Latest update: March 5th, 2012
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.
During the next few sessions, I slowly tried to bring the father into the picture. I also recommended that Ruth and her husband plan a one-day outing with their daughter. The goal was to get away and just have a lot of fun. I thought a boat ride or trip to the country would be the easiest way for the family to share precious moments together without fighting and without tension. I explained to Ruth that the most important goal during the trip was to avoid critical language. No matter what Toby said, Ruth and her husband must respond only in a loving way. If they wanted her back, Toby’s parents needed to be able to listen to her and make her feel that she was loved unconditionally.
After the trip, her parents reported to me that they believed the time together with her had slightly improved their relationship. Toby had enjoyed the personal attention from her parents. Just spending time alone with her was a sign to Toby that her parents really cared about her. Not criticizing or fighting with her sent Toby the signal that her parents cared more about her than about what she did.
During that time, I also began to see Toby on a weekly basis and we discussed her emotional history together. Toby had been having trouble in school from sixth grade onward. According to Toby, when she was about eleven years old she started experiencing feelings of rage and began disliking her teachers and her friends. At about the age of thirteen, she started becoming interested in boys and began looking for boys who might be interested in her. Toby also started staying out late at night with boys and girls who were having similar problems with their parents.
From her description, it sounded as if Toby’s desire to spend time with boys was rooted in a deeper desire for closer relationships. Over the next few sessions, I worked with Toby and her parents to see if they would consider trying a different style of parenting and if Toby would be willing to give them a chance. This was not going to be easy. Both Toby and her family had developed rigid patterns of communication, and life at home was tense.
I worked to help Toby’s parents become more sensitive to her inner-world issues, such as the need for control. I suggested the following actions:
- Allow Toby to gain some form of control in her life by giving her a clothing allowance, for example, or a reasonable curfew that she will be rewarded for following.
- Empower her by giving her the opportunity to work helping younger children in various chesed projects in her community.
- Build Toby’s self-esteem and sense of individuality by making a list of Toby’s potential talents in music, art, or athletics and nurturing them.
- Plan several outings alone with Toby, and allow her to choose the types of fun activities that she would like to do.
The goal was to look at Toby’s good traits and to make sure that they were given a chance to grow. By doing so, her parents would be signaling to her that they were not merely interested in their own agenda but focused on treating Toby as a unique individual.
In the process, they discovered that Toby desired to work with young children. They then arranged for her to work in an after-school day care program in which Toby could utilize her skills and learn how to contribute towards the greater good of the community.
By introducing Relationship Theory, we were able to open new lines of communication. Eventually, Toby started talking to her parents about her boyfriend. She first needed to see that other loving relationships were possible and that her parents were willing to extend themselves towards her in a loving way. Toby’s parents were also pleased that their relationship had improved. They were hopeful that their daughter would continue to feel more comfortable about allowing them to help her through these painful emotional issues. Eventually Toby decided not to see her boyfriend anymore.
Addressing the inner issues of control, self-esteem, and individuality were the key to helping Toby resolve her dilemma about premature dating and help her get through one of the most difficult periods in her life.
- Examine your teenager’s inner issues.
- Look for hidden feelings behind your teenager’s actions.
- Highlight positive aspects of your teenager’s personality.
- Express your love through words and actions.
- Give your teenager control combined with responsibility.
- Address your teenager’s need for meaning.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force and author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” To order a copy, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com. For more information about Shalom Task Force, please visit www.shalomtaskforce.org. You can e-mail questions to him at email@example.com.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, LMFT is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, treating anxiety and depression, and helping teens in crisis with offices For more information visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 646-428-4723.
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