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August 3, 2015 / 18 Av, 5775
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Jumpstarting Your Child’s Life: Parenting An At-Risk Teen

Note to readers: I have been flooded with e-mails and calls as a result of the columns that appeared in The Jewish Press op-ed pages over the past two weeks regarding what is taking place in the Catskills. Some addressed the issue from a communal perspective, asking what steps ought to be taken to improve the situation. Many, however, were from parents of at-risk teens pleading for guidance in counseling their children through this stormy phase in their lives. Over the next few weeks, I will be running columns in this space to address these matters from a parenting perspective. I hope you find them helpful.

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 children by addressing their 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 much easier to help him/her with the other matters.

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 in Shemos 22:30 that “V’anshei kodesh te’heyu li – the people of holiness shall you be to Me.” The rebbe pointed out that the Torah places the word anshei before kodesh, in effect telling us to be a mentsch before attempting to achieve spirituality. (His exact words in Yiddish were, “kodem a mentsch un nach dem heilig – first become a refined human being, and only then strive to become more holy.”)

While the rebbe 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 children. Help them become mentschen – functioning, productive young adults who have a reason to wake up in the morning with the feeling that each day is a gift that ought to be unwrapped as the treasure that it is. This should be done 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 helping him/her get a GED or, better yet, helping your child 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 your own counseling to help you effectively parent your child through this challenging stage in their life.

Please print the following saying and affix it to your desk or refrigerator: “No one ever changed the oil in a rented car.” As one of my favorites, I tell it to parents every time I lecture on parenting at-risk teens. This aphorism means that the more ownership your teen feels in their life, the more likely he/she will 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’s Hierarchy of Needs. (You can read about it online by doing a Google search of Abraham Maslow. It is the third item on the list.) He suggests that there are five sequential “needs” aligned like a pyramid. Once the more basic needs – safety, security and belonging – are met, a person can begin to work on achieving success and self-actualizing. This 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, for one, don’t), but there are profound lessons to be learned from Maslow’s thoughts.

Finally, I implore you to ignore your neighbors and societal pressure, and 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 the individual paths charted by Yissacher and Zevulun. Yaakov did not try to force one into the shoes of the other, 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.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved.

Next week: What to do if you suspect your child is experimenting with drugs or abusing alcohol.

About the Author: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam and founder and director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S.

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