The Challenge for Today's Chinuch Systems
Almost everyone knows at least one teenager who's either at risk or in crisis. Many of them have religious issues. We, as parents and Mechanchim, try to help them see the mistakes of their ways. We do this by a combination of methods. We try to discipline them, and sometimes also criticize them, but we try to combine this with as much love as possible. We do this because we believe that their rebellious acts are motivated by a lack of appreciation for Yiddishkeit, and a desire to have fun, even at the expense of their schooling, relationships with their parents, and even if it "goes against" the Torah. This conclusion is less true now than it was in the past.
Today, teenagers still become angry and still "go off the Derech (right path)", but that's where the similarities end. Today, the root cause, in most cases, is significantly intertwined with their mental health. I'm not suggesting that most teenagers are bi-polar, clinically depressed, or have any other medical diagnosis. I'm suggesting that parents, and Mechanchim, should adjust their approach from one that focuses on discipline, to one that focuses on something more "inside them", than a simple desire to have fun.
When I speak to teenagers, I find that most of them lack self esteem, are depressed (not clinically, just really unhappy), and have very poor decision making skills. These are just three of the many deficiencies in life skills, which are sometimes so severely missing in teenagers, that they affect their mental health. These teenagers are troubled and they often acknowledge that they're troubled. They're certainly not having as much fun as their parents think they're having.
I'm not suggesting that teenagers should be taken to therapists, psychiatrists, or their local pharmacy. I'm not discussing the many cases that require medical treatment. What I'm saying is that people should focus on treating teenagers based on what's bothering them, and not on what they're doing.
For example, a teenager may be very angry. He may not wear a Yarmulka, put on Tefillin, or make Brochos. He may have a rebellious swagger to him, curse anyone that gets in his way, and be an all around difficult person. Focusing on his behavior will require his parents to constantly criticize, and discipline, him. Focusing on his behavior will also make his parents angry, insulted, and, frequently, distance themselves from him.
Another way to look at this teenager is that he believes that he's the victim (for this article it's not important whether his feelings are, or aren't, legitimate). He may truly feel that his parents, or other people, don't understand him. He most probably lacks self esteem, and may also have problems with anger management. His parents should realize this, have pity on him, and not be angry. An absence of self esteem and a problem with anger management are not religious issues, even if they lead to a lack of religious performance.
Everything I wrote in the last paragraph may seem obvious to the reader, but most parents and Mechanchim will still approach the teenager from a religious angle, and won't allow this obvious information to change their approach., They'll tell him, and maybe even force him, to be more observant of Mitzvohs, and to be polite to those around him. A teenager's disrespectful actions still invoke comments like where's your Kibud Av V'eim (honor your parents) and Kovod Hatorah (honor the Torah).
Instead, they should treat his behavior from a "mental health" angle, and look away from his lapse of religious performance. They should take him out for lunch, talk with him through the night, and work on the character traits that led to the negative behaviors. Building self esteem may take months, but if the parents can succeed in making him happy with who he is, they'll have a significantly increased chance of making him want to put on Tefillin and make Brochos.
This may also be obvious to many people, but only on a theoretical level. Most parents can't incorporate this approach on a daily basis. They'll look at the teenager, consciously or unconsciously, as being "bad" and not as being sick. Some parents will look at their teenager as being sick, but only to purge themselves of guilt. If their teenager is sick, they rationalize, then they're not to blame. In these circumstances, acknowledging that their teenage is sick, causes them to look down at their teenager. Their teenager can sense this and will not allow the parents to have a healthy relationship with him.
Since there's this shift in today's teenager's thought processes, the qualifications of Rabbeim, and others in the educational and mentoring fields, must also shift. A prominent Menahel once told me that his job has become that of a social worker, and not that of a principal. A Rebbi or teacher who sees students misbehave may have to discipline them, even if they recognize that it's a mental health concern, and not bad behavior. Nevertheless, if they have an in depth understanding of human nature, the discipline should incorporate other techniques, such as humor and empathy, that will do more than make the student sit quietly in class.
Until recently, I understood why Rabbeim didn't comprehend the emotional complexities of the difficult student. I understood that most Rabbeim weren't skilled in responding effectively, because they couldn't be expected to play psychologist.
However, times are changing, and Rabbeim, and teachers, will have to broaden their skills in order to excel in their profession. They must acknowledge that psychology is a factor, and not oversimplify the student's lives with a quick diagnosis such as, "he's spoiled and needs to be taught a lesson". (They also shouldn't complicate issues when a simple explanation and solution will suffice).
Rabbeim and teachers must recognize abuse, OCD, and other major issues, and they must be able to do it at an early stage. There are many ways to ask a student to leave a classroom; many ways to expel them from a school. Today's parents and Rabbeim are finding that teaching gets more and more difficult every day. Learning new skills and recognizing the complexities of the mind, specifically the mind that lacks the necessary skills for a normal life, will make the jobs easier, and more rewarding, for parents, Rabbeim and teachers.
To sign up for Rabbi Horowitz’s weekly emails, please click here.