When the parent-teen relationship is strained or just needs improvement parents can utilize outside help to bring about a change. When necessary, one of the most effective ways of wielding indirect control is by having the teenager meet with a mentor. As a third person, uninvolved in family conflicts, a mentor is able to interact with a teenager and provide an informal means of solving problems at school, help the teen do homework or simply be a friend.
There are many possible people who can play the role of mentor. A mentor can be an older student in your child’s school, someone you know in the community, a cousin or older sibling or a youth worker from your synagogue. Often a good mentor for your teenager may be your best friend or someone that you know and admire at work.
Mentors can fill any number of functions in a teenager’s life. Yet all mentors have one thing in common: they care about helping young people achieve their potential and discover their strengths. Their main purpose is to help young people define and achieve their own goals – and those goals will vary depending on the young person’s age. By sharing fun activities and exposing a teenager to new experiences, a mentor encourages positive choices, promotes self-esteem, supports academic achievement and introduces the child to new ideas.
Here are some of the roles a mentor does and does not play:
A mentor is
A mentor is not
A social worker
A cool peer
A parole officer
The goal of the mentor may be to do homework with the teenager, to learn a new hobby or just to have a good time. Most importantly, a mentor can provide quality time and instill important values, such as trust, friendship, community and responsibility, without impinging on a teen’s sense of freedom.
Unquestionably mentors make a lasting impression on the lives of children and teenagers. Research confirms what previously we had known anecdotally or intuitively: mentoring works. A recent research brief published by Child Trends found that “youth who participate in mentoring relationships experience a number of positive benefits.” In terms of educational achievement, mentored youth have better attendance, a better chance of going on to higher education and better attitudes towards school. In terms of health and safety, mentoring appears to help prevent substance abuse and reduce some other negative behaviors. In terms of social and emotional development, mentoring promotes positive social attitudes and relationships. Mentored youth tend to trust their parents more and communicate better with them. They also feel that they get more emotional support from their friends than do youth who are not mentored.
The most compelling evidence of the impact of mentoring was found by a private study that demonstrated that compared to young people not participating in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program teenagers that are mentored are
46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs
27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol
52 percent less likely to skip school
37 percent less likely to skip class
More confident in their schoolwork performance
Able to get along better with their families
With all this evidence taken into consideration Relationship Theory teaches that when parents have an unusual amount of difficulty relating to their teen, finding a mentor may be one of the best routes to take.
Sometimes other people are better at telling your children truths and ideas that you find difficult to express. For example, a friend of mine has always utilized mentors or other third parties to impress upon his children the importance of values such as honesty, integrity and religiosity. To do this, he invites guests to his home who have a positive effect on his children’s moral development. He engages his guests in discussions about Torah learning, personal integrity or community involvement. During these interchanges his children pick up important and lasting messages that they can easily absorb without feeling that their parents are forcing their values upon them.
In addition to having guests, this seasoned parent always strives to arrange learning sessions with mentors or well-known rabbis for his children during their vacations. By effectively limiting his own direct control, he has more impact on his children’s lives.
In addition, mentoring reduces stress between parents and teenagers. Take Sarah for example, a forty-two-year-old mother of three daughters ages nine, twelve and sixteen. Sarah came to talk to me about her oldest daughter, Leah, who was having trouble in school.
This is how she described her problems:
“Every night we fight about her homework and I’m left with a throbbing headache. When my husband comes home sometimes at eight or nine o’clock, depending on his busy schedule, he tries to do homework with her, but most of the time they just end up fighting over silly things. She finds it impossible to sit down and concentrate on her schoolwork for more than five minutes. She was tested for ADHD and she doesn’t have it. My daughter and I are growing further apart. Imagine if all you did was fight with someone day and night without a break.”
I suggested to Sarah that trying to control her daughter wasn’t working. She needed to replace direct control with indirect control and to hire a mentor to help her daughter do her homework.
To implement indirect control, Sarah also needed to
Avoid confronting her daughter about homework.
Do some research with Leah’s teachers to find out exactly what her problems were in class.
Find opportunities for her husband and her to spend quality and enjoyable time with Leah.
Sarah decided to step back and stop trying to control her daughter and shift towards a relationship-oriented style of parenting. By arranging for a tutor, she let a third person help her daughter to do better in school. She was able to move from direct control to indirect control and make a difference in Leah’s life.
After a few months of tutoring, the tension in Sarah and Leah’s relationship had been reduced. Leah was getting the help she needed, which was something her mother couldn’t provide for her. Now when she arrived home at night after a long day’s work, Sarah could focus her energy on relating better to her daughter and spending quality time with her. By shifting from direct to indirect control, Sarah enabled herself and her daughter, to become closer and enjoy the benefits of a warmer and more intimate relationship.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.