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Parenting an At-Risk Child
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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11/21/06
Permit me to begin with a disclaimer. I have no formal training in the area of substance abuse detection or treatment. The overwhelming majority of my working hours are spent in Yeshiva Darchei Noam, a ‘mainstream’ boy’s elementary school, where I serve as Menahel. Additionally, the primary focus of Project YES, where I serve as the Founding Director, is on pre-risk children – boys and girls with no substance abuse issues. These kids are in school and need the love and care of teen and family mentors to stay on track.

I did, however, conduct extensive interviews with several of the foremost Orthodox experts in the field of substance abuse treatment and with the heads of the agencies that assist Jewish substance abusers and their families (later in this column, I will provide a partial listing of these agencies and the services they provide). The information in this series of columns reflects their collective wisdom and experience. I am grateful to them for their assistance and for their review of these lines.

I also interviewed a number of young men and women – high achievers and at-risk teenagers – who recently spent time in yeshivos and seminaries in Eretz Yisroel. Their perspective should be required reading for all parents who will be sending their sons and daughters to Eretz Yisroel. I will share this information with you in later columns – where I will discuss ‘the year in Eretz Yisroel.’

Writing these columns is a painful and unpleasant task. As a mechanech and a parent, it pains me to air these matters in such a public venue. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the vast majority of our sons and daughters who are b’eh doing wonderfully in school or chas v’shalom impugn the reputation of our outstanding Yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and Seminaries in Eretz Yisroel and chutz la’aretz. However, a frank discussion of the challenges faced by parents of children with substance abuse issues and the risk that untreated substance abusers presents to all our children is very much in order in these troubling times. I am comforted by the hope that the information presented in these lines will help children get the help that they so badly need.
May Hashem grant us the wisdom to raise all of our children to be a source of nachas to themselves, their families and all of Klal Yisroel.

PARENTING AN AT-RISK CHILD: UNDERSTANDING AND APPRECIATING THE SIGNIFICANCE OF YOUR ROLE

Raising an at-risk child is a humbling and frightening experience. The child may be the oldest one in your family, the middle child, or your ‘meshinikel’ (the youngest of your children). His or her siblings may be well adjusted or you may be having difficulty raising all of them. You may have excellent shalom bayis, barely holding it together, or rebounding from a divorce. You could be wealthy, middle-class or poverty-stricken. At-risk kids come from all of these backgrounds. And although there clearly are risk factors that will predispose children toward self-destructive tendencies, there is no simple explanation for the fact that some kids with none of these issues gravitate to at-risk behaviors. Any ‘expert’ who glibly gives you unsolicited advice as to how to raise this child is naive or simply very lucky.

One thing, however, is certain. The quality of your child’s life over the next few years and the odds that he or she will emerge from this phase successfully will directly depend on YOUR involvement, YOUR intervention, and on YOU reaching out for help – for yourself and your entire family.

This understanding of the critical role played by parents in the raising of an at-risk teen is often overlooked, according to Lewis Abrams, LCSW, CASAC. He serves as the Executive Director of the Yatzkan Center, the only residential Jewish substance abuse program in North America. “Rarely can parents help their kids without going for help themselves,” he says. He explains that parents of troubled teens often find it threatening to go for help. “I don’t have the problem; my kid does”, they often maintain.

This mindset is wrong and counterproductive. For the past 10 years, I have been telling parents that a troubled teen is not a broken appliance that you drop off at a therapist and expect him or her to fix on your behalf. (In fact, more than 5 years ago, we at Project YES developed the lead line of our mission statement “Working with families on behalf of our children” to reflect our collective belief that the role of families and parents are critical in the ultimate success of the pre-risk or at-risk child.)

You as the responsible adult(s) needs to help your son or daughter get through this phase. If it is painful and difficult for you as parents to go for help, imagine how much harder it is for your adolescent child to do so.

On a positive note, reaching out for help is a powerful statement of love for your child. You are sending a clear message – we (I) will do whatever it takes to help you. Just think of how helpful your modeling of seeking help will be when you will (almost inevitably) need to ask your child to seek professional guidance at some point in the future.

GET AN EDUCATION AS IF YOUR CHILD’S LIFE DEPENDED ON IT (AND, IT MAY)

About 7 years ago, I was speaking with the parents of a teenager who was having a difficult time both in school and at home. I had already met with their son and it seemed to my untrained eye that the young man had telltale signs of mild-to-mid-range substance use. The parents bristled when I gently suggested that they should consider the possibility that their son may be smoking pot. “Chas v’shalom,” exclaimed the mother emphatically. “My son never would touch drugs,” she said. I softly asked her if she would recognize a joint if she saw one, or if she could identify the odor of marijuana being smoked. It was quiet for a long moment as she and her husband looked at each other. “Rabbi Horowitz,” she said, “Do you think I really should look into this”?

After I told her that her son’s life may depend on her getting a quick education, she and her husband promised to do ‘whatever it took’ to help their son. I got her in touch with a Youth Officer at the local police station. He gave them a quick education in the various substances that her son may be using (most police stations have small attaché ‘display cases’ with a wide range of controlled substances), and gave them a variety of pamphlets to take home and read. They soon discovered that their son was, in fact, abusing alcohol and marijuana. Their intervention and love helped the young man regain his footing and resume a productive life.

In the weeks to come, I will be addressing the following issues:

1. Recognizing signs of substance abuse
2. Assisting a child who has a substance abuse problem
3. Should at risk-teens be sent to Eretz Yisroel? – A reality check
4. Some guidelines regarding sending well-adjusted children to Eretz Yisroel
5. Raising your adolescent children, relationship building, limit setting, etc.
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Please find a partial list of the agencies that assist Jewish teens with problems of substance abuse:

The Yatzkan Center; 888-715-9656, WWW.YATZKAN.ORG, located in Mount Vernon NY, is a licensed, Jewish long-term variable length-of-stay residential rehab for substance abusers. Yatzkan combines a strong 12 Step approach with superior individual, group and family therapies..

Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services; 718-851-6300, is currently running an addiction treatment program – which includes, drug and alcohol treatment, gambling and eating disorders.

MASK 718-758-0400, provides an array of services to the families of teens with substance abuse issues, including parent support groups facilitated by professionals, parent mentors and referrals.

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Dear Readers:

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