The Dynamics Involved in Helping Someone Change
BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK
I received the following question in an e-mail. I’ve made some adjustments to my response to make the article more reader-friendly:
My question is as follows: You deal with at-risk kids who are living on the edge & beyond. Somehow, from what I understand, your organization works with them & turns them around to be happy productive people. If so how is it that I’m a lost cause & apparently cannot be helped? Is my mental state actually worse than others? How is it that I cannot find value in life?
We deal with hundreds of teenagers, young adults, and adults. We don’t succeed with everyone. Our reputation is due to the fact that our percentage for success is higher than for most individuals, and organizations, but we’re not perfect.
There are several reasons why don’t we succeed with everyone. We sometimes make mistakes. We sometimes don’t have the time to dedicate to everyone. Sometimes the mentor and mentee don’t “click”. Sometimes clients aren’t ready to change. Let’s say that I’d give you the time required to help you. Let’s also accept that we click. If you believe these two points shouldn’t be taken for granted, please let me know.
One of the difficulties in mentoring people is that we can’t change them. What we can do is create an environment that gives them their greatest opportunity for success. This can mean things like finding the perfect housing arrangement, Chavrusa, or, in most cases, expose them to a group of people who are healthy thinkers.
Exposing them to healthy people offers them an alternative way to see their personal world.
Exposing them to healthy people offers them an alternative way to see their personal world. Many people, and this is mostly true with teenagers, are so frustrated with their world, that they’ll gladly trade it for the different world that we present to them. Adults, on the other hand, often believe that they can escape through their money, vacations, fancy cars, and other avenues, which are generally not available to teenagers. Despite their discontent with their lives, they’re more resistant to change, because they don’t feel as “cornered” as teenagers.
For instance, a teenager may be clinically depressed. The solution is medication followed by a change of lifestyle. Areivim is great at presenting medication in a manner in which they don’t feel (or at least, less) like failures for taking their medication. We then offer them a group of friends, and mentors, who, as part of their new lifestyle, make them feel accepted and “normal”. We then try to find ways to make them feel accomplished. We may even have to replace their parents as their primary role models.
Then the teenagers have two choices; they can either buy into what we’re offering them or turn it down. If we presented our “offer” correctly, (which required waiting for them to be sufficiently sick of their lives, and what their future may hold for them, and diplomatically, with a compelling plea as to how they’ll be happier our way, with a little humor, and the proper follow up, our chances for success are good.
However, the teenagers always have a choice. Only they, and no one else, control their lives. Human nature is strange. The more dysfunctional the home is, regardless of how much they hate their parents, the more difficult it may be physically, and emotionally, to get them to leave their home, and join our “family” and belief system.
So, what do we do? We decide whether the teenager should become a long, or short, term project. This means that we stop trying to aggressively change them. Instead, we continue to surround them with healthy people, waiting until they get their epiphany. When that happens we’re positioned to “jump in”, and offer them the support that they need to succeed. Sometimes, we wait for months, and sometimes for years, but when that epiphany “hits” them, change can take place in days.
Sadly, some teenagers insist on embracing their unhealthy living. In that circumstance, there’s little we can do but make their life (as they insist on living it,) a little less uncomfortable. This is our philosophy: If someone won’t let us make their life comfortable, then we’ll try our best to make it less uncomfortable. This isn’t much of a consolation for us or the teenager, but since it’s the best that we can do, that’s what we’ll do.
It may appear as if we change and improve people, but we don’t.
The message that I’m trying to convey to each teenager is that: “You lead and I’ll follow”. There’s little more that anyone can do. It may appear as if we change and improve people, but we don’t. We offer them an alternative that’s so compelling, that most people, teenagers or adults, take advantage of our offers.
I’d like to close with the following incident. There’s someone who consistently comes to one of my Shiurim in the Yeshiva. The Shiur focuses on life skills as taught by our Chachamim. He also attended a public speaking course by a well-known speaker and Mechanech.
When he completed the course, he told me that much of what he’d learned in his public speaking course was the same as what I’ve been saying. His intention was to compliment me, but his surprise conveyed that people see the advice offered by our Areivim staff as being atypical, possibly effective, and certainly an alternative to what’s “normal”.
Then they read books, Seforim, or listen to inspirational speakers, and realize that everything we say is mainstream and healthy ideas. This is what we teach in our Bais Hamedrash and in the multiple Areivim programs. What our teenagers hear is mainstream Torah thought, taught with a twist. The “twist” consists of a packaged presentation that is sensitive and enticing.
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