Pre-bat mitzvah jitters shake up parents and children

"I can't do it," my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter wailed hysterically. "I'll make mistakes. I'll be humiliated."

It was midnight meltdown. Part of the bat mitzvah preparation process.

Why do we do this to our kids? Thirteen. The worst possible age. Everything is changing — bodies, voices and allegiances. Couldn't this ritual be postponed a couple of years until things settle down? Why now?

"Bar and bat mitzvahs are developmentally well-placed," says Berkeley psychiatrist Lester Isenstadt. "It really has to do with a transition from being a child to being an adult and starting to go into the world."

And there's no avoiding it. The transition happens with or without the formal ceremony. But the bar and bat mitzvah ritual brings this shift to a higher awareness, creating the opportunity to deal with the feelings it evokes.

"Anxieties of this stage have a lot to do with how the self is perceived by others," Isenstadt says. "What the ritual is trying to convey is that being guided by internal standards is more important than how others perceive you."

According to Isenstadt, bar and bat mitzvahs bring out the best in everyone.

"It's a developmental challenge most youngsters can cope with and benefit from," Isenstadt says. "It consolidates the child's sense of self as a competent youngster."

In almost 30 years of treating adolescents, as well as their parents, Isenstadt has never seen a child fail at this task. Children feel very supported by their parents, the rabbi and the community.

They also learn a valuable lesson. You don't have to be perfect.

Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland's Temple Sinai routinely tells students before the ceremony it's OK if they make mistakes.

Isenstadt contrasts bar and bat mitzvahs with less-healthy initiations, which often convey psychologically misleading and poor illusions of what's necessary for success. Like by making a certain team or getting into the right college or club, some children believe they're winners for life. Or by failing to make cheerleader, prom queen or honor choir, they're automatically losers. Fortunately, life is not that simple.

"Whether you're trying to be a good person, professional or parent, we all know these tasks involve lifelong effort. Bar and bat mitzvahs are a first step," Isenstadt says. "They prepare youngsters for the actual challenges and frustrations of what's ahead."

Such assurances aside, the day after my daughter's midnight meltdown, I was on the phone with a friend. I knew my daughter would be fine, but I was another story.

"I'll never get everything done," I said. "What if there's not enough food? What if no one comes?"

Our invitations had been out for a week and only a few RSVPs had trickled in. The fear that my daughter's friends, my friends, our family wouldn't show up crippled me with anxiety.

Bar and bat mitzvahs "stir up in parents the anxieties they experienced at that phase of their own development," Isenstadt says.

Ah yes, my own confirmation party. It was the worst of times; new school, few friends and zits galore.

This was my coming out, too — my first adult, catered party. What about the family? They'll be judging me. What if they're disappointed?

"Friends and relatives are not expecting perfection," Isenstadt says. "[They] love you for who you really are, for bringing a child to this point."

I hope Isenstadt is right.

The morning of the bat mitzvah my daughter was calm. I was short of breath, wondering if anxiety had ever killed anyone. I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a precipice.

Bar and bat mitzvahs, Isenstadt says, "are transitions for parents, too. They represent a change from being parents of very young children to parents of people who are growing up and getting ready to leave home."

So this is separation anxiety. Hers and mine. Any advice?

"Don't let the synergy of shared anxiety blow the roof off the house," Isenstadt says. "It's important for parents to stay developmentally ahead of the child."

My daughter was wonderful — poised and confident. She made a mistake or two and laughed about them later with friends. And there was plenty of food at the party.

The following Monday, she was still a seventh-grader, but not quite the same person she was the week before. Fortunately there's still a driver's license, PSATs, SATs, confirmation and who knows what else before she graduates and leaves home.

If I run real fast for the next few years, maybe I can stay one step ahead of her.