A few years ago, a couple, Sarah and Joseph, came to see me about their son Moshe, sixteen, who was experiencing extreme difficulty in school. Moshe did not have any serious learning problems. In fact, he was exceptionally bright and capable of succeeding in school. His problem was that he was frequently missing class. Recently he had started leaving school and spending time in an unknown location. Moshe’s parents were naturally concerned for his future.
When I first met Sarah and Joseph I was immediately struck by how unhappy their marriage seemed to be. Joseph was a quiet and reserved man compared to his wife. Sarah seemed extremely worried about whether everything was all right with her son. When they tried to explain to me why they thought Moshe was in trouble, the discussion always seemed to turn into an argument. Joseph believed that his wife’s inability to nurture their son was the cause of Moshe’s behavior. Sarah, on the other hand, believed that Joseph’s inability to communicate in a warm way with their son was the source of the problem.
Here is a dialogue from one of our sessions.
Daniel Schonbuch (DS): Tell me more about the general atmosphere in the house.
Sarah: Well, our family time is not very enjoyable. I would say that Shabbos meals are the most difficult time of our week. To start with, Joseph doesn’t run a very nice Shabbos meal. He is so tired from work that when Shabbos rolls around he goes to shul, makes kiddush and then totally withdraws into himself.
DS: Is Shabbos that hard for you?
Joseph: Look, it’s not that I don’t care about the family; it’s just that I feel so burnt out after work. When I come home, the kids are always yelling and I just want some peace and quiet. I guess on Shabbos I just need a break.
Sarah: It’s worse than that. You never have time for the kids or for me. When you’re home, you just surf the Internet and on Shabbos you read the newspaper. Don’t you realize that Moshe needs to talk to you?
DS: I guess things are hard during Shabbos. What about your own relationship outside of your children? How well do you get along?
Sarah: To be perfectly honest, we don’t have much of a relationship. Joseph isn’t very excited about talking to me and we never go on vacation anymore.
Joseph: That’s not true. Last Pesach we went away to Florida for the seder meals.
Sarah: We barely talked the entire week. I think you enjoyed your friends more than you enjoyed the family.
Joseph: What do you want from me? I tried my best. I can’t stand when everyone is nagging – your parents, the kids, you.
DS: Have you been having trouble relating for some time?
Sarah: Yes. I would say for about the last three years.
DS: Why? What was going on in your lives three years ago?
Sarah: Well, my husband is in computers, and after 9/11 his company started downscaling and he lost his job.
DS: What did you do?
Joseph: I was on unemployment for about four months when I found a job with another company.
DS: Are you happier now?
Joseph: Not really. It’s an average job and I don’t really enjoy the work I am doing. However, it does pay the bills.
DS: That’s a big burden, having to support your family doing something you don’t enjoy.
Joseph: I wish I could get out of it, but it’s not easy to switch at my age.
At this point I realized I had found a small opening that perhaps would help us to explore their relationship in connection to their son’s delinquency. Sarah had mentioned that her husband lost his job about three years ago. I wondered if this also had a significant impact on Moshe.
DS: You mentioned before that the problems at work started about three years before. When did Moshe start having trouble in school?
Sarah: About two years ago.
DS: Is it possible that some of the work stress started spilling over into Moshe’s life just after Joseph lost his job?
Sarah: Maybe, but I’m not sure.
DS: Is it possible that the strain on the family became greater after Joseph lost his job and this is the reason that you also are not getting along as well anymore?
Sarah: It’s possible. Two years ago I started working again, and since then I have been unable to give the kids the kind of attention I used to give before things got hard.
During that session, I was able to refocus their energy from solving Moshe’s problem to solving their marital discord. Over the next few sessions, we began exploring the way Relationship Theory could help their marriage. We talked about spending quality time together, understanding each other’s needs and reducing critical and destructive language.
After six months of working with this family, I began to see changes in the way they related to their son. Moshe began to feel more comfortable in their home and was more willing to give school a try and focus on his studies.
In general, Moshe’s family was typical of the families I see with teens at risk. Often some type of emotional imbalance exists in the family and eventually one or more children begin to exhibit signs of distress. When they do, the best approach is to seek out professional advice and find ways to improve the relationship with your teenager.
Resolving intra-parental conflict is a positive step that parents can take to help support the emotional growth of their children. A good family or marital counselor will be able to break habitual patterns of triangling and relieve the emotional distress that may be contributing to a teenager’s at risk behavior.