Life is full of stories about teenagers having difficulty making it through adolescence. However, parenting teens – even teens who are at risk – doesn’t have to be such a daunting task when parents are willing to focus more on the relationship and less on getting immediate results. Building the relationship is the key to reaching teens who are at risk.
I understand why most parents feel confused about how to deal with a teenager who veers “off the path.” It often comes as a shock when it’s your child who is swept into a counter culture that seems to affect more of our teenagers every day. The “at-risk” phenomenon seems to be everywhere. Although the exact number of teens at risk is unknown, some estimate that the trend touches about one in four religious families. I believe that the numbers are even greater. The problem likely digs much further into Jewish society than most rabbis, educators, and parents would like to admit.
But what or who is to blame for the at-risk phenomenon? Some suggest that the problem originates in our schools; others maintain that dysfunctional homes are “ground zero” for risky behavior because kids miss out on key emotional ingredients such as love, caring, and parental stability.
Conventional wisdom points to the rapidly deteriorating standards in Western media. Today’s television shows, movies, and Internet sites are filled with inappropriate and self-destructive images that are having a negative impact on teenagers and are fueling the at-risk crisis.
However, another possible way of viewing the at-risk phenomenon is that in actuality, it does not exist. Adolescents have always rebelled against the traditions of their parents. The drop out rate among Orthodox Jews is similar to drop out rates in other religious groups that try to maintain higher social and religious standards than the societies they live within.
The theories go on and on, but the problem in our communities and homes continues unabated. David, age sixteen, for example, was a client I saw over a six-month period. Like most of my clients, David came from a traditional orthodox home and attended a yeshiva in the New York City area. School was always an emotional battleground for David, his teachers, and his parents.
According to David’s parents, in fourth grade David started having trouble sitting still in class. He would speak out of turn, disrupt the class, and act in inappropriate ways. He didn’t like Chumash and his mind would constantly wander. Instead of focusing on schoolwork, he would daydream about video games, movies, and his favorite sports teams. Finding it difficult to concentrate in class was only the beginning of David’s problems. In fifth grade, he started getting into fights with his classmates and often received detention for bad behavior. Overall, David was an unhappy and slightly withdrawn child who was about to enter a five-year rollercoaster ride with his parents, principals and teachers.
Since David was doing poorly in the school he was in, his parents decided to send him to a school that specialized in working with teens in crisis. Although his behavior seemed better for a few months, most of David’s previous problems remained. He still couldn’t sit still in class, he didn’t like his new friends, and began to act out.
David was in that school for two years, but he was still unhappy and acting inappropriately. In fact, the situation got so bad that his principal asked David to leave.
At the same time, the situation at home had become a living nightmare for his parents. The boy they had raised to be a well-behaved shomer Shabbos mentsch had turned out to be a loud, unappreciative, and angry teenager. David was in trouble, and his parents were unable to deal with his emotional distress or figure out what to do next.
They consulted with friends and family, as well as with rabbis in the community, hoping they would have some insight into the problem. The most common piece of advice they got was to send David away or put him in a remedial program. However, David’s parents weren’t sure what they wanted to do and the tension in the house had become unbearable.
David needed help and his parents needed answers. Most importantly, David’s parents needed to know that some glimmer of hope existed, a light at the end of the tunnel that would change their son’s life.
Desperate and impatient for a solution, David’s parents asked me what the “pill” was for at risk behavior. I suggested to them that the “pill,” in most cases, is for parents to start focusing on their relationship with their teenager. I call this novel yet remarkably simple idea “Relationship Theory,” which places priority on the power and impact that a good relationship can have upon children, both young and adolescent alike.