By: Yakov Horowitz
It is an axiom in the mental health profession that the first step on the road to recovery is to avoid denial and squarely face the issue at hand.
In the past few years, our community has begun the painful process of evaluating the growing ‘at-risk teenager’ crisis. The overwhelming majority of our boys and girls are achieving remarkable success in our excellent Yeshiva and Day School system, despite maintaining a rigorous dual curriculum of Hebrew and secular studies. There is, however, a small percentage of children who simply are unable to keep pace with the ever-increasing academic tempo of our schools. Frustrated and unhappy, they are very vulnerable to the entire gamut of anti-social behavior that affords them temporary gratification, and the camaraderie of others who have opted out of the ‘system’ and comprise the spiritual underclass that exists in communities across the country.
It is, without a doubt, naive to assume that there are simple solutions to such a complex issue. There is, however, one area where it is possible to effect significant improvement in the lives and futures of many of these youth – by affording them the advice they so desperately need.
Having met with and counseled many hundreds of ‘at-risk teenagers’ and their parents during the past few years, I am often struck by the fact that, in many or most of these situations, the kids are receiving little or no guidance from any adults at this most critical stage in their lives. They are being offered advice by well-meaning, loving parents and educators. However, in almost all instances, that (sound) advice was unsolicited and therefore not treated with the respect that it deserved. The result? Teens are getting guidance from their peers and not from those best equipped to help them navigate the minefield of adolescence.
Problem. Big problem.
This past January, I was invited to deliver a short speech at the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Girl’s High School. After I finished my remarks, I turned off the microphone, and casually mentioned to the girls that, in my opinion, most teens don’t get enough guidance with issues that are troubling them. I also mentioned that one of the essential components of Project Y.E.S. is a hotline that I recently initiated in the New York area to afford teens and their parents the venue to confidentially seek advice and guidance. I told the girls that if they have anything that they would like to ask me, they are welcome to do so.
After a few moments of silence, a young lady asked me what she should do to assist a friend of hers who, in her opinion, might be suffering from mild depression. I began by informing her that I have no professional training in this area. I then gave her some general guidelines for recognizing symptoms of depression, and suggested that she consult with the school principal, who would be glad to assist her with this matter.
For the next thirty minutes, with the entire student body and faculty present, I fielded questions on a wide range of topics, including school and general friendship issues, eating disorders, and effective methods for dealing with parents who are less religious (or more religious) than their children. The school principal then came to the podium and informed the girls that as long as they wished to remain in the auditorium and continue this impromptu give-and-take with me, classes would be cancelled. The girls remained for an additional hour. After we concluded the session, several seniors approached me and asked me to meet privately with the entire graduating class in order to discuss DATING issues – with ME, a Chasidic-garbed Rabbi.
During my time with the senior class, I asked them why they do not actively seek guidance from the devoted and caring school faculty. (Indeed, it was evident to me – an outsider – that the administration and the faculty had an excellent relationship with the kids.) They conceded that almost all of them do some of the time, but “you know how it is rabbi.”
It is doubtlessly true that many teenagers speak in monosyllabic grunts that are only intelligible to other teens. (One parent told me that teen talk is similar to fax machines – the sounds that emanate from one of them are only intelligible to another one – but not to any other beings.) Nevertheless, most kids are desperately looking for someone to help them navigate through this temporary but turbulent phase in their lives. The trick is to get your kids to seek your input. Easier said than done.
Some practical tips:
:: American jurisprudence affords the attorney-client privilege even to persons accused of committing the most heinous of crimes. The justification is a simple one. Lacking the comfort of discussing one’s misdeeds freely with wiser people would preclude the alleged criminals from receiving the guidance that they so desperately need.
:: Often, when a child discusses his or her misdeeds with us, our knee-jerk reaction is to respond with a gasp or, worse yet, to severely admonish the child without allowing for a much-needed discussion of the issue(s) at hand. That does not mean that you should not express your opinion. Quite to the contrary, by affording a non-judgmental ear, you will position yourself to offer thoughtful advice that your child will treasure.
:: Keep in mind that quite often this initial admission may be a ‘trial balloon’ to try to gauge your reaction regarding a substantive topic that your child would love to be able to discuss with you. If you overreact to this initial incident, you can be assured that the next time around, it will be less likely that you or your spouse will be consulted regarding this matter.
:: Speak in words or sentences, not in chapters or books. We do not often capture the undivided attention of our kids. If you use this rare opportunity to recount every ‘sin’ – real or imagined – committed during the past few years, you may find these opportunities becoming fewer and farther between. Focus on one message and keep it as short as possible.
:: Set limits. Never abdicate your responsibility. It is a grueling task to be in the position of having to say no to something that your child wishes to do. It is also your duty and obligation as a parent to do so.
:: Even if your son and daughter seem to resent the rules and moral choices that you impose on them, deep down, they greatly appreciate the guidance and direction that you are offering them. The kids intuitively know that all too often, giving a young man or woman ‘carte blanche’ means that his or her parents are not willing to spend the time and effort to teach their children right from wrong.
:: Perhaps the most important thing that you can do is to afford your children your unconditional love regardless of your level of disappointment with the choices they are making and the lives they are leading. This does not translate into passive approval of their actions. In fact, this will afford you a greater voice in their lives.
:: In all my conversations with teenagers, the five words – uttered by kids with great bitterness and pain – that always render me speechless are, “My parents don’t know me.” Sadly, the kids are often correct. Please, please spend time with your kids when they are young and eager to do so. You can be sure that once they enter their teenage years, the amount of time they will want to spend with you and seek your counsel will diminish to a mere fraction of what it once was. Train them at the youngest possible age to discuss their day and share their thoughts with you.
:: As your children grow older, their inclination to discuss things freely with you will depend on their impression of how well you know them. Get to know them – really know them, and appreciate the unique qualities that each one of them possesses. You can be assured that if you will not learn to accept them for who they are – warts and all – others will be there to take your place. And you may not have the luxury of selecting who those replacements are.
:: Enjoy the formative years of your children’s lives. Treasure every moment. Utilize your time with them to guide them, to mold them, to help them grow to be a source of nachas to themselves, their families and to all of Klal Yisroel.
Rabbi Horowitz serves as menahel of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey and is the director of Agudath Israel’s Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services).
His article “An Ounce of Prevention” in the May 1996 edition of the Jewish Observer dealing with the painful topic of underachieving children and ‘drop-out teens’ inspired a flood of letters to their editorial office, and an avalanche of telephone calls to Rabbi Horowitz’s home. Several follow-up articles on this topic followed in the Jewish Observer, and in December 1997, Agudath Israel announced the formation of a new division, Project Y.E.S., to assist ‘at-risk teenagers’ and their parents with their unique needs.
Project Y.E.S., located in Brooklyn, New York, utilizes its confidential hotline to provide assistance with school placements, and offers counseling and mentoring programs with ‘big brothers and sisters’ to young men and women in need of these services.
Rabbi Horowitz has lectured extensively on these topics, and conducts parenting sessions and in-service workshops with educators in communities across the country.
Reprints of his articles can be ordered from The Jewish Observer, (212) 797-9000 or from NCYI Viewpoint at (212) 929-1525 x131.
The Project Y.E.S. telephone hotline number is (718) 375-3900.
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