Our 19-year-old son is sadly no longer shomer torah umitzvos. This is a tremendous source of pain and turmoil for the entire family. My wife and I are trying very hard to do what is best for him in accordance with the guidance we are receiving from Rabbonim and professionals. With lots of thought and hard work, we are slowly working on repairing our relationship with our son. Our question is regarding our other children. While the older kids seem to understand the situation we are concerned about the younger ones. They (ages 9 and 11) look up to their oldest brother and they are the only ones in the family to whom he acts warmly. We certainly think that the relationship is good for him but are concerned that it is detrimental to them. We have noticed they have started using some of his "street lingo" and have asked for clothes like he wears. They are also definitely aware of his flagrant violations of Halacha. I have no doubt that they also picked up on the fact that he gets a lot of attention and has very few rules. We are not sure how to address this. This is even more complicated by the fact that if our son figured out we had discussed it with the little ones he would be furious and all the hard work we put into the relationship would go down the drain. We are really stuck and would appreciate your thoughts on this complicated issue.
The issue that you’re facing is a difficult one. I’m happy to hear that you are reconciling with your son. I took note of the fact that you wrote that your son “is sadly no longer shomer torah umitzvos.” Many young people experience doubt and confusion about their self-identity. This often leads to major decisions and lifestyle changes. Other factors, like family involvement (on which you seem to be working) can have a powerful effect as well. Oftentimes, those who emotionally resolve or refocus these issues return to their original decisions and lifestyles—or chose yet another.
At 19 years of age, your son’s decisions and future are hardly unshakeable. Perhaps the wording can be “…is currently not shomer torah umitzvos.” Your words, facial expressions, and other projections broadcast your thoughts and feelings. If your clear sense is that your son’s decisions have been set in stone, he is probably more likely to continue to define himself in this way. If, on the other hand, he had the sense that you recognize his continuing capacity for change he might feel more open to the concept of change.
My response to your questions is contingent on a few factors. Is your son’s religiosity a taboo subject, or do you openly discuss it with him? Do you talk with him about specific actions? How openly do you discuss the fact that he does things that you don’t like? To what degree do you think that he would understand the problem relating to your other children? How willing might he be to help you to deal with this?
The more general question applies to families, groups, schools, and other institutions that have responsibility toward multiple children. Although each child is an individual concern, how should this be weighed against the responsibility to the other children and to the institution? Some schools, for instance, will readily sacrifice one child for the good of the others (feeling that harm to the school and to the student body warrants the expulsion of one child). Other schools feel strong responsibility toward each child (and may also believe that an atmosphere of openness and acceptance are positive for the school and for the students). Families can be fragile institutions. The mental and emotional environment can have a strong impact on many aspects of the ever-changing and intertwining relationships inherent in a family.
If you have open discussions about your son’s actions and lifestyle, you probably have a good sense as to whether he would understand the issue and be willing to help you with it. If you tend to avoid the subject—in addition to projecting your sense of the permanence of his decisions—you are likely making wrong assumptions about your son’s thoughts, feelings, and understanding of the situation within the family. You may assume that he doesn’t care about your feelings or concerns, when these may be a major factor in his decisions.
If you are able to have an adult, non-confrontational discussion with your son about his thoughts and feelings, you can begin to correct some of these misperceptions. You might find that he is not averse to helping in certain areas. Over time, discussions like this can help to strengthen your relationship with your son. Once he gets the sense that you are interested in how he thinks and feels, he may be more willing to recognize your concerns. At that point, you could begin talking with him about specific actions that can be detrimental to his young siblings. These types of candid conversations can also open your son up to the idea of you discussing certain things with his siblings. If you have trouble initiating these types of discussions, a professional can help you to have dispassionate and productive conversations.
With regard to your younger children, it is important for them to realize that rules and boundaries exist for them as separate from anyone or anything else. Despite actions by friends, siblings, or others, they need to have the clear sense that certain actions specifically by them are unacceptable. The way, and degree to which, others’ actions are discussed with them is contingent on factors like age, intelligence, and personality.
Acknowledgement that certain things are accepted when done by a nineteen-year-old does not necessarily constitute acceptance of this for younger children. After all, a five-year-old can recognize that he is not allowed cross the street even though his ten-year-old brother does. A twelve-year-old understands that he can’t drive a car though his seventeen-year-old sister can. Clear, personalized rules and boundaries can help to make your family more structured and individualized, yet cohesive.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317
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