I once received a call from a forty-seven year old distraught mother whose seventeen-year-old son Moti had changed his style of dress, wearing jeans and refusing to wear a hat. She explained that he had gone through a difficult time in school and was now hanging around the house instead of studying in yeshiva. He was also mixed up with the wrong crowd and was associating with at-risk teenagers late at night on the street. She was very concerned as she had an older son who had gone “off the path” and was worried that Moti was going in the same direction. She believed that Moti could be helped if he would be willing to talk with someone.
We set up an appointment and Moti came on time and seemed receptive to speaking with me in a friendly and open manner. What follows is a transcript of our meeting.
Daniel Schonbuch (DS): Moti, I know that your parents are concerned about you and wanted you to speak with me. I just want you to know that I’m very interested in what you have to so say. Tell me what’s going on in your life?
Moti: Well, I guess my mother told you that I hate school and I’m looking for a job.
DS: What kind of job?
Moti: It doesn’t really matter. Perhaps something in business or high tech.
DS: High tech. Do you have any computer skills that would help you?
Moti: Yes, I love computers and I know how to create Web sites.
DS: That’s a great skill. Did you take a class in HTML or figure it out by yourself?
Moti: I just figured it out by myself.
DS: Wow. I wish I could do that. Well, if you are so talented in working with computers, why are you having so much trouble in school?
Moti: I hate my school. I can’t stand the teachers and the principal.
DS: You hate your teachers?
Moti: Yes. I can’t stand them. They are boring and mean and my rebbe doesn’t know what he is talking about.
DS: You don’t like your rebbe. Let me ask you a question. If you did like your rebbe, would school be any better for you?
Moti: I guess so. But there is no way he can change. Everybody knows he’s the worst rebbe in the grade. He doesn’t care about me. In fact he kicked me out of class twice this year.
DS: So that’s why you’re at home right now?
Moti: That’s right.
DS: Tell me about your home. I know you have a big family. What is your relationship like with your parents?
Moti: It’s pretty bad.
DS: What do you mean, bad?
Moti: My parents make me crazy.
DS: Anyone in particular?
Moti: Yes, my mother; she is always trying to control me.
DS: In what way?
Moti: She can’t stand my music or the way I dress. She also hates my friends and recently made my curfew at eleven o’clock. It’s unbearable to be around her.
DS: So dress is a big issue in the family?
Moti: Yes. They want to tell us what to do all the time. I feel like I’m living in a cage.
At this point we had brought to the forefront several key issues. One was that Moti didn’t like his rebbe and another was that he felt that his parents wanted to control everything he did. At the same time, it seemed that Moti also had a very high desire for control. When he was unhappy with a situation, he would try to control his environment by making choices that elicited a negative response from his parents or teachers.
I felt that Moti was able to become aware of the dynamics of his own inner world. In his case, I believed that more self-awareness would help him understand why he behaved the way he did.
DS: Moti, tell me about some of the things that your parents and you argue about, like your friends and your clothes.
Moti: I don’t see what’s wrong with my clothes. I’m just more comfortable wearing jeans and these shirts. I mean, I don’t know what the problem is, but my mother is always telling me how to dress.
DS: Did you always dress like this? When did you start?
Moti: Just after my bar mitzvah.
DS: So when you became a “man,” you started dressing the way you wanted to.
Moti: That’s right.
DS: Tell me what you think your clothing represents. Do your clothes say something about you when you wear them?
Moti: I think so. They are all about doing what you want. When I wear jeans, I feel comfortable, more chilled out. I know it drives my parents crazy, but I love the feeling.
DS: Do your friends wear the same type of clothes?
Moti: Yes, we all do.
DS: Let me guess about something and tell me if I’m right. Your clothing represents your being independent from your parents. What I mean by that is that they can’t tell you how to dress and of course you can’t stand how they try to control you. Does this make sense?
Moti: Yes, very much so.
DS: So what you are really saying is that this is an area that you can control and it probably makes your parents crazy.
Moti: That’s right. I really dress this way because it makes them crazy. I know the weirder I dress the more it makes my mother nuts.
DS: So your dress is a way to control her.
Moti: I guess so.
DS: If you can see what I’m saying, then I want to share with you the idea that what seems to be an area of control is really an area where you are out of control. What I mean by that is that although you think you control your mother through your dress, what you are really saying is that she controls you. If you are just reacting to her and getting her angrier with you then you are not really in control.
I knew that this idea would be hard to swallow – especially for a boy who initially saw his jeans as something “cool” and modern. What I wanted to do was to have him understand that this alternative way of dressing was actually based on a deeper emotional need to control and confront his mother. Once I introduced this idea, I could spend more time helping him to improve his relationship with her instead of becoming more reactionary. I decided to introduce Moti to his mother’s inner world. I wanted to explore with him any possible reason why she was so controlling.
DS: Tell me a little more about your mother. Does she come from a big family? What are her parents like?
Moti: Well, that’s a pretty bad story. She has a terrible relationship with her parents.
DS: What do you mean?
Moti: Her parents are originally from France. They moved to Israel when she was a young girl and got divorced and my mother moved here with my grandmother when she was a teenager.
DS: What about her brothers and sisters?
Moti: Two of them moved here with her and the others stayed with my grandfather in Israel.
DS: How did your grandmother survive here?
Moti: Well, she had a sister who moved here many years ago who helped her out a lot when she arrived.
DS: So your mother grew up without her father. That must have been pretty hard.
Moti: Yes but it was probably easier than living with my grandfather. I heard he was pretty tough with his kids. You know, very old school. He used to hit his kids a lot.
DS: He used to hit them?
Moti: He was a tough man who had a hard life. He didn’t have patience for my mother or her brothers and sisters.
DS: So your mother moved around a lot and had a hard childhood.
Moti: I think so.
DS: And what about your father. Did he also have a difficult childhood?
Moti: I don’t think so. He grew up in the neighborhood, went to yeshiva, went into business, and has an okay relationship with his parents.
DS: So it seems that your mother had a harder time growing up.
Moti: Yes I think so.
DS: Would you say that your mother is a tense person?
Moti: Yes, she always walks around nervous, like something bad is going to happen.
DS: I see. So how does that make you feel?
Moti: I can’t stand being around her!
DS: Are you angry that she doesn’t give you enough attention?
Moti: It makes me crazy. She doesn’t pay any attention to me except when she doesn’t like something.
DS: Like the way you dress?
I wanted Moti to make the connection that somehow his mother was affected by her unresolved feelings that existed in her inner world. Also, without too much information from Moti, I saw that his mother was obviously someone who had trouble relating to her children and found it difficult to nurture them in a loving way.
Throughout this first session, I had begun to uncover a deep association between Moti’s behavior and his mother’s emotions. In future sessions we would deal more with trying to understand why his mother was tense and nagging. I believed that it was time for him to explore the connection with his mother and for us to see if we could work out a way to improve their relationship.
I explained to Moti that since his mother had come from a broken home and had moved several times during her childhood, she was compensating for her feelings of rejection and lack of security. This was understandable considering her past, and it was something that I felt was central to Moti’s situation. I believed that his mother was so scared of the possibility that her children’s lives would be disrupted – as hers had been during her childhood – that her fears controlled her life. Moti’s older brother had already decided to go on his own path. She saw this as a sign that the whole family may fall apart and the fact that Moti was having trouble in school and dressing in jeans began to cause her considerable stress and anxiety.
I wanted Moti to understand these underlying issues and to realize why he was unhappy with their relationship. Her desire that “life should be perfect” had caused her to act overly harsh with her children, which made them feel that somehow they were not living up to her expectations. After all, Moti was a teenager trying something that his friends thought was cool. He wanted to be accepted by his crowd and wasn’t thinking about how his behavior affected his parents.
Having explored other emotional issues in his family, I suggested that Moti try to reduce the conflict regarding his alternative dress by toning down what he wore. I knew that his parents wouldn’t easily change their expectations, but Moti could benefit from an improved relationship and a small gesture on his part may make his life at home more pleasant.
I also spoke several times on the phone with Moti’s parents and suggested that they were not yet equipped to discipline Moti about his jeans. Rather, they should work to improve the relationship and allow a new sense of closeness to eventually enable Moti to feel more comfortable with himself and his identity. They could accomplish this by
reducing their criticism of Moti; finding ways to give Moti healthy levels of control; exploring ways of nurturing Moti’s latent talents.
To start the process, I suggested that Moti’s parents take him away for a weekend in the country and have a fun time sightseeing, hiking or maybe even going to a batting cage or playing miniature golf. I wanted Moti to feel comfortable with his parents. They should give Moti the feeling that he was the most important person in their lives.
During the outing, Moti’s parents should avoid talking about his jeans. Rather, they should focus on his positive qualities and what areas he could potentially excel in like music, art, computers, or even some type of community service. With an increased sense of relationship, Moti may be willing to adjust his behavior and take steps to reconnect to his family’s traditions.
Trying to force the dress issue would only push their son further away. Instead of pushing him away, they could gently pull him in the right direction. In the end, we were able to change the focus from direct control and conflict to mutual understanding and an improved relationship.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, M.A., is the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force and author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” He maintains a private practice in marriage and family counseling in Brooklyn and can be reached at 646-428-4723 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info about his books, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com.