We are writing this out of deep frustration in the hope that you will have some guidance for us. Our 16-year-old son has become rebellious and has been out of yeshiva the whole year. He seemingly spends his days and nights getting into trouble and living completely not like a mensch. He keeps crazy hours, dresses strange, has very few friends. and in general, is not being matzliach. My husband and I pride ourselves in being very open minded and if it doesn't work for him to be in yeshiva or kollel like his brothers we are happy for him to get a job, go to school, or really do anything that makes him a productive member of society. We completely understand that the focus now is on him being a mensch. But it's like he doesn't even understand what it means to rebel and is just acting dysfunctionally. Any advice you can give us into getting him on the right track would be helpful.
You speak of a deep frustration. I think that there’s a good chance that you are understating your emotions. As parents, when we see our children making poor choices, it is with the benefit of our age, maturity, experience, and wisdom that we are able to recognize this. These are qualities that most teenagers do not have. From our perspective as parents, it can be frustrating and hurtful to watch our children do things that we know can lead them on a troublesome path.
Today, unfortunately, it is quite common for teenagers to rebel outwardly in ways that we didn’t at their age. If they were doing things that we understood from our own teenage experiences, it would be easier for us to connect to their struggles and emotions. Recognize, however, that sometimes their inner feelings are not as dissimilar to what we experienced than we might think. Although the outward manifestations may look very different, if we could “see” their inner thoughts and feelings, we might recognize them from our own childhoods.
Of course, actions have consequences. When we see our children acting in ways that are problematic, we want to do what we can to help them to act more appropriately. One question is whether there is something that we can do that would actually change the course of their behavior. The other question is whether we should if we could.
When children are very young, we, as parents, control most of their lives. We tell them what to do and how to do it, and we are able to apply consequences that help move them in the right direction. As children get older, they begin to take control of some of their actions, allowing them to learn about consequences outside of the cocoon of the child-parent relationship. This is a progression that is necessary in order to eventually leads to autonomy and self-reliance. These are ultimately the goals that parents want their children to achieve.
Although we naturally want our children to learn these lessons in a “normal” fashion, we need to ask ourselves what is normal. Is normal what most people do? (If most teenagers began acting out, would that be okay?) Is normal what we did as teenagers? Or is normal impossible to clearly define? If so, should we be focusing on some opaque conception of normal or on each individual child’s experience and needs?
Realistically speaking, if there is nothing that you can do to change your son’s behavior, focusing on it—and becoming emotionally entrenched in it—will do nothing but cause you (and him) frustration and hurt. Reacting to him from a place of hurt and frustration will likely only cause rifts in your relationship, likely leading him to dig in yet deeper. This can make it more difficult for him to extricate himself from a problematic situation even once he realizes that it is not in his best interest.
When we attempt to control children who will not be controlled, are we helping or harming them? If we cannot change their behavior, what is our goal? Are we simply applying parenting skills because we feel helpless? Are we enabling them by trying to mitigate the consequences of their behavior—thereby prolonging the maturation process?
Naturally, there needs to be a balance between appropriate rules and boundaries, and open-mindedness. While your son needs to understand that there will be consequences for certain actions, you will need to choose your battles. For one thing, this means identifying those actions that will never be tolerated, being clear on the consequences, and being ready to call his bluff. Of course, these rules, boundaries, and consequences need to be thoroughly thought out from all angles.
Remember that our job as parents is ultimately to help our children to reach maturity, which includes consequential thinking and the ability to make appropriate choices. This is not something that is obtained quickly over the short run. Often, a short-term success is a long-term failure, and vice-versa. We need to focus on the long game. This means reacting based on how our actions will impact our children’s ability to reach proper maturity—not based on what they will do in the short-term.
Although much of this may seem like common sense, it can be difficult to focus on what we know makes sense in the face of emotional turmoil. It is not easy to be dispassionate and objective when we feel so strongly about something. How can you step back and minimize your emotional response? Imagine that you took in a foster child who was acting in the same manner. Would it be easier for you to let go emotionally and think and act from an objective standpoint? If so, what makes it more difficult with your own child? Is it embarrassment? What others might think? Fear? (Of what?) These can all relate to how we view ourselves. When we acknowledge what it is that makes us want to react emotionally, it becomes easier for us to react logically and appropriately.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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