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My Son Wants to Leave Yeshiva
Part One - Lowering the Anxiety Level
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Chicago Community Kollel

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(Culled from a phone conversation that took place earlier this week)

Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

We were taken aback when our 18-year-old son called us from Eretz Yisroel (we live in Europe), and told us that he was coming home, and wants to go to work immediately. He said that he is wasting his time in yeshiva, and he just can’t take it anymore. He said that he will “run away from home” if we don’t allow him to go to work.

He was never much of a student in Hebrew or general studies, but we honestly didn’t think that things were so uncomfortable for him.

Help! What should we do?

Names Withheld

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

Please start by taking a deep breath, making a cup of your favorite tea (for Americans I would have said coffee) and just relax. After all, it is entirely possible that your son had a bad day, week, or month, and with the proper combination of problem solving and parental love and guidance, you can help him get settled back in the yeshiva he is currently attending, or in a yeshiva setting that might be more appropriate for him.

But, to move these few giant steps forward, I suggest that you take a step or two backwards, and follow these sequential series of steps that will help you help your son in an effective manner:

1) Lower his anxiety

2) Start getting comfortable with all reasonable outcomes

3) Problem solve together with your son – why aren’t things working out now?

Lower His Anxiety

I strongly suggest that you immediately do whatever you can to lower your son’s anxiety level – for the apparent emotional reasons, but also for pragmatic ones. Obviously, as his parents, you would like to calm him down. But perhaps more importantly, as the ones who will (hopefully) be best positioned to guide him through this challenging time/crisis in his life, it is crucial to realize that it is nearly impossible to have a rational conversation with an agitated person. And your son is very very agitated from the sound of things.

I have found that kids like your son (and people in general), get most anxious when they feel boxed in and without any options. It is precisely that frustration – and the feeling of being trapped – that often drives the kids to make rash decisions. In is interesting to note, that our Torah instructed Jewish kings not to completely surround an enemy on the battlefield, but rather leave them an escape route, in the event that they wanted to capitulate – even though placing an enemy under siege was common practice at that time. Because a cornered enemy is a far more dangerous one, than one whose back is not to the wall, and the Torah wanted to minimize casualties. While I am not chas v’shalom comparing your relations with your teenager to a battlefield, the concept is a very valid one to consider. In fact; I feel that this notion of lowering the anxiety level of teens in situations like this one ought to be a governing principle for parents.

In practical terms, I suggest that you call your son immediately, and tell him that you look forward to sitting down with him and discussing his life plans with no preconditions – meaning that you assure him that an array of options will be open to him, including his wish to go to work. That should calm him down considerably.

If one or both of you are able to get away from work and familial obligations, and the finances of the trip do not present a challenge to you, I think it would be better if you visit him in Eretz Yisroel, rather than having him come home. I say this because being there will allow you to get a handle on his current school setting, and will help you assess why things are not working out now. And even if he ultimately comes home and goes to work; it will help you guide him, if you understand why the wheels came off in the current setting.

I know that this advice of letting him know that all options are on the table – including some that you may not be thrilled with – may sound counterintuitive, but I suggest that you will have a far greater chance of winding up with a result that will please you this way. Here is a mashul that might explain this: Think back to the final few hours of this past Yom Kippur. In all likelihood, you were famished and waiting to finally eat and drink something. But, somehow, once the fast was over you may not have felt as deprived as you did earlier. Why? Because once you have the security of being able to eat, the hunger pangs don’t seem to be so all-consuming.

So, giving your son your blessing to consider the options he wants, may actually make him comfortable giving yeshiva a second chance – knowing that plan B is always available to him.

© 2009 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Recommended reading:

Pulling in the Gangplank

Rolling Out the Welcome Mat

The Plan

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