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Helping Your At-Risk Teen Get Back on Track "A"
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Chicago Community Kollel

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Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

You mentioned in your previous column that, “Your primary responsibility is to provide for the needs (and wants) of your children." Do you feel that this applies to grown children as well? When a child is over 20 and capable of earning a few hundred dollars a month, but it will take up much of his spare time, should the parents still be expected to fund the "wants"?

Our at-risk son is resentful because we aren't funding his wants. He is clothed, fed, and has all his medical needs taken care of. If he needs to see a doctor, my wife or I drop everything and run for him. He drops off his dry cleaning and gets it back all nice and paid for. But there are some things I just won't fund. (And I can't.) In the two years he was in Israel, we spent more than we can afford on his schooling, planes, health insurance, and monthly spending stipend of $120 – plus $50 towards his phone. (We are in debt about $10,000 right now.)

He feels resentful that we aren't paying for his wants and therefore he must spend leisure time to work to provide for his other leisure time. (He's said hurtful things such as why did you have me if weren't going to pay for me?) Therefore when he does come home for Shabbos, he will hardly lift a finger to help in the house.

I think that since we are broke, we should let him grow up and learn some restraint. Perhaps I should just tell him to drop the program he's in and work full time and do night school. But in the meantime, I also think he is wrong not to offer assistance when he is home.

Y'lamdeinu Rabbeinu...

(Question edited slightly. Click here for full text. Y.H.)

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

I know that the thrust of your question was about your financial obligation to your at-risk teen son, but I strongly feel that you would be best served by taking a step back and addressing the broader question of how to best assist your son regain his footing and get back on the road to a productive life. From what I read between the lines of your question, it seems like your relationship is rather strained with him at this point in your lives. I respectfully suggest that you consider working on understanding your son before dealing with the X’s and O’s of the monetary matters. (I will address the financial question in next week’s column.)

Imagine that you went for a walk one winter morning and found your neighbor sitting in his car vigorously turning the steering wheel of his car – while the engine is shut off. When you ask him why he doesn’t start the car, he responds to you that his battery died, and he will soon get jumper cables to ‘give it a boost’. However, before he does that, he would like to turn the front wheels away from the curb so that once the car is started, he will instantly be able to pull out of the parking space and get to work.

I think that this analogy sheds some light into my overall line of thinking regarding assisting at-risk teens. Very often, and understandably so, parents would like to start helping their kids by addressing the antisocial behavior (ex. drug/alcohol abuse) or the rejection of Torah values (ex. not keeping Shabbos). I have found, however, that the most effective thing that parents can do to really help their child is to assist him/her in getting their lives in order. Once that is accomplished, it is far, far easier to help with the other matters.

You see, as long as your teen is unhappy and/or unproductive, it is as if his/her life is on hold – as the vehicle of his/her life is stalled. The ‘power steering’ that enables positive change to occur and a sense of spirituality to develop can only kick in when the engine of accomplishment is turned on. You can exert a great deal of force turning the wheel while the engine is off, but you will be draining your energy, shredding the tires and digging trenches in your driveway while this is going on. It is much wiser to work on helping him/her achieve success first. The rest will follow, with the help of Hashem.

I often tell parents of at-risk teens to follow the sage advice of the Kotzker Rebbe (Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1859) who noted that the Torah informs us (Shmos 22:30) "V'anshei kodesh te'heyu li – people of holiness shall you be to Me.” The rebbi pointed out that the Torah places the word anshei before kodesh, in effect telling us to be a ‘mentch’ before attempting to achieve spirituality (his exact works in Yiddish were, “kodem a mench un nach dem heilig – first [become] a [refined] mench, [and only then [strive to become more] holy).

While the rebbi did not express these thoughts in terms of at-risk teens, I feel that this though represents by far the most effective way for parents to chart a course for the lives of their at-risk kids. Help them become ‘mentchen’ – functioning, productive young adults who have a reason to wake up in the morning, who feel that each day is a gift that ought to be unwrapped as the treasure that it is – before you work on the at-risk symptoms. For once they become happier and more productive, you will find it so much easier to ‘turn the wheel.’ (Here is a link to an open letter that I wrote to yeshiva bachurim a few years ago about planning for their lives. The Plan. I hope that you – and he – find it helpful.)

In a very practical sense, it means to help him/her get a GED, or better yet help resume schooling in a mainstream setting. Send him/her for career counseling and get him/her a job. Tell your child that you are in this together and you will always love him/her forever (you may get a roll of the eyes, but I can assure you that your child will be forever grateful for this). Get your child into therapy if there are ‘issues’ that need to be resolved. Show leadership and express your love for your child by going for counseling yourself to help you effectively parent your child through this challenging stage in his/her life.

Please print this line and affix it to your desk or refrigerator. It is one of my favorites and I tell it to parents every time that I conduct a class on parenting at-risk teens. “No One Ever Changed the Oil in a Rented Car.” That means that the more ownership your teen feels in his/her life, the more likely he/she will be to avoid reckless and life-threatening behaviors. Giving them the keys to their lives will give them the ‘boost’ they need.

I would also suggest that you carefully study the theory of Abraham Maslow on “The Hierarchy of Needs.” He suggests that there are five sequential ‘needs’ aligned like a pyramid. Once the more primitive needs are met (safety, security, belonging), a person can begin to work on achieving success (self-actualizing). As with all theories, you need not agree with it in its entirety (I don’t), but there are profound lessons to be learned from his thoughts.

I will close this column with a final thought and plea. Please, please ignore your neighbors and societal pressure and l’maan Hashem do what is right for your child. I have seen far too many children sacrificed on the altar of “what will the neighbors say?” Keep your eye on doing what is right for your child. That’s all that really matters.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

Here are some links to columns that I’ve written on the subject of raising teens. I hope you find them helpful. YH.

On Tweens -- scroll down for a letter from a teen to her parents

An article on teens -- with links to others.

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Related Articles:
Should Teenagers Contribute to Their Expenses?

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