs extra support.

If your daughter struggles with mild anxiety she may be doing one or more of the following, despite the fact that she appears to be completely functional and put together. Does she:

  • Release tension by taking your car fora drive late at night (going just a bit over the speed limit)?

  • Hibernate in the house every Shabbos in her pajamas in order to refuel for a week of social interactions?

  • Never use the bathroom outside of your house?

  • Insist that you or your husband make all of her doctor’s appointments?Your daughter has survived adolescence so far. But what happens when she gets to seminary and all of her protective measures are stripped away?

Remember, her seminary only allows kosher phones and sets curfew at 10:30 p.m. (There is definitely no car—she can’t even go out at night for a walk). Shabbos is not a time to decompress; in fact, there’s a lot of added pressure from having to figure out where she is going, meeting new people, needing to be “on” all the time.

What happens when she has to take care of things like making appointments and preparing some meals on her own? And she definitely won’t be able to get through an entire year without using the bathroom! For some girls, the transition out of their comfort zone is just too difficult to handle and they fall apart.

The good news is that there is plenty your daughter can do right now to prepare herself. Over the next few months she should be a detective, observing herself with curiosity and interest. Let her get to know what her triggers are and what helps her feel safe. Does she get “hangry” when she doesn’t eat for a few hours? Does she feel claustrophobic when other people are in her room? Does a lack of sleep make her irritable?

Just knowing these things is helpful even if nothing is done to change them. That way if panic hits she won’t end up wondering, “What’s wrong with me? I must be going crazy! I need to get on the next plane home right now!” Instead, she will be able to tell herself, “Of course I’m feeling over-whelmed. I had four hours of sleep last night, haven’t eaten anything normal all day and there’s absolutely no personal space. We’re also having a ‘get-to-know-you’ session in an hour and I always feel self-conscious at those things.” Just accepting those feelings and telling herself that her anxiety makes sense can lessen its intensity.

Once your daughter has figured out her vulnerabilities it’s time to stretch those muscles. Putting in effort to do some of the things she finds difficult can help rewire her brain so it will be less likely to shout “Danger!” when she finds herself in such situations.

For example, when she is out with friends, she should be the one to give the waitress the order. If she usually stays at home on Shabbos, she should start going out to shul or to friends’ homes and see what that’s like. Practice cooking simple meals and doing laundry with her so those tasks aren’t as overwhelming. Slowly steering away from some of her safety behaviors will give her an opportunity to face the underlying emotions. The remedy is two-pronged: learning how to tolerate difficult feelings without escaping, and developing ways to self-soothe.

Don’t ignore the warning signs that your daughter might have a hard time in seminary. If she never went away for the summer (except to camp one time four years ago and had to be picked up after a week because she was crying uncontrollably), has panic attacks before finals, or hasn’t branched out past her three closest friends since kindergarten (who are all going to different seminaries), she might have a really difficult time adjusting. Get her the help and support she needs now, before she gets on the plane.

At times, medication is a consideration when a girl is struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety in Israel. Parents are often hesitant to allow their child to take medication when she is away from home due to concerns about side effects. But if medication is warranted and parents are opposed, it leaves the young person to suffer needlessly. Therefore, if your daughter shows signs of a mood disorder, take her for an assessment before she leaves to find out whether medication would be helpful.

If a girl is dealing with more serious issues such as a history of trauma or dysfunctional family dynamics, therapy away from home can be conducive to healing and post-traumatic growth. In fact, being away from the troubling situation can provide her the freedom she needs to process the past and reconfigure relationships at a distance.

Extreme problems such as addictions, eating disorders and self-harming behaviors are more tricky. While sometimes it is really unsafe for a girl to be dealing with these issues without parental supervision, other times being away and taking ownership of the therapy process is what ultimately enables her to work through her struggles.

It’s that time of year when girls who are in seminary now are winding down their time in Israel and figuring out their next step. This is when I invariably hear, often from the same girls who had the most difficult time adjusting, the classic statement-with-the-inflection-of-a-question: “I’m actually thinking about coming back for shanah beis.”

Read the complete article in Ami Magazine.


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