My daughter has confided in me that one of her friends is cutting herself, and she is concerned that her friend may really hurt herself – or worse, chas v’shalom. She made me promise not to tell anyone.
What are my obligations and responsibilities to my daughter, her friend and her friend’s parents?
Name Withheld by Request
Rabbi Horowitz Responds
In preparing this column for publication, I went online to research the phenomenon of the “cutting” that you discussed in your letter. I also consulted with several mental health professionals who have significant expertise in these fields. Armed with the information, I then began writing an article about the subjects of cutting and self-mutilation.
After reflection, however, I decided not to publish the column that I wrote. Why? Because I feel that parents ought to be consulting with experts and trained mental health professionals when dealing with complex mental health matters such as cutting, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, or any other issues dealing with the emotional well-being of their children.
There are, however, three factors that you ought to consider as you arm yourself with the information you will need to best help your child – or in this case, perhaps the parents of your daughter’s friend. It is important to be aware that:
- The disorders noted above affect children and adults in all societies – including ours.
- Early intervention is essential to helping the young adults cope with their issues and resume productive, healthy lives.
- The most important steps for parents to take are to become “informed consumers” and to seek expert, professional advice – in a professional setting.
1) As noted in last week’s column, children or young adults engaging in self-destructive behavior such as ‘cutting’ is a very serious matter – and far more common that we would like to think. I would say with certainty that nearly all frum teenage girls nowadays have either only one ‘degree of separation’ or two ‘degrees of separation’ between them and someone who is actually cutting herself – meaning that they personally know a young lady who is engaging in this practice, or know someone who knows a ‘cutter’.
There was a time in Jewish communal life that we were (mistakenly) under the impression that our children were immune from the ravages of antisocial behaviors and personality disorders. That is not the case any longer. And the gradual removal of our collective denial is a positive development – as we can help our children more effectively with an honest approach to the challenges of parenting children.
2) The adage that, “A stitch in time saves nine,” is very relevant to helping children deal with challenges that they face. The earlier that you get them in the hands of a competent professional, the better chance they have to get back on track to productive futures.
3) Finally, there is the matter of taking the time to create the proper setting to get the advice that you need. Unfortunately, parents don’t always prepare properly for seeking guidance regarding their children.
Just this past week, I was approached by the parents of a teenage girl at the smorgasbord of a lifecycle event. They were rightfully worried about some troubling symptoms of a disorder that they noticed in their daughter over the past few months and they were seeking my advice. I responded by suggesting that they immediately seek professional advice and gave them several referrals.
“But what would your advice be, Rabbi Horowitz?” they wanted to know. I repeated what I had told them – that my advice was for them to seek professional guidance. They kept pressing, however, for my opinion, and I kept gently but firmly repeating what I had told them. After the fourth or fifth repetition of the give-and-take, I pulled them aside and respectfully encouraged them to consider carefully what I was telling them – that a) the setting was not conducive to serious discussion, b) they needed professional guidance, and c) they should commit to a process that will take many weeks, months or maybe even years. Issues that took time to develop hardly ever disappear overnight.
Another terribly important factor to consider is that when seeking rabbinic advice, knowing what to ask, how to ask it, and who to ask requires a great deal of thought. Several years ago, I published an article on this subject that may be of help to the readers in framing/asking a rav or gadol for advice. Here is some text from that article that you may find helpful regarding the matter of seeking advice.
You are a very successful real-estate developer. In order to inspire the confidence of your investors, banking officials, and potential sellers who want to be sure that you can 'close the deal', it is important that you wear expensive suits and drive a very luxurious automobile.
It would be entirely proper and appropriate for you to consult with your Rosh Yeshiva and ask him if it is congruous with your hashkofos (Torah value system) to display such conspicuous consumption. But it would be foolish and pointless to ask a Gadol if you should buy or lease, or if you ought to look into a Cadillac or a Lexus!
I purposely used an extreme example to illustrate my point that Gedolim should not be asked questions that are outside their sphere of knowledge. But there are many more subtle instances where Gedolim are asked to give eitzos in arenas that are far outside the area of their expertise.
Take chinuch matters, for example. Some Gedolim and Roshei Yeshiva are very knowledgeable about learning disabilities and courses of action to remediate them. Many are not. That does not diminish their status as Gedoliei Olam. It just means that they are not experts in the area and therefore not the best ones to consult with if you have a child with a significant disability.
Another example would be in the arena of 'at-risk teens.' There are many eitzsos that could and should be asked of our Gedolim and sheilos asked of a posek when one is raising a teenager who is going through a difficult phase. However, this does not mean that the Gadol or Rav has a deep understanding of clinical depression, chemical addictions or compulsive gambling.
THE PROPER SEQUENCE
Please note that I am not suggesting that a Gadol should not be consulted to guide parents and mechanchim. They most certainly should - after all relevant information to frame the question has been gathered.
In one of the examples noted above regarding the child with a learning disability, the proper course of action for parents would be to have the child tested for disabilities by a competent and professionally trained expert. The next step should be for the parents to explore all options as to choices for meeting the educational needs of this child. Armed with this information, the parents should then consult with a Rav/Gadol for an eitzah.
A proper sequence of action would result in informed parents asking thoughtful and appropriate eitzos:
- We did our homework and the best educational setting for my child is to attend a Yeshiva setting with children who are exposed to secular culture far more than our children, or l'ehavdil, spend 45 minutes each day learning to read in specialized program in the local public school. What is more important; 'chevrah' or a better educational setting?
- Our son suffers from clinical depression. The doctors say that we should not be putting pressure on him while he is in therapy. Should we be waking him for minyan if he resists our efforts to do so? How about asking him to put on tefilin? How do we balance his needs with our value system at home and his influence on our younger children?
To sum up: Do whatever you can to get your daughter’s friend in the hands of a competent professional. The sooner the better.
© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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