By: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
The first step in effectively raising your teenage children is to recognize that their behavior is not a personal attack. It’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s always about them. Remembering that may help you parent more effectively.
Physiologically, their hormones are raging; spiritually and psychologically, they are in transition between childhood and adult life with all its responsibilities. Their future is unknown: Who are they? Who will they be? How will their relationship with Hashem evolve and develop? Marriage, children and careers loom on the horizon. Despite their tough pose, our teenagers are often very insecure and frightened. It is this insecurity that fuels so many of the behaviors that we find so difficult to deal with.
AN INTERESTING OBSERVATION
It is interesting to note that the Torah, in its eternal wisdom, made allowances for adolescent behavior. Boys before the age of thirteen (twelve for girls) are exempt from all obligations. After age 20, a young man or woman is treated as a fully grown adult in Beis Din (religious court).
During teenage years, from age 13 to age 20, they are obligated to make restitution for all damages incurred and are liable to make good on all their commitments. However, during this phase, they are not responsible for any spiritual transgressions that do not affect other people (bein adam l’makom).
The message seems to be pretty clear. We need to hold teens responsible for damages, lest they wreak unbridled havoc. But, at the same time, Hashem affords them a level of understanding for their adjustment period – or ‘temporary insanity’.
And despite the passage of thousands of years, the bookends of this phase have not changed (13-20; exactly the teenage years).
Teenagers often model the independence stage of toddlers – “The Terrible Two’s” – breaking away and then running back to make sure we’re still there; trying new experiences on their own and coming home to ‘refuel’.
What complicates matters is that teenagers often find it difficult to acknowledge their need for our support, love and guidance. It is so critically important for parents to ignore the sometimes irritating behavior of their adolescent children and realize that they need to provide that stability and unconditional love when their teenage children are in need of it.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR ROLE IN ALL THIS
In your desire for closeness, don’t confuse your role. You are not their friend. You must guide them whether they claim to like it or not. Teenagers need rules and structure and they need to be able to look to you for direction.
A leading Rosh Yeshiva shared a beautiful metaphor with me several years ago. He said that he often feels like Yaakov Avinu (see Bereshis 32:24, note the comments of Rashi and others) who stood in middle of a stream and transported his children and possessions from one side of the river to the other.
It’s as if our teenagers are standing on one side of a raging river filled with rapids and strong currents. Our job is to help them navigate these treacherous waters and end up safely on the other side. (I always found it interesting that Yaakov Avinu was placed in this role at a time when many of his sons were in their adolescent years.)
NO ONE EVER SAID IT WOULD BE EASY
It is a scary, dangerous, and new territory for both parties. But it is your mission and sacred responsibility to help them with this transitional phase in their lives. No one else can do it for you – or as well as you can.
Their peers are extremely important to them, like a second family. And if forced to choose between the acceptance of their peers and the love of their parents, don’t be surprised if they pick the former. But don’t for a moment believe that your input doesn’t matter. Always remember that if you parent effectively, you still will be, by far, the most powerful force in their lives. You will frame their value system, and give them the moral compass that will guide them through life’s travels.
© 2005 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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