Please enable JavaScript in your browser to experience all the custom features of our site.

Mr. Harry Skydell, Chairman
Mr. Mark Karasick, Vice Chairman
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, Director
Rabbi Avrohom M. Gluck, Director of Operations
The first 1000 members will have a chance to win a
16 GB
with Rabbi Horowitz audio

Membership Benefits:

  • Save articles to your favorites folder.
  • Save and print selected articles in a PDF journal.
  • Receive emails containing the latest comments on your favorite articles.
  • Mark articles as "READ".
  • More member features coming soon...

Raffle Rules:

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. To enter, complete the signup form and join as a member. Incomplete entries will be disqualified. All entries shall become the property of CJFL. CJFL is not responsible for lost, misdirected or delayed entries.

The contest is open to the general public. Members need to be at least 18 years old. Identification must be produced on request. Employees of CJFL, its raffle sponsor, advertising and promotional agencies and their respective affiliates and associates and such employees' immediate family members and persons with whom such employees are domiciled are excluded from this raffle. ALL PREVIOUSLY REGISTERED MEMBERS WILL BE AUTOMATICALLY ENTERED INTO THIS RAFFLE. The prize is not redeemable in cash and must be accepted as awarded. Decisions of the raffle judges are final - no substitutions will be available. By claiming the prize, the winner authorizes the use, without additional compensation of his or her name and/or likeness (first initial and last name) and municipality of residence for promotion and/or advertising purposes in any manner and in any medium (including without limitation, radio broadcasts, newspapers and other publications and in television or film releases, slides, videotape, distribution over the internet and picture date storage) which CJFL may deem appropriate. In accepting the prize, the winner, acknowledges that CJFL may not be held liable for any loss, damages or injury associated with accepting or using this prize. CJFL retains the rights, in its absolute and sole discretion, to make substitutions of equivalent kind or approximate value in the event of the unavailability of any prize or component of the prize for any reason whatsoever. This contest is subject to all federal, provincial and municipal laws. CJFL reserves the right to withdraw or terminate this raffle at any time without prior notice. One entry per person.

The Role of Parents in the Current Crisis of Rebellious Adolescents
Dare We Discuss It? Can We Afford Not To?
by Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, Psy.D.

  Rated by 11 users   |   Viewed 43033 times since 6/4/07   |   16 Comments
Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size    [ Change Font Size ] Email This Article to a Friend


The Orthodox community has been struggling to grapple with the problem of rebellious adolescents. Many factors have been cited as possible causes for this problem. A prominent therapist recently stated at a professional conference that we currently do not know what causes this problem. This paper will seek to demonstrate that it is deficiencies in the parent-child relationship that lies at the root of adolescent rebelliousness. The impact of other risk factors is mediated via their affect on the parent-child relationship. The resistance to acknowledging the central role of parents in this problem, and the repercussions of this resistance, are discussed.

The problem of rebellious adolescents has become a major area of concern for the Orthodox community. Many articles have been written on this subject and it is rare for a communal organization to hold a conference without workshops devoted to this topic. While accurate statistics are not available, most educators and activists feel that the problem is growing at an alarming rate. Many knowledgeable activists use the term "epidemic."

This paper will review the items commonly mentioned as risk factors in Orthodox children becoming rebellious ("going off the derech"). I will demonstrate that there is a strong tendency - albeit with the best of intentions - to downplay the role of parents in this problem. The reasons for this avoidance and how it can impede efforts to alleviate the problem will be explored.

It is axiomatic when dealing with complex social issues, that these problems are multi-determined. It then follows that the interventions also have to be multi-pronged. However, acknowledging the multi-factorial nature of a problem does not preclude us from recognizing that some factors are more significant and crucial than others are.

Risk factors associated with rebellious adolescents

Among the general public, the most common causative factors mentioned in regards to rebellious adolescents, are distant environmental ones. The vulgar and decadent media, the Internet and western culture in general, are portrayed as being too appealing for many contemporary teenagers to resist. The assumption is that the pull from the outside is so strong, that even well adjusted, happy youngsters who have positive relationships with their parents can easily be influenced to abandon their family's way of life.

It is undeniable that exposure to the media negatively impacts our moral standards and sensitivities. The question of what is an optimal or acceptable level of exposure to the outside world is, therefore, an important one2 but it is not directly relevant to our topic.

The question we are facing is not what has caused a lowering of moral sensitivities. Rather, the specific issue we are dealing with at the moment is why children rebel against their parents' way of life. To the best of my knowledge, the rate of children rebelling against their parents' Torah standards among families with increased exposure to the media is no higher than in families that strictly insulate their homes from outside influences. It is true that youngsters who rebel often become heavily involved in "on the edge," "cultural" activities. However, this is the effect of rebelliousness rather than the cause. It is very doubtful that exposure to the media, in itself, can make it worthwhile for children to abandon their parent's way of life. The price they pay in feelings of guilt, rejection and failure, to say nothing of the loss of approval of parents, would prevent such a step. Rather, it is only after a buildup of feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, rejection and alienation from family and community that they feel that they have nothing to lose by dropping out. As a prominent mashgiach recently stated, "it isn't accurate to call them 'dropouts,' rather, they should be called 'pushed-outs'."

Another oft-mentioned factor in youngsters rejecting their parents' Torah values is the influence of bad friends. The obvious question to ask is what makes this particular child vulnerable to this negative influence? There may be 25 boys in a class of whom 23 feel little or no temptation to follow the example of the "bad" boy, while one particular child is strongly tempted to follow in his footsteps. What is unique about this child to make him especially vulnerable to negative influence?

When children are easily influenced by bad friends or when rebellious teenagers become involved in illicit and immoral behaviors, parents will often claim that they were born with an unusually powerful yetzer hora. Eisav is usually pointed to as the prototype of someone born pre-destined to be a rosha. However, according to Rav Dessler this is a misperception. Clearly, says Rav Dessler, Eisav was not born predestined to be a rosha, otherwise we would have to say that he had no bechira. At most, we can say that he was born with a temperament that made positive behavior more difficult for him.3

There is an interesting phenomenon I have observed with those who explain a child's negative behavior by attributing it to an unusually powerful yetzer hora. The belief that a child was born with a factor making it more difficult for him or her to behave properly doesn't seem to mitigate the anger parents feel toward the child. The belief therefore, seems to serve the sole purpose of avoiding a more thorough (and perhaps painful) search for the true causes for the child's behavior. In contrast, when Rav Dessler4 speaks of Eisav having a more difficult temperament, he also makes it clear that less was expected of him as a result (at least initially).

A recent report from a professional conference of frum therapists dealing with children in crisis5 speaks of "child risk factors" such as Attention Deficit Disorder, hyperactivity, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, learning disabilities, poor academic abilities and poor social skills. Another factor noted under child risk factors is the depressed child, which includes anxious and perfectionistic children.

The second basic category listed is the "family risk factors" which includes lack of family cohesiveness, poor parenting skills and families with "high expressed emotions" (i.e., criticism and hostility) and marital conflict. The third category listed is "environmental risk factors" which includes families with major medical and or economic problems and children with a history of sexual and or physical abuse. My impression from reading the above-mentioned report and from a conversation with one of its editors is that poor parenting skills is not considered the major contributing factor in most cases of at-risk children.

The role of parenting

My own view is that in the vast majority of cases of acting-out adolescents, the major causative factor is deficits in parenting skills and the resulting deficiencies in the parent - child relationship. The many risk factors noted in the above-mentioned report certainly contribute to the problem but, in my opinion, they do so mainly by making it more difficult for the parent to maintain a positive and supportive attitude toward their children. In addition, many of the symptoms noted in the report (e.g., anxiety, perfectionism, Oppositional Defiant Disorder), are most often themselves reactions to poor parenting practices. The necessary ingredient that actually causes a child to rebel is the anger and frustration resulting from feeling unaccepted and rejected, by his or her parents.

The Torah is transmitted via the mesorah from parent to child. When the relationship with the parents is defective, the transmission is corrupted. The Shem MeShmuel6 comments on the halacha that a ben sorer u'moreh is executed only if his parents don't forgive him (even though the penalty is a result of our assumptions regarding his future behavior and not his disrespect for his parents). The Shem MeShmuel explains that if parents have such a relationship with their son that they won't forgive him, then they have disconnected him from the mesorah and therefore there is no chance that he could do teshuva (repent).7

The question is often asked: "What has changed in the frum family that so many children feel rejected?" My own feeling, based on my clinical experience, is that children are finding it increasingly difficult to be "good enough" to please their parents. The fact that standards have risen, for Orthodox Judaism in general and for Torah studies in particular, is certainly a cause for celebration. However, it can also be a source of unrelenting pressure on children. For example, on a number of occasions parents have complained to me regarding a child: "He never opens a seifer!" From the initial complaint, I got the impression that the child never learns at all. Upon further examination it turns out that these children are fairly good students who learn well in yeshiva. When they come home after a long day in yeshiva and just want to relax, their parents become upset, and criticize them for "never opening a seifer" just because they don't learn in front of them.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner8 emphasizes the crucial importance of maintaining a sense of satisfaction from everyday, average religious activities even in the face of rising standards and expectations. Csikszentmihalyi (1999) makes a similar point from a secular perspective in an article titled "If we are so rich, why aren't we happy?"

Children who feel that they are a disappointment to their parents (I am referring to the feeling of being a disappointment to parents, not to disappointing them with a specific act) are children in serious emotional pain (a pain often repressed or denied). This pain often results in resentment and anger, making these youngsters extremely vulnerable to depression and to rebelliousness (via the influence of bad friends etc.).

The current crisis, its root causes, and even the resistance to acknowledging these causes were predicted over two decades ago! In an almost prophetic article on the "crisis in parent - child relations," Rabbi Aaron Brafman (1977), a noted mechanech, stated:

I know of crises in . every neighborhood, in every sub-culture [of the Orthodox community]. The common denominator in all of these situations would seem to be a lack of communication and a growing hostility between parents and children. While this may be analyzed from many perspectives, the fundamental needs not being met in all of these situations are those of understanding, respect, and too often, the patience of parents toward children. Every child needs to be loved by his parents, and most important to be accepted for what he is. This seems to be such a simple solution. And yet how often... this is overlooked! [p.14, emphasis added]

More recently, Rabbi Brafman (1998) stated that: "The consensus of professional and lay-activists working with at-risk teenagers and dropouts, has been that the overwhelming majority of their clients come from broken homes, orphaned homes, dysfunctional homes, or unhappy homes [p. 8]." I would only add that a broken home or orphaned home creates a dropout only when it leads to a dysfunctional/unhappy home.

Love or acceptance?

Many mechanchim emphasize the importance of children feeling loved by their parents. I would like to add that acceptance and respect are more critical than love.9 After all, the love that parents feel for children is a natural instinct. Viewing children positively and accepting them in a non-critical manner is a much more difficult challenge. (As a mother once told me in regard to her teenage son, "I love him but I don't like him"). It is my impression that excessive criticism is the major factor poisoning the parent - child relationship in our times. This criticism is most often rendered in the name of love!

When children feel that their parents are critical of them in a global sense, they are much more likely to act in an oppositional manner. This, in turn, prompts parents to react negatively, which then further escalates the children's acting out. Regardless of the level of reasonableness or unreasonableness in the parent's behavior, children will inevitably blame themselves (Gartner, 1999, p. 38), (even if they are overtly proclaiming that it is everyone else's fault). This leads children either to perfectionism, where they try to be perfect in order to win their parent's approval or to giving up, when they feel that nothing they can do will ever be enough to escape parental criticism.

Range of parenting deficiencies

It needs to be emphasized that when I refer to poor parenting practices, I am referring to a wide range of phenomena. At one end of the spectrum, are the overtly abusive parents, either physically or emotionally. This includes parents who believe that their children's purpose in life is to fulfill their own, often immature, emotional needs. They do not hesitate to manipulate their children's emotions to this end. Even this type of overt abuse is not always obvious to others, since these same parents are often very pleasant to other people as they have a strong need to gain the approval of others.

In the midrange of the spectrum, are parents who are not initially abusive. However, they are rigid and inflexible and so tend to over-react to their children's difficulties resulting from learning problems, lack of motivation, or even normal childhood misbehavior. They tend to see these problem behaviors in a very negative light, and even more significantly, they often attribute malicious intent to the child (Strassberg, 1997). These parents can often be identified by the negative and disparaging manner in which they refer to their children: "He's a self-indulgent truant;" "She's a free loader;" "He's using his learning disability as a convenient excuse for his laziness," etc.10

At the other, more positive end of the spectrum, are parents who are very caring and giving to their children and rarely have negative interactions with them. However, they are mostly focused on their children's behavior and cognitive development with little attention paid to their emotional life. Research has shown that a dismissive attitude on the part of parents to their children's emotional life has far-reaching negative implications for their later adjustment (Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1996).

Children whose feelings are neglected or negated respond by neglecting their own emotional needs and focus instead on being well behaved (Miller, 1996). Many become perfectionistic, striving to please their parents at all costs (Sorotzkin, 1985, 1998, 1999a). Eventually and inevitably, it becomes clear to them that they cannot be perfect, and so they give up their quest and become depressed and/or act out their resentment and frustration. It is easy to see that when a rebellious child comes from such a family, it would be difficult to perceive the connection to his or her family life, since these families are indeed high functioning, "good families."

One acting-out youngster had been a well behaved, "A" student. His parents were very giving and attentive to him. However, whenever he did something for the sake of fun (e.g., bowling) or dressed informally (e.g., wearing a sweatshirt to an amusement park) he felt he was disappointing his father who was very low-keyed and straight-laced. The father never told his son that he has to be a carbon copy of his father, but that is exactly what the son felt he had to do in order to win his father's approval. Since his personality was very different from that of his father - he was gregarious and outgoing - he constantly experienced a deep sense of shame for not been as serious as his father. Since the parents never overtly demanded it, I searched for the source of his perceived need to be exactly like his father. After speaking to the father a number of times, he acknowledged that both he and his wife were ultra-sensitive to the opinion of others and have always felt a great need to please others and fit in.

When his son spent time in fun activities the father felt very critical, to a large degree, he acknowledged, because he imagined the disapproval of neighbors. While at first he protested to me that he most often didn't verbalize these negative reactions, he did concede that it was unlikely that his son was unaware of his feelings. Clearly, these parents did not value their own sense of individuality and so it isn't surprising that their son felt the same way.

Resistance to acknowledging the role of parents

There is a great deal of resistance, both among professionals (secular and frum) and the general public, to acknowledging the central role played by parents in the development of emotional difficulties in their children. I will cite a few examples of this reluctance.

Researchers have found clear evidence of the high degree of childhood sexual victimization among severely mentally ill women. The reluctance to report these figures was openly expressed by some of the major researchers in this area.

At the same time, clinical researchers working in the area of severe mental illness have been understandably wary of focusing on the problem of early abuse in this population. There has been a reluctance, for example, to disinter the theoretical trend of blaming families for causing major psychiatric disorders. Current treatment models emphasize enhancing current adjustment rather than understanding past events. (Rosenberg, Drake, & Mueser, 1997, p. 261).

Can you imagine trying to treat an emotionally disturbed adult without relating to the sexual abuse he or she suffered as a child!? How effective can such treatment be? Yet this is what some experts are recommending.

Another example is research done in the area of "expressed emotions [EE]" and psychiatric illness. Years of research clearly show that a psychiatric patient released from the hospital to live with his or her high EE family is twice as likely to relapse and return to the hospital than the patient returning to a low EE family. As noted by a prominent researcher in this area (Hooley, 1998); "The term EE [expressed emotion] is rather misleading since EE is not a measure of how willing a relative is to express emotion or to vent feelings. Rather EE is a reflection of the extent to which the relative expresses critical, hostile, or emotionally over-involved attitudes toward the patient"(p. 631). Note the reluctance of researchers to be honest and open about the fact that they are speaking about a critical family. Instead, they camouflage this information behind the euphemism "expressed emotion."

The above-mentioned researcher, after noting the powerful effect of EE on the relapse rate of psychiatric patients, adds: "These data do not, of course, mean that families cause schizophrenia." I wrote to this researcher and asked if there was any research evidence, as implied by the term "of course," that high EE does not cause schizophrenia? She replied that "the appropriate studies have not been done." She did not explain why she assumes, as an obvious fact, that high EE doesn't cause schizophrenia, in the absence of research evidence. She did state however, that "because of the past tradition of blaming families for causing schizophrenia, it is important that researchers in this area don't go beyond the science in making any unwarranted inferences." It seems however, that when one is being politically correct, then it is quite acceptable to go beyond the science and state, as a proven fact, that EE doesn't cause schizophrenia. In addition, contrary to this researcher's assertion, there is evidence that children in high EE families are more likely to suffer from serious mental illness in adolescence, (see studies cited in Karon & Widener, 1994).

It is interesting to note, that almost every article or book on chinuch written by a contemporary Rov, mechanech or frum clinician emphasizes the importance of a positive and warm parent - child relationship, acceptance of a child's individuality, and a reduction of excessive pressure and criticism, as the surest means of avoiding rebellious children.11 Yet, when children do rebel, we hesitate to draw the logical conclusion that the parents probably did not follow this advice. At a recent conference of frum professionals, a prominent mechanech confided to a friend that he was not going to publicly state his opinion that parents play the major causative role in the problem of rebellious adolescents. He was concerned with the anticipated negative reaction of the audience.

Likewise, when a prominent frum periodical published a series of articles addressing the topic of teen dropouts, it published the viewpoints of all parties involved except those of the children themselves. At the encouragement of his former mashgiach, a young adult wrote a very moving and eloquent letter relating how the difficulties he had with his parents led him to abandon Yidishkeit. At first, the periodical rejected the letter. After some pressure was brought to bear on the editor, the letter was indeed published, but only in a censored and heavily edited manner, which portrayed the letter writer in a very negative and distorted light. In fact, the editor implied, based on virtually no evidence, that the writer had a serious problem with his perception of reality. It was a classical case of trying to deny the message by killing the messenger. When the young man's therapist wrote a letter of protest in order to set the record straight, the editor refused to publish the letter because of concern of "causing additional pain" to parents of rebellious children. Similar concern for the feelings of the unjustly maligned youngster was not expressed.

More recently, a prominent mechanech in Bnei Brak wrote a sefer on chinuch12 where he does spell out the painful truth clearly [free translation]:

The mecahnchim who deal with at-risk youngsters report that all of the youngsters who dropped out did so only because they received insufficient love and respect at home. Not even one of these youngsters claims that that he dropped out because of complaints c"v against Hashem or against the Torah. A child who receives sufficient love and acceptance at home will never go off the derech. [p. 29, 36-37]

Reasons for not attributing acting-out to parental factors

When a respected mechanech recently attributed, in print, adolescent rebelliousness to parental factors, there was a strong reaction. He was accused of, (a) being inaccurate ("it happens even in the best of homes") and, (b) insensitive ("why add to the pain of parents who are already suffering?"). These two oft-stated objections to "blaming" parents for adolescent rebelliousness are usually stated in tandem, without note of the conflicting assumptions underlying them (i.e., the problem is not related to parenting practices vs. maybe it is related, but it is hurtful to parents to say so). Let us examine these objections.

The myth of "It happens in the best of families"

In the context of understanding why a child rebels, the term "good family" would have to include parents who had a positive and emotionally healthy relationship with their children. Therefore, I find it surprising when therapists insist that it is not unusual for youngsters to grow up in frum families and receive a frum chinuch and yet rebel even though they had a wonderful relationship with their parents. Experienced therapists are certainly well aware that parents in "good families" sometimes act in bad ways. Our community's experience with the problem of spousal abuse should have at least taught us that much. Every experienced therapist in the frum community has encountered incidents of undisputed emotional and physical abuse of children in families that are highly respected in the community. The strict rules of confidentiality tie the therapist's hands when he hears that very same family being mentioned as an example of the tragedy of rebellions adolescence happening in the "best of families."

Rav Boruch Sorotzkin, in Habina VeHabrocho13 notes that the negative character traits that unfortunately exist, to some degree, even in great people, are most likely to find expression within the family. Similarly, Rav Eliyahu Lopian14 comments that if you want to know if someone suffers from a bad temper you have to observe his behavior with his wife and children, over whom he may feel a sense of ownership and expect them to jump at his every command, and not his behavior with non-family members.

Rav Chaim Vital quotes the Ari z"l that someone who does chesed with the whole world but not with his family members, his acts of chesed are not considered as zechusim and he doesn't get rewarded for them.15

In spite of the above, the myth persists, even among therapists, that it is common for children who are loved, respected and treated with sensitivity for their emotional needs by their parents, to rebel against these very parents to the point of rejecting their way of life. It seems that it is less threatening to believe that something bad can happen to a "good family," (e.g., when a child rebels) than to acknowledge that a person who is looked up to in the community can be abusive to his or her children. After all, it isn't only children who have a need for idealization (Kohut, 1987; Lee & Martin, 1991). The fact that parents - who are perceived in our collective unconscious as the prototype of the loving and caring individual - can be abusive to their children, can be difficult for us to accept. Consider, for example, the years of denial that sexual abuse could actually occur within the frum family. Certainly, therapists are not immune to these feelings and therefore, it is not surprising if, at times, they unconsciously collude with patients and/or parents in denying this reality. As Gartner (1999) states:

Therapists frequently experience the impulse to reel back from the shock and deny the horror of the material being described. This is a natural reaction in any therapists who is empathically attuned to the patient.. Like the patient, the therapist may try to keep the experience unformulated and unsynthesized. After all, trauma by definition is an event that seemed impossible in the patient's worldview, and may seem equally impossible to the therapist. The dilemma. is that it is in experiencing the therapist's struggle to listen to the impossible that the patient gets freed from it. [p. 257]

There have been times that I have also been convinced that I had encountered an example of a youngster from a "good home" (in both the religious and emotional-health sense) that "went off the derech." But inevitably it turns out that my initial conclusion was premature. It was only because I found it difficult to believe that a youngster from a loving home would have a sufficient reason to take such a drastic step that I kept asking questions (while being careful not to be suggestive) until I was able to indeed understand why it happened.

I once treated a young man from a highly respected family who had gone off the derech. During the first months of therapy he reported that there had not been any difficulties in his relationship with his parents before he became irreligious. His father was a highly respected religious figure with a reputation for gentle kindness to all those who came to him for advice and guidance. At one point, the patient's mother came for a consultation (with the patient's consent) regarding another sibling. In our conversation she related that my patient wasn't as bright as his brilliant father or his other siblings and as a result, he didn't perform in yeshiva as well as his father expected him to. His father would become so angry that he would get into physical confrontations with his son. As the mother described these fights I became overwhelmed with a discomforting feeling. The image of a man revered by the community (including myself) for his piousness and gentleness rolling on the floor in an altercation with his son just because he wasn't making his father proud was almost too painful to tolerate.

The negative impact of the myth

The need to uphold the myth of the all-loving parent can be a source of tremendous hurt and damage to the abused children of these families. How do adolescents understand their own rebelliousness if they are led to believe that their parents treated them in the most loving and caring fashion, even while they were actually maltreated?

First of all, the tendency of all children to prefer to blame themselves for being "bad" rather than see their parents as abusive (Gartner, 1999, p. 38) is greatly intensified by this societal denial. They will therefore, be compelled to see themselves as particularly evil and ungrateful to be so problematic when they were treated so beautifully. Abusive parents are especially prone to constantly reiterate this message to their children. This is consistent with the general tendency of aggressors to portray their victims as the persecutors (Grand, 2000, p. 94). A typical example is when parents are overly harsh and punitive with their children. Not surprisingly the children become less than honest in their dealings with the parents. The parents, in turn, then criticize their children for the grave offense of lying, often commenting to them in anger that they can't imagine how they picked up such a terrible character trait.

Even more insidious is the corrupting effect this myth can have on the thought process of its victims. When youngsters experience abuse yet are told that, in fact, they are being treated with the utmost of kindness and sensitivity, they begin to distrust their sense of reality. As a result, many of these children, even if they are fortunate enough to escape the ravages of a serious thought disorder, suffer from cognitive disabilities seriously impacting on their academic abilities16 (in addition to their other emotional problems). It is for this reason that Grand (2000) emphasizes:

The establishment of the actual historicity of trauma is particularly necessary with child abuse. Child abuse is a trauma uniquely characterized by the falsification of reality; it has invariably occurred secretly, in family systems that deny its very existence. Survivors of other forms of malignant trauma, such as war or violent crime, all received the profound support of consensual validation from survivor cohorts and the larger culture. The child abuse survivor. has been robbed of reality and of history; cure requires its restoration. [p. 42]

Likewise, Orange (citing Alice Miller) explains why some people who were abused as children suffer less long-term psychological damage than others:

[T]he crucial difference in the outcome of severe child abuse depends on the presence of someone in the child's life who witnesses, and thus gives the child the opportunity and ability to experience, the child's pain. Without such a witness. the child cannot experience the abuse as abuse. Instead it is torture that must be endured. The child often feels she or he deserves treatment that an observer would see as cruel and outrageous. In the presence of some, even minimally, validating witness, the child can experience the abuse as mistreatment and, thereby, find ways to express it. [p. 136]

It is for this reason that paradoxically, the trauma a person went through that everyone knows about is often the lest of his or her problems. Someone who lost her parents at a young age probably received a great deal of validation and emotional support from family and community for this trauma. For the abuse she suffered in the hands of the relatives who were kind enough to take in an orphan, she was much less likely to have received any recognition for.

Minimizing the extent or unfairness of the abuse (in the attitude of observers and by extension, in the mind of the victim) is also the single most significant factor in a victim of abuse becoming an abuser. It's as if the victim tells him or herself "If what was done to me was not so terrible then it's o.k. if I also do it." [Briggs & Hawkins, 1996]

Why only one sibling?

The most common "evidence" cited to prove that parenting practices are not significant factors in causing adolescents to rebel, is that often only one of many siblings rebels. As one mechanech challenged me, "If the parents were cold and distant how did they manage to succeed with their other children?"

The assumption that parents succeeded with their other children is often based on superficial criteria, for example, the fact that the other children didn't rebel against yidishkeit. Often however, the other children have also been hurt, but in less obvious ways. Perhaps the other children lack self-confidence or suffer from low self-esteem. Sometimes some of the other children are quite depressed, but not to the point that it is obvious to other people. Even more misleading is when some of the other children become highly functioning perfectionists as a guilt-ridden reaction to constant criticism.17 What is clear is that one should not assume that the other children were not hurt based on superficial impressions. No one ever claimed that errors in parenting have to result in children going off the derech. It is only one of many possible negative consequences.

Even if it were clear that, in a particular case, the parents were successful in raising their other children, what relevance would that have to the parents' impact on one particular child's life? There are cases of undisputed, serious parental abuse where some of the children seem to have survived without major psychological damage. Does that prove that the problems that the other children suffer from were not caused by the abuse? If four people are in a car accident, and one passenger gets hurt while the other three escape unscratched, does that prove that it couldn't have been the accident that caused the injury?

Parents never treat all their children identically (e.g., boys vs. girls, youngest vs. oldest, etc.) and there can be other external factors unique to one of the siblings (as noted above from Alice Miller) that may make him more immune to the negative impact of parental maltreatment. Likewise, parents sometimes learn from their mistakes with one of their children and therefore are more successful with other children. Based on informal surveys that I have conducted, for example, it seems that the vast majority of parents are significantly less strict with their later children than they were with their oldest children since they learn from experience that being overly rigid and strict is counterproductive. In such a situation, perhaps only the older child would develop a serious problem.

We don't know what causes the problem

Another common myth is that we don't know the cause of the problem. In fact, I believe that it is more accurate to say that we rather not know the cause of the problem.

This refusal to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth is reminiscent of the study commissioned a few years ago by the secular Jewish establishment to study the problem of assimilation. The study concluded that assimilation was a complex issue and that they had not been able to ascertain the specific causes of this problem and further study was necessary. This, in spite of the clear evidence, published in the same study, that the major factor combating assimilation was an Orthodox Jewish education. A writer in the secular journal Commentary chided the study for ignoring the uncomfortable truth they themselves uncovered.

The assumption [of the intermarriage task force] is that intermarriage is present in every Jewish family; that it appears at random; that all sectors of the community are equally vulnerable. Why are American Jewish leaders disposed to see all-pervading crisis when . the data they are drawing upon suggest a number of subpopulations behaving in different ways [with the Orthodox having a substantially smaller percentage of intermarriage]? [Because] distinguishing between core Jews and peripheral ones would imply that some Jews behave in a fashion that is "better" than others. Such judgmentalism goes against the neutrality-seeking culture. [so they] banned discussion about the most divisive - i.e., most important issues.18

A similar phenomenon can be observed when AIDS activists insist that "AIDS can happen to anyone," denying the obvious but uncomfortable reality that - in the vast majority of cases - there are limited and specific behaviors that bring about this disease. The well-known columnist, John Leo (2000), describes what happened when a (formally) liberal journalist challenged the notion that AIDS is just as much a threat to heterosexuals as it is to homosexuals, by quoting a researcher who said, "By and large, people who are responsible will not get AIDS." His statement was met with "outrage and denunciation" for casting doubt on liberal dogma.

When I hear a prominent therapist at a professional conference state that "we have no idea what causes adolescents to go off the derech," "it can happen in any family," etc, I ask the same question asked by the writer in Commentary. Why are we disposed to see all-pervading crisis when there is clear evidence - for those willing to see - that, in the vast majority of cases, it is faulty parenting that causes this tragedy? To paraphrase the AIDS researcher (and the mechanech from Benei Brak cited above); By and large, parents who act responsibly - by being sensitive and responsive to their children's emotional needs - will not suffer from rebellious children.

Another version of this myth is that there aren't any natural causes of this problem (e.g., "it can happen in the finest family, etc.). Rather the causes are spiritual and/or mystical in nature. To reinforce this view, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon has been quoted as describing the current epidemic of rebellious youngsters as "a gezeira." This has been interpreted by some as suggesting that this tragedy can happen to anyone without natural reasons of cause and effect. Recently, I had an opportunity to ask Rabbi Salomon about his statement. He explained that he did not mean that this tragedy strikes at random, without rhyme or reason. Rather, he meant that the conditions that bring about this problem - and he emphasized the quality of the parent-child relationship as a major factor - are the result of the geziera of golus. (The speech was given during the "nine days").

Acknowledging Cause and Effect vs. Assigning Blame

Why hurt parents who are already in pain?

The second major objection to attributing the problem of adolescent rebelliousness to parenting factors is that it makes parents feel bad. I find difficult to comprehend this reasoning. Would we ever consider not telling an ignorant smoker that his habit is endangering his life, for the sake of not hurting his feelings? If parents are not made aware that their approach is contributing to their child's problem, why should they be motivated to change it? In a recent conference, a mother of a youngster who went off the derech and is currently abusing drugs, wondered how this tragedy could happen in a beautiful family such as hers. Yet, in the same breath, she noted that her husband still tells their son that he still expects him to be a big talmid chacham and tzadik! Is it an act of kindness not to at least discuss with these parents the possibility that their excessive expectations may have been a major contributing factor to their son's troubles? Most importantly, should we not tell them that if they become more accepting of their son and have realistic expectations of him, they might be able to save him?

It is important to emphasize that acknowledging the role of parents in the development of their children's emotional difficulties and acting out behaviors is not an issue of moral condemnation or assigning blame. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with the words of an eminent therapist (Karon, 2000) who spoke of the need to enlist the aid of parents in the treatment of emotionally disturbed patients;

This may seem strange because so many of the therapeutic issues have to do with hurtful experiences concerning their [parents], but typically the destructive parenting experiences have derived from [the] unconscious defenses of the parent.. The parents had no conscious knowledge or control of these defenses, and in most cases are very decent people who would never consciously hurt their child. Often they will go to great lengths to help their child.. [p. 43]

There are often circumstances that make it particularly difficult for parents to be appropriately responsive to their children. Wahler and Dumas (1989) identify three factors that can inhibit and distort parental responsiveness; (a) a child with a "difficult" temperament; (b) the parent's nuclear family is a constant source of aversive experiences for the parents; (c) the community setting is a constant source of aversive experiences for the parents. Regardless of the distal cause, it is crucial for parents to realize that, at the proximal level, it is the lack of appropriate responsiveness that causes children to suffer from emotional distress and/or acting out.

I also identify with the words of Rav Matisyahu Salomon (1998) who after elucidating the underlying psychological causes of lashon horah apologized for pointing out the shortcomings of his readers: "This is the place to apologize that we didn't come here to uncover the shame and dishonor of people, G-d forbid. On the contrary, because they are spiritual people who want to improve themselves, therefore we dared to raise this issue in print." (pp. 231-232, free translation)

The price we pay for ignoring the role of parenting

I used to be hesitant to attribute adolescent acting out to parental attitudes and behaviors because I was sure that parents would be defensive and reject this approach out of hand. Over time, I began to realize the high price parents were paying in order to avoid the unpleasantness of acknowledging their role in their children's problems. When therapists collude in avoiding connecting their adolescent patients' problems to their past history, this encourages the patients to unjustly take full responsibility for their problems, which in turn further lowers their already depressed self-esteem. As a result, the likelihood of recovery is reduced. The parents, for their part, have no reason to work on improving their relationship with their children since it isn't presented as contributing to the problem. As a result, the problem gets worse.

Some therapists try to "have their cake and eat it too" by telling parents that "you were not part of the problem, but you are part of the solution." In other words, they didn't contribute in any way to the development of their child's difficulties but they can be helpful in the treatment. The problem I have found with this approach is that it doesn't allow patients to put their past behind them. It is only when parents acknowledge the hurt that they have inflicted and express regret for it that their children can come to terms with the past and focus on the future.19 In addition, taking this step sets an example for children to take responsibility for their actions (see Sorotzkin, 1999b).

My hesitancy to explore the effect of parenting practices on my patients' current problem behaviors was also influenced by "current treatment models [that] emphasize enhancing current adjustment rather than understanding past events."20 However, past events are not merely historical artifacts. Rather, they are events that have created psychological structures (e.g., low self-esteem, and chronic feelings of rejection) that shape current attitudes and behaviors. As Gillman (1986) put it, trauma is "an organizer for development. Although whole or part of trauma may be out of awareness, something is embedded in the personality, a focus that draws into it posttraumatic events, to be dealt with over and over again" (p. 75). As a result, when I tried to "enhance current adjustment" without uncovering the underlying psychological structures, it resulted in temporary and superficial improvement, at best.

An analogy I have often used to explain this point is what happens when you drive a car without oil. Eventually the engine burns out (i.e., structural damage). It is no longer sufficient to just add oil. The engine has to be rebuilt. Likewise, when children suffer psychic structural damage from mishandling it is usually not sufficient to start treating them nicely from now on. It is usually necessary to undo the damage to the psychic structure, by addressing the hurt from the past in psychotherapy.

A 21 year-old young man had a history of a mild learning disorder and conflict with his father who had always attributed his poor academic performance to laziness and lack of motivation. This young man was struggling with college. His father, who by now realized the unjust nature of his past criticism, assured his son that it would be perfectly acceptable to him if he dropped out of college. Unfortunately, because of the long history of criticism, the son no longer believed his father that he really meant it. He became very anxious worrying that his father would reject him if he left college.

As a result of the above considerations, I began to more directly (albeit, gently) point out to parents how their parenting approach (e.g., being overly critical and negative) directly contributed to their children's problem. To my surprise, I found that the majority of parents were quite receptive if this was presented in a sympathetic and respectful manner. In fact, many of the parents began to admonish me for not getting the word out to other parents. It is mostly in response to their prompting that this paper was written.

There is another reason why I am troubled by the well-meaning effort to spare parents from the painful truth. Why don't we have the same sensitivity and consideration for the child's pain? If we take the attitude that parenting practices is not a significant factor in their children's problems, then the child is left to take full responsibility. In fact, as indicated above, this only reinforces the attitude children already have anyway that it must be all their own fault.

"Levi" was on acting-out older adolescent. His father was physically abusive to his wife and emotionally abusive to his children. Once, in reaction to his mother's criticism, Levi complained, "How you expect me to act normally when I grew up in a crazy house?" In response, his mother chided him, "It's no excuse. What happened in the past is over. You have to take responsibility for your actions!" A little later in the conversation, he confided in his mother that he feels a great deal of anger and resentment toward his father for the way he has treated the family. "Oh," responded his mother, "You really shouldn't be angry at your father. After all, his parents were busy educating Yidishe children and had no time for him. It's really isn't his fault." It took Levi some time to acknowledge the obvious double standard in his mother's attitude.

A recent news story provides a glaring example of our society being more concerned with the pain of adult perpetrators than the pain of children victims as well as an example of society's need to deny the possibility of parental figures abusing children. A charismatic youth leader in a major Orthodox organization is accused (with a great deal of credible evidence) of abusing his charges over the course of the past three decades. It is alleged that the leaders of the organization were well aware of the allegations but did nothing. What was the response of one of the leaders of the organization? That "he can't think of anyone 'who has suffered as much' as [the alleged perpetrator]". Not a word about the victims!!

I would venture two reasons why we often feel more concern for the pain of the adult perpetrators than that of the child victims. First of all, as adults we identify more closely with other adults. Secondly, if we attribute malicious intent to acting-out children while denying the role of parents, as discussed above, then it is no wonder that we have little sympathy for the children.


Some mechanchim fear that attributing children's problem behaviors to parental errors might reduce the youngsters' sense of responsibility. If they don't feel that it is their fault, they won't be motivated to improve.21 This concern is unwarranted. Anyone who has worked closely with these youngsters and has developed an open relationship with them, knows that they are not at all happy with their state, and would give anything to become "normal," regardless of the amount of responsibility they assume. The fact that they often act in self-defeating ways is indicative of low self-esteem and lack of confidence (i.e., they see themselves as too-far gone, or too "bad" to be saved) rather than a lack of caring. Even youngsters who claim that they "don't care," are only being defensive about their caring.

When adolescent patients insist to me that they "don't care" about their dismal state, I ask them the following question. "If someone offered you a magic pill that would change you to be like other 'normal' youngsters, would you accept it?" I have yet to have a patient turn the offer down. This serves to make it clear to patients that their "not caring" only reflects their lack of hope for improvement.

As indicated above, many youngsters arrive at the point of rebelliousness after going through a period of perfectionism. They have often taken upon themselves too much responsibility rather than too little. These feelings of responsibility are most often accompanied by feelings of profound shame and relentless and unreasonable guilt. Only after being overwhelmed by these feelings, have they finely given up hope. Helping them become aware of the familial conditions that promoted their rebelliousness is often an important step in their recovery (Sorotzkin, 1996). When patients are helped to express their anger over past parental hurts and when parents make a sincere effort to repair their relationship with their children, it is specifically this process that most often leads to a significantly improved relationship with the parents.

Working with parents in therapy

In my practice, when I speak to parents of rebellious children, I ask direct and often difficult questions.22 I focus on the early relationship with the child. Were the parents very demanding, critical, or difficult to please? Did the child feel that nothing he or she would do would be enough to please the parent?

It needs to be emphasized that if the clinician merely asks the parents of rebellious youngsters if they had a good relationship with their children, they would most often answer "yes," regardless of the true historical nature of the relationship. The clinician needs to ask specific and direct questions.

The following event is typical. A parent who attributed his son's problem behaviors to school issues, at first claimed that he had a good relationship with his son. It was only after some direct, probing questions that he opened up and admitted to being a very negative person (he saw himself as very similar to his own father in this regard). As he spoke about this problem at length, he was able to actually see how this had impacted negatively on his son. He also resolved to try and repair his relationship with his son. Would I have been kinder to him if I would have spared him this information?

When speaking to youngsters, it is also necessary to ask specific and direct questions regarding their relationship with their parents, since they also tend to repress and/or deny the negative aspects of these relationships (Moses, 1989). This is another reason that even experienced clinicians are often convinced that the problem of rebellious adolescents can occur even in a home with the most positive and emotionally supportive parent - child relationships.

Recently, a young adult from a well-known and respected family stated, in our initial conversation that, "I didn't have a particularly hard life." Only in response to a series of direct question did he state that there was "absolutely no sholom bayis in our house." His parents have not spoken to each other in years and live in separate rooms. In his younger years he often observed his father being physically abusive to his mother. Most of his siblings suffer from some form of emotional disorder. Nonetheless he sincerely believed, at some level, that he didn't have a particularly hard life!

Once the therapist ascertains what it was in the child's early home environment that made him or her vulnerable to becoming a rebellious teenager, the next step is to help the parents understand this without causing them to be overly defensive. It must be made clear to them that the purpose of this exercise is not to blame them but rather to set the foundation for repairing the relationship with their child and thus reduce the level of his or her problem behaviors.

"Tough love" vs. "gentle love"

Once parents appreciate the harm caused by a negative relationship, they are usually motivated to listen to suggestions on how to develop a positive relationship. Often, it is necessary to first dissuade them from following well-intentioned advice to apply "tough love" treatment. The "tough love" approach seems to me to be the natural consequence of attributing negative intent to children, as discussed below in the "Parental Attitudes" section. These parents will often attribute children's rebelliousness to the fact that they were "spoiled." Not surprisingly, this is the one parenting mistake that parents have no problem "confessing" to. It is especially appealing when a spouse can be blamed for spoiling the child. (It is astonishing and disheartening to hear parents claim that children who have been constantly yelled at and severely criticized were "spoiled" and have had it "too easy" just because they had an abundance of material objects).

When parents express concern that my advice may be tainted by secular, liberal influences, I suggest that they may feel more comfortable following the advice provided by the Chazon Ish:

When asked how parents should treat their children who have gone "off the derech," [the Chazon Ish] responded that they should try to draw them closer with bonds of love and not to push them away. A youth who became a mechallel Shabbos later asked his father to buy him a car. The father agreed on condition that he promises not to drive on Shabbos. The son refused to promise and tension between father and son rose sharply. The Chazon Ish, however, advised the father to give his son the car without any conditions, for in that way he would have much more influence over him.23

I suggest to the parents that, when it reaches a point where children rebel against the family and its way of life, then they need to show their children that they are more concerned with their feelings than with their behavior. If they can do this, there is a good chance that they can turn the situation around.

Parental attitudes

It is important for the therapist to keep in mind that improving the parent-child relationship is usually not just a matter of improving specific parenting techniques. The problem is more likely to be in the parents' overall perception of, attitudes and emotional responsiveness toward their children (Whaler & Dumas, 1989; Wahler, 1997). Some parents, for example, will refuse, on principle, to accommodate a particular child's likes and dislikes in food by preparing something different for him than the rest of the family. "This is not a restaurant!" they insist. As if treating a child with the courtesy afforded any guest would be unthinkable. Likewise, parents who are particularly negative and critical will obviously react punitively to behaviors that they perceive to be unusually deviant or purposely defiant (e.g., "he's taking the easy way out [by being dysfunctional!]; he wants to show that he's the boss!"). In fact, the parents are actually reacting quite reasonably considering what they perceive.24

A patient who had a severe stuttering problem related how he confided to his father about his feelings of terror and shame when speaking in public. His father reacted with criticism, "It is only because of your gaiva (haughtiness) that it bothers you". This father was reacting in a "reasonable" fashion considering what he saw as the obvious reality.

When speaking to parents, the therapist needs to listen closely for parental attitudes that undermine the healthy emotional development of children.

I mentioned to parents of an adolescent patient how a child who feels close to his parents would confide in them if he were troubled by something he did wrong. The mother objected, "If he respected his parents and had consideration for their feelings he wouldn't burden them with information that would upset them." One can only imagine that it is not likely that her children would have an open relationship with her.

Genetic factors, chemical imbalances, and child effects

In the ongoing attempts to avoid acknowledging the primary impact of deficient parenting practices on children's future adjustment problems, many other factors have been suggested as primary factors. Often, parents feel that their children's difficulties started at a very early age and probably reflect genetic influences. They therefore feel absolved from any responsibility. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that many contemporary clinicians attribute adolescent misbehavior to genetic factors or to a "chemical imbalance," either because they believe this and/or because they prefer a "no-fault" approach. The evidence for these assumptions, however, are tenuous at best and suspect at worst (see studies cited in Karon &. Widener, 1994). Often, there are obvious familial explanations that they fail to uncover or choose to ignore.

Even when genetics does play a role, it does not preclude the importance of understanding the environmental factors. A noted genetic researcher stated in a special issue of Science: ". the interaction of genes and environment is much more complicated than the simple 'violence genes' and 'intelligence genes' touted in the popular press.. The same data that show the effects of genes, also point to the enormous influence of non-genetic factors"25

The following true incident illustrates the overriding impact of parental attitudes, even when dealing with behaviors with a clear genetic base.

[Identical twin] girls were separated in infancy and raised apart by different adoptive parents.. When the twins were two and a half years old, the adoptive mother was asked a variety of questions. Everything was fine with Shauna, she indicated, except for her eating habits. "The girl is impossible. Won't touch anything I give her. No mashed potatoes, no bananas. Nothing without cinnamon. Everything has to have cinnamon on it. I'm really at my wit's end with her about this. We fight at every meal. She wants cinnamon on everything!"

In the house of the second twin, far away from the first, no eating problem was mentioned at all by the other mother. "Ellen eats well," she said, adding after a moment: As a matter of fact, as long as I put cinnamon on her food she'll eat anything." (Neubauer & Neubauer, 1990, p. 20)

Another variation of the "attribute the cause of the problem to anyone or anything other than the parents" approach is to acknowledge deficient parenting practices, but to blame the children for it. This is known as the "child effects" (e.g., Lytton, 1990). These children are presumed to have been born with difficult temperaments, which causes their parents to be abusive to them. An early exponent of this approach was the Austrian psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein who died in London in 1960. Grotstein (1983) reports that:

Klein emphasizes the responsibility of the infant for the occurrence of breaks in the bonding [with the mother] and minimizes the responsibility of the mother. [p. 179]

It is certainly true that some children are born with more difficult temperaments and/or temperaments that happen to conflict more with that of the parents. But to lay the responsibility for developing a positive and emotionally healthy relationship on the infants instead of the parents seem to me totally ludicrous! In fact, the well-known posuk in Mishlei (22:6), "Chanoch l'na'ar al pi darko" specifically lays the responsibility on parents and mechanchim to adjust their own personality to the child's temperament and not the reverse! While this can be quite difficult at times (perhaps this is the meaning of "tza'ar gidul bonim" in Eiruvin, 100b), it is irrational to put the responsibility on the child!26

The role of yeshivos and schools

At conferences dealing with adolescents going off the derech, much criticism is heard regarding religious schools and yeshivos. They are criticized for, among other things, not being responsive to the needs of the individual. I find it interesting that therapists are very hesitant to criticize parents yet feel perfectly comfortable criticizing yeshivos. Perhaps, since most clinicians are also parents, they feel more threatened by the thought of parental responsibility. It is my feeling that it is the parents' responsibility to give their children a sense of individuality while the school's primary job is to socialize. It is only when parents themselves fail to promote their child's sense of individuality (as is common with parents who are themselves unusually sensitive to the opinions of others) that the schools socialization process takes place at the expense of the child's individuality.27

Similarly, when relating to the association between learning disabilities and rebelling adolescents, the tendency is to criticize the schools for not doing enough and for not being sufficiently sensitive to the child's difficulties. Here again, I feel that parents play a more significant role than the school. When parents are emotionally supportive of their learning disabled children, then the children are better able to deal with the deficiencies of the schools.28

It is significantly more painful for children to feel that they have disappointed their parents than to be told that they have disappointed their teacher. Unfortunately, many parents find it difficult to deal with the pressure exerted on them by the school when their child is unable keep up academically. They are unable to serve as a buffer between the school and their child. Instead, they direct their frustration against their child. Likewise, when the parents' own ego is threatened by their child's academic difficulties they will often deny the existence of the problem and will refuse the remedial services recommended by the schools.29

While I emphasize the role of the parents in the child's overall emotional health, it should go without saying that mechanchim play a major role in shaping a child's attitudes to school in general and to yidishkeit in particular. To many teens - especially those who either have parents who are less frum, or who are not so close to their children - mechanchim can be parent substitutes and they often represent the essence of yidishkeit to their students. When mechanchim are insensitive to their student's emotional needs it can undermine or even corrupt their emotional relationship to yidishkeit. Unfortunately, many adults still carry the scars of insensitive and even cruel treatment by mechanchim. This creates a negative association to yidishkeit - with many negative repercussions even if it doesn't result in going off the derech. Most of the observations and suggestions made here for parents are equally applicable to mechanchim and mechanchos.

Mechanchim should (and many do) take advantage of any influence that they have on the parents of their talmidim to encourage them to be more positive, reasonable and emotionally supportive toward their children. The parents need to be informed that according to the Chazon Ish, the Steipler and almost all other gedolim, rebellious children in our generation should be approached in a positive, accepting and non-confrontational manner.


As I finished writing this paper, I came across the recently published book of lectures by the renowned Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg (2000), from which I would like to quote a paragraph as my concluding remarks:

I agree with the educator who said that a child constructs his picture of the world through the experience he has with his mother. According to whether the mother is loving or unloving, the child will feel that the world is loving or unloving. When he is not loved, he fails to learn to love. Such children grow up to be people who find it extremely difficult to understand the meaning of love. Show me the hardened criminal, the juvenile delinquent, psychopath. and in almost every case I will show you a person resorting to desperate means to attract the emotional warmth and attention he failed to get, but so much wants and needs. Aggressive behavior, when fully understood, is in fact nothing but love frustrated. It is a technique for compelling love, as well as a means for taking revenge on a society that has let the person down, leaving him disillusioned, deserted, and dehumanized. The best way to approach aggressive behavior in children is not by aggressive behavior toward them, but with love.. If you find rebels in society today, it is because they were never given proper love. [p. 139]

Encouraging parents to take a honest look at how their relationship with their children contributed to their problem behaviors is beneficial both to the children and to the parents. Improving the relationship in a meaningful manner, together with the zechos of tefilah, is the only way to bring about a lasting change in the child's condition.

Lechvod haMasgiach shlit"a:

As a follow up to our phone conversation this past erev Shabbos, I would like to elaborate on one important point.

I fully realize the danger in, and the controversial nature of, my therapeutic approach (in many cases) of encouraging/allowing patients to be aware of the role their parents played in the development of their emotional difficulties and/or behavioral problems.

I did not arrive at this approach because of theories I studied in school. In fact, when I first began practicing, I accepted the "current treatment models that emphasize enhancing current adjustment, rather than understanding past events" (to quote a well known researcher in 1997). However, I found that this approach was only putting a bandage on the wound. The person remained the same person - even if he could function a little better than before.

I felt that these bochurim - and others - deserved that we therapists actually try to cure them. This required getting to the root of why they almost all had such poor self-images and why they were certain that they were rejects in Hashem's eyes. With increasing experience, I became convinced that in almost all cases these problems - at the root - were the result of deficiencies in parenting. However, (1) children are not capable of comprehending these issues, and (2) it is too emotionally painful for children to believe that their parents could be abusive to them and (3) abusive parents are likely to respond viciously to even legitimate complaints by their children. Therefore, even abused children grow up being convinced that they are being treated lovingly and respectfully.

So how does a child explain to himself why he is so unhappy, jealous, obsessive, angry, obsessed with hirhurim, etc.? It must be, the child tells himself, (often the parent tells it to him also), that he is lazy, stupid, defective, a ba'al taivah, etc. Being supportive and encouraging to such a patient, will make him feel better for the moment, but it won't cure the underlying deficiency. It is therefore necessary, it seems to me, to help the patient develop a more honest and accurate picture of his early life. The anger that results is indeed disruptive (and upsetting to the parents when they lose the only leverage they ever had, since they never learned how to influence their children through a healthy relationship) but it is also curative.

Another reason is that often these patients have internalized unhealthy and erroneous attitudes (often under the guise of hashkafah) that feed the low self-esteem, paralyzing self-doubt, etc. In order to change these deeply imbedded cognitions it is, unfortunately, necessary to highlight the negative aspects of the parental attitudes (e.g., illogical, unfair, hypocritical, etc.).

When parents are cooperative with this approach the end result is a truly close and respectful relationship. If they are not, then tragically, but in my opinion unavoidably, the child will become healthier but more distant from his parent (although the previous "close" relationship was only an illusion). I feel very strongly that this is the key to truly building the patient into an emotionally healthy oved Hashem who is capable of raising his own children without being abusive.

Bech'vod Rav,

Benzion Sorotzkin

[P.S. The last comment is another major reason why it is important for maltreated children to be fully aware regarding the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of their parents. If they minimize the negative impact of such practices why should they even try to avoid treating their children in the same manner?]


Bifoos, Rabbi Y. Y. (1988). Yalkut Lekach Tov. (6 vols.). Rechasim, Israel: Tashbar Harav. [Hebrew].

Blumenthal, N. & Russel, S. (1999, January). Children in crisis: Report from conference. (Co-sponsored by Nefesh & Ohel), Asbury Park, NJ.

Brafman, Rabbi Aaron. (1977, April). Crisis in parent-children relations: An analysis with some prescriptive suggestion. The Jewish Observer, pp. 10-14.

Brafman, Rabbi Aaron. (1998, October). Where are we heading? Our latest encounters with Western culture. The Jewish Observer, pp. 6-9.

Briggs, F. & Hawkins, R. (1996). A comparison of the childhood experiences of convicted male child molesters and men who were sexually abused in childhood and claimed to be nonoffenders. Child Abuse and Neglect, 20, 221-233.

Collins, W. A., Maccoby, E. E., Steinberg, L., Hetherington, E. M., & Bornstein, M. H. (2000). Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Psychologist, 55, 218-232.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren't we happy? American Psychologist, 54, 821-827.

Dessler, Rabbi E. E. (1990-1999). Michtav meEliyahu. (5 vols.). Jerusalem. [Hebrew].

Eisemann, Rabbi Moshe. (1999). Of parents and penguins, pp 60-66.

Eliach, Rabbi D. (1995). P'nimim meshulchan govoha. (5 vols.). Jerusalem. [Hebrew].

Eliav, C. (1998). The runaway, (trans. L. Lazewnik). NY: Shaar Press/Mesorah.

Gartner, R. B. (1999). Betrayed as boys: Psychodynamic treatment of sexually abused man. NY: Guilford.

Gillman, R., (1986), Physical trauma and actual seduction. In A. Rothstein (Ed.), The reconstruction of trauma: Its significance in clinical work (pp. 73-94). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Gottman, J. M., Katz, L. F., & Hooven, C. (1996). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: Theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology. 10, 243- 268.

Grand, S. (2000). The reproduction of evil: A clinical and cultural perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Grotstein, J. S. (1983). Some perspectives on self-psychology. In A. Goldberg (Ed.), The future of psychoanalysis (pp. 165-201). NY: International Universities Press.

Hirsch, Rabbi S. R. (1989). The Pentateuch, (6 vols.). Gateshead, England: Judaica Press.

Hooley, J. M. (1998). Expressed emotion and psychiatric illness: From empirical data to clinical practice. Behavior Therapy, 29, 631-646.

Horowitz, Rabbi Yakov. (1996, October). An ounce of prevention - II: The parents' role in preventing today's under achievers from becoming dropout teens. The Jewish Observer, pp.17-21.

Huminor, Rabbi Mordechai. (2003). Chinuch Malchuti. Benei Brak. [Hebrew].

Hutner , Rabbi Yitzchok. (1996). Pachad Yitzchok/Sefer Hazikoron. Brooklyn: Gur Aryeh.[Hebrew].

Jewish Observer (1995, February). [Special issue]. The world around us: The risk of exposure, the cost of insularity.

Karon, B. P. (2000). Treatment of severely disturbed patients in private practice. Psychologist Psychoanalyst, 20 (2) 40-43.

Karon, B. P. & Widener, A. J. (1994). Is there really a schizophrenogenic parent? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 11, 47-61.

Kohut, H. (1987). The Kohut Seminars (Edited by M. Elson), Chap. 6. NY: Norton.

Lee. R. R. & Martin, J. C. (1991). Psychotherapy after Kohut. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Leo, J. (2000, June 12). Accidental conspirator: The new liberalism creates a new conservative. U.S. News & World Report ("On Society" column), p. 14.

Lopian, Rabbi Eliyahu (1983). Lev Eliyahu (Vol. 1, p. 37). Jerusalem. [Hebrew].

Lytton, H. (1990). Child and parent effects in boy's conduct disorder: A reinterpretation. Developmental Psychology, 26, 683-697.

Miller, S. B. (1996). Shame in context. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Moses, I. (1989). Relinquishing idealizations and false memories of the unempathic parents. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 25, 63-75.

Neubauer, P. B., & Neubauer, A. (1990). Nature's thumbprint: The new genetics of personality. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Orange, D. M. (1995). Emotional understanding: Studies in psychoanalytic epistemology. NY: Guilford.

Rosenberg, S. D., Drake, R. E., & Mueser, K. T. (1997). Treatment research on sequelae of sexual abuse." In: M. Harris & C. L. Landis (Eds.), Sexual abuse in the lives of women diagnosed with serious mental illness, (pp. 259-275). Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic Publishers.

Salomon, Rabbi Matisyahu. (1998). Matnas Chaim (maamarim), Jerusalem. [Hebrew].

Scheinberg, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas. (2000). Heart to heart talks. Brooklyn, NY: Artscroll/Mesorah:

Shmulevitz, Rabbi Chaim. (1979). Sichos Mussar (Sec. 1, p. 74). Jerusalem. [Hebrew].

Sochchov, Rabbi Shmuel (1974). Shem meShmuel, (4th edition), 5 vols. Jerusalem. [Hebrew].

Sorotzkin, B. (1985). The quest for perfection: Avoiding guilt or avoiding shame? Psychotherapy, 22, 564- 571.

Sorotzkin, B. (1996, April). Bechira: How free is free will? The Jewish Observer, pp. 17-21.

Sorotzkin, B. (1998). Understanding and treating perfectionism in religious adolescents. Psychotherapy, 35, 87-95.

Sorotzkin, B. (1999a). The pursuit of perfection: Vice or virtue in Judaism? The Journal of Psychology and Judaism, 23(4), 179-195.

Sorotzkin, B. (1999b, May). Developing middos: Learned or experienced? The Jewish Observer, pp. 6-11.

Sorotzkin, Rabbi Refael Boruch (1998). Habina Vehabrocho (Vol. 1, p. 10, footnote 8). Wickliffe, Ohio. [Hebrew].

Strassberg, Z. (1997). Levels of analysis in cognitive bases of maternal disciplinary dysfunction. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25, 209-215

Wahler, R. G. (1990). Who is driving the interaction? A commentary on "Child and parent effects in boy's conduct disorder." Developmental Psychology, 26, 702-704.

Wahler, R. G. (1997). Strengthening child compliance through positive parenting practices: What works? Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 26, 433-440.

Wahler, R. G. & Dumas, J. E. (1989). Attentional problems in dysfunctional mother-child interactions: An interbehavioral model. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 116-130.

Wikler, M. (2000). Partners with Hashem: Effective guidelines for successful parenting. Brooklyn, NY: Artscroll/Mesorah:

Wolbe, Rabbi S. (1968). Alei shur, (Vol. 2). Be'er Yaakov, Israel. [Hebrew].

Wolbe, Rabbi S. (1999). Planting and building in education. NY: Feldheim.

1)Acknowledgments: Earlier versions of this paper were presented at a conference of educators in Monsey, NY on November 25, 1999 and at the NEFESH conference, Baltimore, MD on December 26, 1999. The author wishes to thank the many colleagues - psychotherapists and mechanchim- who have commented on, agreed with, challenged and disputed earlier versions of this article. A special thanks to my patients who trusted me enough to tolerate the pain of looking into dark, hidden alcoves of their memories.
2)See e.g., Jewish Observer, 1995 and Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, 1999
3)Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. 2, p. 205. See also Rabbi D. Eliach, 1995, Vol. 1, p. 128 and Rav S. R. Hirsch, Toldos 25:27.
4)Michtav MeEliyahu Vol. 5, p. 458 and footnote there, (see also Sorotzkin, 1996).
5)Blumenthal & Russel, 1999.
6)Sochchov, 1974 - Vol. 5, p. 137.
7)See also Rav S. Wolbe, 1968, p. 260; Rabbi Y. Y. Bifoos, Vol. 1, pp. 115-116 and Rav Matisyahu Salomon, 1998, p. 188. The Runaway (Eliav, 1998), a novel published by Shaar Press/Mesorah, depicts in a true-to-life manner, how a well-respected father can be so harsh, critical, demanding and inflexible - all in the name of frumkeit - to the point of driving his child away from Yidishkeit. The father, in the meantime, remains totally oblivious to his role in the tragedy.
8)1996, p. 71.
9)The Chazon Ish is quoted as saying that children need their parents' respect more than they need their love (Mishpacha, April 6, 2000, p. 20).
10)This issue is discussed in more detail below in the section "Parental attitudes."
11)E.g., Rav S. Wolbe, 1999; Wikler, 2000.
12)Rav M. Huminor (2003).
13)P. 10, footnote.
14)Lev Eliyahu, Part 1, p. 37.
15)Rav M. Huminor (2003), p. 45.
16)See Tiferes Yisroel, Avos 6:6, Sameach Bechelko.
17)Often eventually resulting in psychosomatic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder etc. (Sorotzkin, 1985, 1988, 1999a).
18)Cited in the Jewish Observer, February 1996, p. 31.
19)See Appendix
20)Rosenberg, Drake, & Mueser, 1997, p. 261.
21)Here again, there doesn't seem to be a similar concern that the parents take responsibility for what they did wrong.
22)Based on the feedback I get from ny referral sources, I am reassured that I do so in a respectful and sensitive manner.
23)Cited in the Jewish Observer, November 1999, p. 14.
24)Rav Chaim Shmulevitz cites the posuk (Bamidbar, 14:34) that the Yiden had to roam the desert for 40 years as a punishment for the meraglim roaming through Eretz Yisroel for 40 days. Asks Rav Shmulevitz, Their aveira was speaking slander against Eretz Yisroel, which took place in one day, and not roaming through Eretz Yisroel for 40 days? Rabbi Shmulevitz explains that, in fact, the meraglim were punished for seeing negative over the course of 40 days, since that was the foundation for their negative behavior of speaking slander. For a fascinating study of the impact of parental attitudes and perceptions on disciplinary patterns, see Strassberg, 1997.
25)Quoted in the Narth Bulletin, December 1999, p. 35; see also Collins et al., 2000.
26)see also Whaler, 1990.
27)Cf. Rav E. E. Dessler, Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. 1, p. 92.
28)See Talmud Taanis 8a, where learning difficulties are attributed to emotional distress.
29)See Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, 1996.

To sign up for Rabbi Horowitz’s weekly emails, please click here.

Reader's Comments:      Rating & Comments Policy      Rate & Write a Comment!
 Average Rating:              Rated by 11 users    (16 comments)
Subscribe to this Article
(by subscribing you will receive email notification
when new comments are posted)
There are no comments yet. Click above to write the first comment.
Dear Readers:

Please visit our Parenting Resource listing to learn about agencies and services that you can make use of. If you know of an agency that can be of assistance to others, kindly drop an email to our site administrator at and pass along the information to him.

I ask that you please consider supporting the work we are doing to improve the lives of our children. Click on these links to learn more about our teen and parent mentoring program that serves hundreds of teens and their families, or our KESHER program, now in 20 schools in 4 states. Your financial support can allow us to expand these services and help more children.

If you believe in the governing principles of this website – to help effect positive change through the candid discussions of the real issues we collectively face, please consider becoming a daily, weekly or monthly sponsor of this website and help defray the costs of it’s maintenance.

Working with Families and Educators on Behalf of our Children

This site is managed by The Center for Jewish Family Life, Inc., 56 Briarcliff Drive, Monsey, NY 10952
Project Y.E.S. was founded by Agudath Israel of America
The Center for Jewish Family Life/Project YES - 56 Briarcliff Drive, Monsey, NY 10952 (845) 352-7100 ext. 114 Fax: (845) 352-9593