Parenting an at-risk teen

At-risk teens are unhappy and unproductive. Many turn to drugs and alcohol and reject Torah values. Parent with a plan.Express your love.

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz,

(Illustration)
(Illustration)
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Imagine going for a walk one winter morning and finding your neighbor sitting in his car vigorously turning the steering wheel – while the engine is shut off. When you ask him why he doesn’t start the car, he responds that his battery died, and he will soon get jumper cables to ‘give it a boost’. However, before he does that, he would like to turn the front wheels away from the curb so that he can instantly be able to pull out of the parking space once his automobile starts. You may walk away wondering why he is exerting so much energy turning the wheel of a stalled car, instead of waiting until the engine starts and the power steering kicks in.

This analogy reflects my thinking of how parents can be most helpful in assisting their at-risk teens get back on track. Very often, and understandably so, parents start helping their struggling kids by addressing the antisocial behaviors (partying or drug/alcohol abuse) or the rejection of Torah values (not keeping Shabbos or inappropriate attire). I have found, however, that the most effective thing that parents can do to really help their child is to assist him/her in getting his/her life in order. Once that is accomplished, it is far, far easier to help him/her with the other matters.

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

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

While the rebbi did not express these thoughts in terms of at-risk teens, I feel that this concept represents the most effective way for parents to chart a course for the lives of their at-risk kids. Help them become ‘mentchen’ – functioning, productive young adults who have a reason to wake up in the morning, who feel that each day is a gift that ought to be unwrapped as the treasure that it is – before you work on the at-risk symptoms. For once they become happier and more productive; you will find it so much easier to ‘turn the wheel.’

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

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

I would also suggest that you carefully study the theory of Abraham Maslow on “The Hierarchy of Needs.” (Click here) He suggests that there are five sequential ‘needs’ aligned like a pyramid. Once the more basic needs are met – safety, security, and belonging – a person can begin to work on achieving success and self-actualizing. In plain simple English, that means that if you lecture an unhappy, unfulfilled teenager about his davening or lack thereof, it is unlikely that your efforts will meet with much success. As with all theories, you need not agree with it in its entirety (I don’t), but there are profound lessons to be learned from his thoughts.

I will close this column with a final thought and plea. Please, please ignore your neighbors and societal pressure and l’maan Hashem do what is right for your child. Our patriarch Yaakov Avinu had the wisdom and fortitude to acknowledge the diversity of his children’s natures and abilities in his final blessings to them (see Bereshis 49). He celebrated their individuality, did not try to force one into the other’s shoes – and was rewarded by having all his children follow his path of serving Hashem. Parents who ignore the sage advice of his living example often pay a horrific price. Over the years, I have seen far too many children sacrificed on the altar of “what will the neighbors say?” when out-of-the-box children are forced into settings that do not match their natures. Keep your eye on doing what is right for your child. That’s all that really matters.

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, the Director of The Center for Jewish Family Life, received The Covenant Award in recognition of his lifelong contribution to Jewish education and his advocacy for child abuse victims. The Hebrew version of The Center for Jewish Family Life’s best-selling Let's Stay Safe Child Safety Book is scheduled for release in May 2015.  




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