When Your Child Gives Up
BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK
A parent recently called The Front Page and was critical of the articles that Areivim publishes. The parent felt that we were being too critical of parents. This parent was also concerned with the possibility that teenagers would read these articles and use the knowledge given in the articles to their own advantage.
Before I begin this article, one that may look particularly challenging to some parents, I would like to respond to the parent’s concern.
The reality is that children do have access to this wonderful magazine. Several teenagers have confirmed this by saying that they make it a point to look at our articles.
Those teenagers that talked to me about the article felt that it helped them understand their parents, and sometimes themselves, better. If the articles accomplished anything, it made their parents more “human” in their eyes. Parents have commented to me that this article made their children more human in their own eyes. None of the teenagers gloated that they utilized the articles as weapons against their families.
My hope is that the article below will create a necessary bridge between two people that are 20 to 40 years apart in age, and sometimes miles apart in their outlook of life.
I also feel that some parents are afraid to self-reflect and it is those parents who are most concerned with their teenagers reading these articles. The intention of these articles is to do just that; ask parents (and teenagers) to self-reflect. For many parents what is more frightening than self-reflection, is that others may realize that they are less than perfect. Sadly none of us, myself included, can escape the scrutiny of others, particularly from those that we love and for whom we would like to protect our image. Although this may be unnerving, the truth is that the more human we look to our children the greater the opportunity to connect with them
With this in mind please enjoy this article, as well as future articles.
Recently I wrote an article about hollow children, those that have no real feelings for Yiddishkeit. Many parents called, or came to me, to tell me that the article’s message, although unnerving, was one that accurately described a large segment of our youth. I would like to continue on a similar subject that also affects many teenagers. Few homes are totally safe from this problem; with most homes being affected to various degrees. In extreme cases, what lies inside the teen is something that, if unchanged, will negatively affect them for their entire lives.
Several parents have told me how their teenagers appear to act without thinking. They also can’t understand how they don’t seem to be happy, upset, or display any other emotion.
Several parents have told me how their teenagers appear to act without thinking. They also can’t understand how they don’t seem to be happy, upset, or display any other emotion. In some cases they indicated that their children are distanced from the family, acting as if they are just boarders in their own homes.
Other times the teens appear to totally disregard their parents and don’t attempt to hide what they’re doing from their parents. Even worse, they don’t seem to have an explanation for anything that they are doing. From where does this behavior come? What could have led a teen to this point?
In some very extreme cases, without warning and totally out of character, their teens are meeting Goyim, and some even considering marriage. Still others, totally uncharacteristically, were taking drugs indiscriminately.
Parents would like to believe that these teenagers are depressed, as this removes the guilt from the parents and places it on the teen’s chemical imbalance. Sometimes this is an accurate conclusion; in most cases it isn’t.
I first realized this many years ago when I received a call from a school counselor. The school was going to send a student for evaluation at an inpatient psychiatric facility. They felt that he was clinically depressed. However, before they did so, they wanted me to meet the boy. I met with the boy for a while and it was one of the simplest incidents that I have dealt with. I asked the boy what he wanted to do. He wanted to switch schools in order to be with his friends, but felt that no one was listening to what he was saying. His parents were wonderful people, started listening and overnight things became better.
They may act depressed, but their sadness is caused by practical reasons and is not rooted in a chemical imbalance.
That incident taught me to reconsider whether the actions of some teenagers were caused by their belief that they have no say in their lives; that their opinions, even with regard to their own lives, don’t matter. They have, because of this feeling, lost the will to move on, to try to make a difference in their own lives. They may act depressed, but their sadness is caused by practical reasons and is not rooted in a chemical imbalance. Although there are several things that may lead to such an attitude there are two primary scenarios.
The first scenario is the home in which the children believe they are suffocating (Remember that perception is often more important than reality). The teenagers, not being the rebellious types, live for years in an environment in which they aren’t comfortable. After a certain amount of time has past (months, years) they believe, understandably so, that they can never be happy. They feel that they are serving a jail sentence. They believe that their personal decisions don’t matter and will not make a difference. I have seen this in teenagers from Chassidishe, Litvishe, and in more modern homes, where the home is run in an overly structured manner.
The problems that parents face are twofold. Since the children are not rebellious, their thoughts go unnoticed by the parents for years and are allowed to ferment until they reach a boiling point. In addition, as the house is actually well run, it would take a lot of creativity to adjust the home for those individual children, without disrupting what is otherwise a successful home.
The solution to this problem is individual to each family, and many things need to be considered. Some examples include: 1) whether he/she is the oldest child. If this is the case, parents must consider how their adjustments will affect the other children. If this child is among the younger ones, it’s easier to adjust the home to accommodate this child. 2) If the teenager is quiet, fair and mature. If the child has these characteristics, it becomes easier to negotiate with them without the fear of things getting out of hand. As with most of Chinuch issues, assess as objectively as possible and speak to your Chinuch Rav.
Dealing with these types of children is difficult because, as a defense mechanism, they have put effort into believing that nothing matters. They do not show disappointment with failure and are not excited about the prospect of success. I often say that people can be saved from everyone and everything, except from themselves. When children are in such a state of mind it does little good to give them what they need, even if we can assume that having it would cause them to make the right decision. Instead we have to reprogram the teenager’s thought process.
The basic approach is as follows. The teenagers must believe that, from now on, they will have control of their lives. This does not mean that they can do whatever they want. It does mean that the parents must recognize and respect that they can’t be forced into being something that they aren’t. Although this may be complicated, it is necessary for the teenagers’ mental, emotional, and, yes, religious stability.
Initially, the teenagers may not believe that the parents are prepared to offer them more choices, and patience and time will be needed to succeed. Often it is best that someone who has the confidence of both the parents and the teenagers become involved. I have told teenagers countless times that they should, “tell me what you would like to happen. I may not be able to get you everything you want but I can get you closer than you would have been able to achieve on your own. As of today, you may have immensely more control than you think you have. Take advantage of it.”
Creating the confidence that the teenagers do have control of their lives is only the first step. You will have to let them make mistakes, fail, and finally succeed on their own.
Creating the confidence that the teenagers do have control of their lives is only the first step. You will have to let them make mistakes, fail, and finally succeed on their own. This is new territory for them and they’ll need a lot of hand-holding. The slightest setback will cause them to, again, believe that they cannot control their lives and that “nothing matters because things won’t work out my way anyway”. In conjunction with all of this, you will have to show them how to effectively integrate themselves within your family, something they may not have tried to do for a long time.
In addition, you must do a better job connecting on an emotional level with your teens. In many “frum” homes the problems are exasperated by parents who present the belief that Yiddishkeit is more important than their own family. This contributes to the teenager believing that “I don’t matter to my parents. I am only important to my parents if I fit into their religious beliefs”. This perception must be avoided at all costs.
The second scenario is very common but is immensely more complicated. Many of the parents who fall into this category are strong contributors to the problem but believe that they are running a well-functioning home and that it is the teen who is the problem. These parents are often active within their family and their community. They may be Askonim and are sometimes even Rabbeim. They are well respected by the world outside of their family. However, they often have Sholom Bayis problems and children showing signs of behavioral problems.
In many cases, these conflicting traits, those of being very helpful to others, but very controlling of their own children, stem from a need for the parents to create change which, in many cases, is the result of their being insecure. To others, they appear as selfless. To their own children, they appear as controlling and, therefore, selfish. Either one or both of the parents may have controlling natures.
In order to survive, the children of such parents must learn a multitude of survival skills. The teens must learn to accept and react to the manner in which they are treated, their siblings are treated, and in many cases, how the spouse is also treated. When they can’t handle it, the results are very angry and rebellious teens.
The parents of these children believe that, as parents, they are easy-going, open-minded, and are always giving their teens options. The reality is that they aren’t. When options are given, they’re limited and are suggested in a manner in which there really is only one acceptable way. The methods may vary and include techniques where the parents will suggest their preferred option over and over until the teen relents and agrees to the “right” answer. Other parents will subtly suggest that they will remove certain privileges if the teenager does not choose the better option. To make the teens feel even worse (when the teens are already unhappy) the parents will conclude by saying, “You chose this yourself”.
These parents are our biggest challenge. They won’t admit that they act in this manner, insisting that without their hands-on approach, things would be much worse. “On the contrary” they will insist “our teen is the unhealthy one, and we, as the parents, are the only ones who understand them.” In addition, these parents are among the few who feel that the Mechanech who tries to intervene is a threat, not a partner, to their position as parents. The truth is that no one can take a teen’s allegiance away from his/her parents. It is only the parents who can distance the teens from themselves. Any Mechanech that enters the picture is only filling an already existing void.
So, how do we get teens to realize that they can control their own lives?
The problem is easy to solve, although sometimes difficult to apply. First, the parents must consider some tough issues. Think about your family dynamics. Does it fit into one of the two profiles described above? Does your teen feel that they are in a family so distanced from one that he/she would like to be in? Being as honest as possible, do you give your teens honest choices? Do others disagree with your parenting approaches? Do you have a Da’as Torah to whom you constantly ask questions and who advises you on your Chinuch approach?
Once you have placed yourself into one of the two categories of parents, your work begins. Much of the difficulty with this solution is that it forces parents to step back and let others lead. Whoever is designated as the most effective person must be the one to speak to the teenager and to approve the first few steps that the parents should take in their interactions.
The parents have a lot of retraining to do and it may be very difficult for parents, especially those that have been on top of everything, to step back and become observers. But that is exactly what is needed. In addition, parents must be willing to become a little humble and learn to apologize to those that are younger and under their control.
Beyond these points, there is little to learn. There are no techniques that need to be learned. What is needed are the most important traits of parenting: respect, patience, and a willingness to listen to the advice of others.
Photo Credit: CARLOSZK from rgbstock.com