The telephone rang. A woman was calling to discuss her concerns regarding her seventeen-year-old son. After a minute or two, she began sobbing uncontrollably as she described his downward slide throughout his High School years. The "bad friends," the constant bickering with his parents over dozens of issues large or small, the tension and friction with his siblings, being asked to leave the four yeshivos that he had attended during those three years. Now he had hit rock bottom.
During the past six weeks, he refused to even consider enrolling in yet another yeshiva. He sleeps until noon, "hangs around the house" until suppertime, then, with a curt farewell, leaves the house. He returns in the early hours of the morning, goes to sleep, and begins the day in the same fashion as the previous ones. Any attempt by his parents to determine where or with whom he is spending his time is met with a disrespectful or downright rude retort. Her voice became practically inaudible as she described the events of that particular morning. She had entered his room in a futile attempt to wake him up for Shachris. He became verbally abusive to her, and ordered her out of his room. When she refused to leave, he swore at her and physically removed her from the room, threatening her with bodily harm if she dares to enter again. "Rabbi Horowitz, she cried, "My son was the sweetest child you could imagine. Now I am afraid that he is becoming clinically depressed. What should I do?!?”
At this point, it was obvious to me that due to the mother's distress, a serious, protracted discussion was impossible. After a few more minutes of conversation, I hung up the telephone, with the promise of returning the call as soon as possible.
Later that evening, I began the second conversation by asking the woman how many times she had asked her son, that day, any of the following questions:
"Why aren't you going to yeshiva?"
"Why are you wasting your time?"
"When are you finally going to do something with your life?"
She mumbled an evasive response. I politely informed her that it would be simply impossible for me to assist her without her complete cooperation. She hesitantly answered "About ten or fifteen times.”
Fifteen times six (days) equals ninety comments per week. Ninety times six weeks totals five hundred and forty hurtful attacks on her son's self confidence. I explained to the woman that although her son's disrespectful behavior is inexcusable, she must keep in mind that he is in as much agony as she is, perhaps more so. He feels that no yeshiva actually wants him, and that he has nowhere to go. Each time that she reminded him of this painful fact, she was inadvertently causing him needless anguish, and adding to the chasm that exists between them. His antisocial behavior is his clumsy response to his perception (real or imagined) that our society has rejected him.
After extracting a promise from her to refrain from any further barbs directed to her son, I offered to meet him in my home on Sunday afternoon. I told her to simply inform her son that I am a placement counselor, who assists teenagers.
A handsome, well-dressed young man swaggered into my study. After making small talk for a few minutes, I began by discussing his secular education. He has only completed the second year of High School, (he maintained an 85 average), and is currently not enrolled in any program at all. I asked him if he has any computer skills; he answered that he does not. I chided him for not pursuing his quest for a High School diploma, or at least to attain a G.E.D., (an equivalency diploma). He was very agreeable, and we spend several minutes discussing his options.
We then shifted the conversation to his limudei kodesh (religious studies) pursuits. He grew visibly agitated as we discussed the reasons for his failure to achieve success in yeshiva. He conceded that he was often uncooperative and had "an attitude" during his past two school placements, despite having caring rabbis who truly tried to communicate with him. I then probed into the current situation.
"Why don't you make a serious effort to find a yeshiva where you can grow intellectually?” I asked.
"No yeshiva wants me; and even if I got accepted, I'm just not cut out for learning.”
I informed him that I disagree with both statements. Besides, I asked him, "What do your parents say to this?"
"My mother said that I should join a yeshiva; any yeshiva, so that I can do a decent shidduch.”
"What do you say to this? I asked.
"I refuse to waste my life. If I am not going to be successful in school, I'm better off just not going at all."
We sit quietly for a few moments. I then tell him, "You never told this to your parents in the manner that you are speaking to me now."
"How do you know?!?", he angrily asked me.
"I softly responded, "That's obvious. They keep asking you to go to yeshiva. You have convinced me in a few minutes that with your current mind set, you will be unable to achieve success in any yeshiva. You haven't done that with them yet."
He then admitted that throughout the past few difficult and stressful months, he has not had one serious conversation with his parents. All dialogue takes place in midst of a shouting match about any one of a host of flash points in their relationship.
I changed the subject. "Nice shirt you're wearing.”
"How much did it cost you?"
"Twenty four bucks. It's a forty dollar shirt, but I got it at a closeout."
"How many hours did you have to work to pay for that shirt?” I innocently ask.
"Wadda you mean? My parents give me...”
Ignoring the now hostile stare, I inform him that common decency requires that so long as he is spending his parents money, and eating at their table, he should inform them of his whereabouts when he leaves home at night even if they will be annoyed at his choice of destination. A telephone call home before his parent's bedtime informing them that he is safe, and will be returning home at... will help calm their nerves. Additionally, he should be more considerate of his parent's feelings when engaging in antisocial behavior in or near their home. This last comment drew a swift and passionate response.
"I couldn't care less what anyone thinks of me!!!” he forcefully said.
"In that case, why don't we exchange clothing with each other", I ask with a smile (I wear traditional chassidic garb). "If you truly don't care what people think; it shouldn't be a problem.” I hammer home the point. "You care greatly what your friends think of you. What you have made peace with, is insulting your parents in front of their friends.”
It was clearly time for a break, so I went out, made myself a cup of coffee, and we went for a walk. I asked him what yeshiva he plans to send his boys to. He responded with the name of a Brooklyn yeshiva, similar to the one that he attended as a child (I'm not surprised; that is what most "drop-out teens" tell me. However, to the public at large, this response would be met with widespread disbelief.) "Are you aware that your parents are convinced that you are on the path to abandoning an Orthodox lifestyle?” I gently asked him.
"No way - they don't think that...do they?" was his immediate and passionate response.
I responded, "You see, when I - and your parents - went to yeshiva, dropping out of school was almost immediately followed by an abandonment of Torah and Mitzvos".
I told him that he would be well served to inform his parents of his ironclad commitment to an observant life, as it would reduce their anxiety greatly – and immeasurably lower the tension level at home. I then advised him to go home, take the telephone off the hook, and to have a long talk with his parents about the many issues we discussed.
After he left my house, I called his parents and gave them a quick primer on dealing with their son's crisis of confidence:
* “Ein chovush matir atzmoi mibais asurim" (a prisoner cannot extract himself from his bondage without the assistance of others). Do not hesitate to take advantage of the greatest asset that your community has - its dedicated mechanchim (or lay people) - and find someone whom your son can confide in and speak frankly with. Few teenagers, even in the best of situations, can do this with their parents.
* Establish an ongoing dialogue with him. That includes, but should not be limited to, serious discussions about present yeshiva and/or work possibilities, aspirations for the future, etc.
* Never discuss serious issues during an argument.
* Never, ever, engage in vicious, personal attacks on your son's friends when their names come up during an argument. Firstly, despite your instructions to the contrary, every word that you utter will unquestionably be repeated to that friend. You will have earned yourself a sworn enemy; at a time when you need every ally you can get. Additionally, bear in mind that, at this stage in your son's life, he is more closely aligned with his friends than he is with you. By attacking his friends, you are positioning them - and him - on the opposing side of a very formidable fence.
* Do not beat up on yourselves as parents (Where did we go wrong?). This will accomplish nothing productive. The brutal reality is that these situations arise in every type of home and at every income level. More importantly, doing this in front of your son will only add to his feeling of inadequacy.
* After some time has passed, and you have established a working relationship, set a firm, but reasonable set of house rules for him, regarding his leaving, and returning, home at night. You will be pleasantly surprised by his response.
* Explain to him that you are willing to make some accommodations to meet the needs of his current lifestyle. However, ask him to understand that you have other children, parents, etc.; and that he should be considerate of that reality as well. If you are unhappy with the music that he listens to, for example, ask him to close the door to his room, and insist that he wear headphones while the music is playing.
* Finally, think positive. The vast majority of these teens outgrow this temporary stage in their lives. (One is reminded of the classical story of the sixteen-year-old who, after months of tension and fighting with his parents, ran away from home for a period of three years. Upon returning home, he remarked to his close friend that he just could not get over how much his parents matured during the time that he was away). Your son may not become everything that you had originally hoped for him, but he will, with the help of Hashem, will grow to be a wonderful adult; a source of nachas to himself, to you, and to Klal Yisroel.
Several weeks later, this young man calls me at home to thank me for assisting him. He is currently working part time, attending shiurim at a local yeshiva, and with the help of an accommodating Menahel, working to achieve his High School diploma. He and his parents have spent many hours speaking to each other, and have met several times with their Rav to discuss the many issues at hand. By the way, he adds, things are much less stressful at home now. I smile, and thank the Ribbono Shel Olam for guiding me in formulating the proper responses in helping this young man.
I sit down to eat supper.
The telephone rings again…
© 1998 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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