By Rabbi Dovid Hochberg, LGSW
We have all heard the terms “teens at risk” or “teens in crisis;” words that conjure up images of pain, frustration, and shame. This issue is very painful for parents, educators, and families, but let’s not forget that the teen, he or she, is also suffering terribly. I think the first step towards the healing process, before even discussing possible solutions or interventions, is to acknowledge this pain and hurt and understand that everyone is affected. No one is happy with the situation. Everyone would like it to change for the better.
Of course, we know that prevention is the best intervention. Once a family situation starts spiraling downward out of control, it can be very difficult to stop. Although a comprehensive discussion of techniques and methods is beyond the scope of this article, I would like to share some frequently asked questions with you that may be helpful in dealing with this difficult issue.
Q: If you could offer only one piece of practical advice for parents of teens and pre-teens, what would it be?
A: Have an open relationship with your child. It is probably the most important step you can take. You want to create an atmosphere where your child is comfortable sharing with you. Then, as problems surface, you have an open line of communication. The earlier the intervention, the more successful it will be. Of course, an open relationship starts way before the teen years.
Q: How do you establish an open relationship? Particularly in the early years?
A: There are many contributing factors to a trusting and open relationship the home atmosphere, your interactions with your spouse and children, etc, and, of course, love. But loving intentions are not enough. You should try to communicate in a way that acknowledges what your child is experiencing, what he or she is feeling. Don’t minimize your child’s problems; instead, try to make them feel understood. Rav Yisroel Salanter would say that to a child, losing a toy boat is just as traumatic as an adult having his yacht sunk at sea. If, for example, your child comes to you and complains or cries about a problem in class, try not to say, “Oh, it wasn’t so bad” or “You’ll get over it, don’t make such a big deal out of it.”
Q: What responses would you suggest using instead?
A: Try something like, “I recognize that it’s very hard for you in class. On the one hand, you find it difficult to pay attention, yet you know that your teacher is becoming unhappy with you for not paying attention.” This does not mean that you approve of your child’s misbehavior. You are simply acknowledging what they’re already feeling. Once your child feels understood they can work on a solution. This is a much more helpful response than, “I’m warning you you had better shape up or before you know it you’ll be suspended! You’re headed for big trouble!” This response instantly shuts down communication. Instead of focusing on how to pay attention in class, your child thinks about how not only are things bad in school, but they aren’t much better at home. (To really understand this, imagine coming home from work and telling your spouse that the boss did not like the report you worked on for weeks. Imagine your spouse saying, “Well, what did you expect! I told you to do more research! You’d better watch it or before you know it you’ll be in the unemployment line instead of the office!”) Children are no different in this regard. You will be surprised how much children share when you acknowledge their feelings. It opens many doors.
Q: Aside from communication, can you share any other suggestions on nurturing an open relationship?
A: It’s also very important to spend quality time with your children. That’s not easy today. Life is very difficult for many parents. Tuition costs are high and with both parents working, parents are very stressed out and extremely busy. So parents are faced with a situation where on the one hand, raising their children is their highest priority. On the other hand, they are so busy that finding the time is very difficult. I wish I had the answers to finding the proper balance. However, I can tell you what quality time is not. Quality time does not mean checking your email or answering your cell phone when your son is excitedly telling you about something that happened that day. It does not mean saying, “yes, honey” to your daughter from behind the newspaper as she asks you about something that is important to her. Children are smart and recognize when you are busy. And they also recognize whether or not you are giving them the same undivided attention that you give to other areas of your life.
Q: As children get older and become teenagers the challenges of parenting seem to increase. Are there different approaches to use with teenagers?
A: Yes. One of the most effective methods and it’s a very difficult tightrope to walk - is to use the skills of confronting and supporting. Of course, you have expectations of your teen and you give them certain responsibilities. You confront by calling them on their behavior when they don’t meet those expectations. You support them by giving them the message that you are right there with them; you understand it’s hard for them, and you’re going to help them get through it. It’s a very fine balance. If you simply confront, you can quickly overwhelm your child and run the risk of turning him off. If you only support, you don’t provide opportunities for growth and maturation. It is the combination of these two techniques, knowing when and how to use each one, which makes them so effective.
Q: And when things start to get out of control with my teen…?
A: Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if necessary. Remember, time is of the essence in a downward spiraling situation so talk to a Rav, therapist, teacher, etc. as soon as possible. Once the situation deteriorates past a certain point, there is a whole new set of “rules” and each situation must be handled on an individual basis.
As a general principle, however, I suggest the following mindset. (Keep in mind that it may take getting used to and can be very difficult to put into practice.) Simply put, your teenager is the one responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. Your role as parent is to love your child, provide him with opportunities to grow in positive ways, let him know that he is loved, and provide consequences (both positive and negative) for his behavior. When dealing with an out- of-control teenager, your job is to explain the consequences, and then step back and let your teen make his own decision. You may encourage, hope, coax, etc., but if he chooses to try drugs or break curfew, for example, he is the one making the choice. At this point, you need to enforce the consequence. Remember, it is his responsibility to choose; it is your responsibility to follow through with the consequence.
Q: Let me ask a specific question. How should I react when my teen comes home and tells me that a classmate tried drugs or shoplifted? Or that he himself tried drugs?
A: Be thankful that he feels comfortable sharing that with you. Unfortunately, you can only insulate so far; and the world out there is not only very attractive, but also more accessible than ever. If you have an open relationship with your child, he may come home and tell you that his classmate shoplifted or tried drugs. Don’t minimize or deny what he is saying. Take the opportunity to talk about it. “What do you think about that?” Involve your child; ask for opinions. Children will share a lot with you if you encourage them to talk and you listen.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes about an idea that I believe is very useful. He says that it is not correct that people who sit and learn Torah are completely sheltered. The reality is that by learning Torah, one learns about all the vices and depravity of human behavior. However, since one is exposed to these things through the Torah, one learns the way Hashem wants us to view these behaviors. Yes, they exist, but this is the perspective of the Torah.
Use Rabbi Tatz’s approach when addressing your teen’s comment. Remember, he brought it up because he wants to know what you think. Tell him, “Yes, it exists; it may seem attractive; but this is the way Hashem wants us to act.” You may not be the one exposing them to these darker aspects of the world, but you are the one who should explain it in the proper way, the way the Torah wants us to view life. Your children are providing you with an opportunity to teach; take advantage of it.
Q: It seems that parents have to be so careful nowadays. The wrong words, yelling, all of these can turn a child off so easily. Do you agree?
A: No. Professionally speaking, I think it is extremely rare for a child to be turned off by a single incident, or even several incidents. I think parents need to realize that it is okay to make mistakes we all do and it is the overall relationship you have with your child that is the most important thing. Invest the time and energy in developing an open and trusting relationship with your child and don’t worry about making a few mistakes. The stronger the relationship, the more leeway you have with mistakes. Don’t be afraid to parent. And if there is a particular issue or situation you aren’t sure about, try to seek guidance.
Q: How should we react when we see teens in crisis in shuls, in stores, or hanging out? Should we leave them alone? Reach out to them? Try to talk to them?
A: There is no definitive answer to this question. It really depends on the situation. However, a good rule of thumb is to treat them with the same respect you would like to be treated with. Don’t go out of your way to treat them differently; just be friendly and sincere. You never know what positive impact you can have on a teen just by saying hello or being friendly.
Q: Sometimes my teenager tells me crazy things that I just don’t believe. Should I believe everything she says? Isn’t she just trying to shock me?
A: One day, out of the blue, a boy told me, “I didn’t keep Shabbos this week.” I asked him, “Why are you telling me that? What reaction do you want me to have?” He smiled but didn’t answer. I said, “Let me tell you what I think. I believe what you are really asking me is, ‘Will you continue to respect me even though I did something wrong?’ And my answer is, I am disappointed that you didn’t keep Shabbos. But I still respect you.”Your child is sharing something with you. Try to understand what his question or comment is really about.
Q: Are there any final thoughts you would like to share?
A: Let me conclude with what one teen told me. He said, “Keeping the Torah is like learning to put on tefillin. If when you are taught to put them on, you are taught to put them on too tightly, then putting on tefillin will always be a bad experience for you. If you are taught to put them on too loosely, then they will just fall right off and it will also be a bad experience for you. You need to be shown how to put them on properly. It all depends on the way you were shown to do it. If they show it to you in a positive way, then wearing tefillin will be a positive experience. Otherwise, you just won’t wear them. You need someone who can show you how.” As adults, let’s show them how.
Rabbi Dovid Hochberg, LGSW, received his semicha from Rav Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, and his Masters of Social Work from University of Maryland. He is Principal of Derech Chaim Academy in Baltimore, an alternative school for Orthodox teens at risk, and has a private practice. He can be reached at 410-952-4392 or firstname.lastname@example.org for consultation.