Recently Ruth came to my office to talk about her fourteen-year-old daughter. Ruth comes from a mainstream orthodox family and has five children. Her middle child, Toby, was in her sophomore year at a yeshiva high school for girls in the New York City area.
Ruth had just recently discovered (from another parent) that Toby had been secretly dating a boy for over a year. When she confronted Toby about her boyfriend, Toby had adamantly refused to admit that she was secretly seeing anyone. Ruth was extremely distraught to realize that her daughter would do something against her wishes and asked if I could help.
Since Toby was dating a boy against her parents’ will I was especially interested in understanding Toby’s relationship with her parents. Perhaps Toby’s inner desire for love and friendship was somehow unfulfilled and she was starting to look for love in all the wrong places.
The following is one of the conversations I had with Toby’s mother.
Daniel Schonbuch (DS): Could you tell me a little bit more about Toby’s relationships with you and your husband?
Ruth: Well, Toby and I don’t get along very well. We do have some pleasant moments together – especially when she wants me to give her something like money – but most of the time we are fighting. It’s impossible to get along with her. Sometimes she makes me so angry I get a headache.
DS: It sounds rough. What about your husband? Are things better or worse with him?
Ruth: Her relationship with him is even worse. They barely talk to one another, and when they do they start yelling at each other.
DS: What are they fighting about?
Ruth: Almost everything. He fights with her about the way she dresses. He doesn’t like her friends. And he is very angry that Toby doesn’t join the family at Shabbos meals.
DS: Do you and your husband ever spend any time with her without fighting?
Ruth: Once in a while when we go out for dinner at restaurants, she seems to calm down with us.
DS: I guess she feels that you are treating her to something special.
Ruth: That is true. When we go shopping together alone, things also seem to calm down slightly, as long as we are doing something out of the house. But the minute we are home it seems to get worse. When my husband comes home it can be unbearable.
DS: Unbearable? Tell me more about your husband. What is he like with her? When does he come home at night?
Ruth: My husband is another story. He is very stressed out and is almost never home. He runs a business — a car dealership.
DS: It sounds like he is very busy.
Ruth: Yes, it’s terrible. Even on Shabbos he is so stressed out and withdrawn. When he comes home after shul, he makes kiddush, eats, and goes to sleep. The kids want to talk to him, but they see that he’s too irritable to deal with. I don’t want to push him too much. I’m worried he’ll explode.
DS: How about Toby? Does she get to spend any time talking to her father?
Ruth: Not really. Even if he had some free time, he doesn’t know how to communicate with her without fighting.
As I had suspected, a problem about an outer-world issue – a secret boyfriend – pointed to a hidden inner issue, the lack of love and communication. I wanted to try to move our discussion in a positive direction by focusing on Toby’s relationships in her family. We would eventually discuss the boyfriend, but we needed to wait until we could build a sense of trust in the family.
DS: Ruth, from what you have described to me, it seems that Toby is lacking something in her relationships. Although she seems to want to do her own thing, I think that what she is really crying out for is a deeper relationship with you and your husband. I know you love her very much and would do anything to help. I’m sure your husband feels the same way. What I want to try to do is to reduce some of the tension in the house and see if we can improve the quality of the relationship. Both of you play an important role in her life. You can give her a sense of warmth and security. It seems that Toby needs her father to be more involved in her life. She needs to feel that she is loved by him and that she can talk to him without feeling judged or criticized.
Ruth: So what can I do?
DS: There’s a way to help Toby. It’s called Relationship Theory. It means that the most important way for parents to show their love for their teenagers is by developing their relationship with them. Often the emergence of emotional problems like Toby’s is a sign that a child is missing a critical relationship – most likely with a parent. If you can build that relationship, then a lot of pain and stress can be alleviated.