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world renown Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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Chicago Community Kollel Interactive Parenting Column #63

Yomim Tovim and At-Risk Kids


Our 18-year-old daughter is in middle of a very rocky year in Eretz Yisroel where she was expelled from one seminary and barely finished the semester in another. We don’t think that she is observant now. We have so many questions:

  • Should we invite her home for Yom Tov? She will gladly come home, but said she can stay in Eretz Yisroel as well.
  • Should we tell her siblings the truth about the fact that she may not be shomer Shabbos now? How about our married children who will be arriving home after she has been in America for a while. Should we give them a heads-up? They will be shocked when they see her, and we don’t want them blurting anything silly or offending. We are worried, though, that our daughter may be insulted that we discussed her ‘matzav’ without her permission.
  • As we live ‘out-of-town,’ I usually have my parents at our home for the entire Pesach. Here is the problem: I am quite sure that my mother will handle this very well, but my father will keep criticizing our daughter throughout Yom Tov. One of my siblings had an at-risk son a few years ago and I cringe when I remember all the hurtful things my father said. What should I do?

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

For starters, I would most definitely encourage you to have your daughter spend Yom Tov with you at your home. It may be easier to have her away in Eretz Yisroel, but not wiser. Hopefully, you can create the nurturing home environment that will allow her to heal from the ‘rocky’ semester you described and regain her bearings.

I would strongly suggest that you and your spouse immediately schedule several sessions with a professionally licensed family therapist to better prepare you for her time home and to train you in effective communication with a challenging teen. I would also just as strongly suggest that you do not have any substantive discussions with her during her first day or two at home. First allow her to ‘settle in’, and regain the comfort level that any child should have in their home. When she is more relaxed, you will have far better and more productive conversations. In fact, it may be a good idea for you to inform her that you would like to have a substantive talk with her sometime in the next week or so, but that she should decide when she is ready to talk.

I’m going to print a rather long excerpt from this column to make the point that, in my opinion, the main focus of your discussions with your child ought not be about spiritual matters, but rather to just get her back on track first. (Please see the bottom of this email for the excerpt, and click on the link for the entire essay.)

As far as informing the relatives goes, I would suggest that, time permitting, you wait for your daughter to arrive home, and once she is settled, get some input from her as to how much, what, and to whom she would like you to share information about her status and challenges. Our personalities are so different from each other that there is really not one-answer-fits-all for this. Your daughter may not care at all what anyone thinks or sees, or she may want her privacy. Let her write the script – well before your married children and extended family members arrive. You may help her make the decision by pointing our pros and cons of each choice; for example, point out to her that she may feel uncomfortable if people recoil or make comments when they see her if she chooses the privacy route. (An interesting footnote to this: when people I know well and see on a regular basis come to discuss personal matters with me, such as their impending-but-still-unpublicized separation or divorce, I always ask them at the end of our discussion if they would like me to ask them how things are going when I see them socially as a show of support, or would they rather I make believe we never spoke about this matter and offer them their privacy. Most pick privacy.)

Before I offer my thoughts on should-you-invite-parents-or-other-family-members-who-will-say-hurtful-things-to-your-daughter?, I suggest that you get a second (or first) opinion on this one from your Rav or Rosh Yeshiva, as there are halachic ramifications of kibbud av v’em in this question. Additionally, I am well aware that many of my colleagues will disagree with what I am proposing.

That said, here goes: I think that the very first responsibility of parents are to each other and to their children. Your obligations to everyone else – everyone – comes after the needs of your nuclear family members are met. So if you have members of your family who will hurt your child’s psyche when she is so vulnerable, I would not invite them, or I would very respectfully but firmly set the ground rules for them coming.

Here is the script: “Tatty, Mommy; Chavie is going through a very difficult time now. We are determined to give her our unconditional love and acceptance, as this is what she needs to get back on her feet. It is very hard for us, but we are committed to doing this. If you can come in this spirit, we would love to have you for Yom Tov. But if you cannot, we’re sorry, but … 

Frankly, I think of it in terms of an allergic reaction. Imagine if your daughter gets asthmatic attacks when exposed to cigarette smoke, and your father is a chain smoker. I think you would say something like the script above, “We’d love to have you for Yom Tov, but don’t even think of lighting up.” Well, your daughter is allergic to caustic comments and criticism that is not constructive in nature. It is your duty as parents to protect her from it at all costs. She will be forever grateful to you for doing so

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

An Excerpt from “Getting Your Teenager Back on Track”

Imagine that you went for a walk one winter morning and found your neighbor sitting in his car vigorously turning the steering wheel of his car – while the engine is shut off. When you ask him why he doesn’t start the car, he responds to you that his battery died, and he will soon get jumper cables to ‘give it a boost’. However, before he does that, he would like to turn the front wheels away from the curb so that once the car is started, he will instantly be able to pull out of the parking space and get to work.  

I think that this analogy sheds some light into my overall line of thinking regarding assisting at-risk teens. Very often, and understandably so, parents would like to start helping their kids by addressing the antisocial behavior (ex. drug/alcohol abuse) or the rejection of Torah values (ex. not keeping Shabbos). I have found, however, that the most effective thing that parents can do to really help their child is to assist him/her in getting their lives in order. Once that is accomplished, it is far, far easier to help with the other matters.  

You see, as long as your teen is unhappy and/or unproductive, it is as if his/her life is on hold – as the vehicle of his/her life is stalled. The ‘power steering’ that enables positive change to occur and a sense of spirituality to develop can only kick in when the engine of accomplishment is turned on. You can exert a great deal of force turning the wheel while the engine is off, but you will be draining your energy, shredding the tires and digging trenches in your driveway while this is going on. It is much wiser to work on helping him/her achieve success first. The rest will follow, with the help of Hashem.  

I often tell parents of at-risk teens to follow the sage advice of the Kotzker Rebbe (Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1859) who noted that the Torah informs us (Shmos 22:30) "V'anshei kodesh te'heyu li – people of holiness shall you be to Me.” The rebbi pointed out that the Torah places the word anshei before kodesh, in effect telling us to be a ‘mentch’ before attempting to achieve spirituality (his exact works in Yiddish were, “kodem a mench un nach dem heilig – first [become] a [refined] mench, [and only then [strive to become more] holy).   

While the rebbi did not express these thoughts in terms of at-risk teens, I feel that this though represents by far the most effective way for parents to chart a course for the lives of their at-risk kids. Help them become ‘mentchen’ – functioning, productive young adults who have a reason to wake up in the morning, who feel that each day is a gift that ought to be unwrapped as the treasure that it is – before you work on the at-risk symptoms. For once they become happier and more productive, you will find it so much easier to ‘turn the wheel.’ (Here is a link to an open letter that I wrote to yeshiva bachurim a few years ago about planning for their lives. The Plan. I hope that you – and he – find it helpful.) 

In a very practical sense, it means to help him/her get a GED, or better yet help resume schooling in a mainstream setting. Send him/her for career counseling and get him/her a job. Tell your child that you are in this together and you will always love him/her forever (you may get a roll of the eyes, but I can assure you that your child will be forever grateful for this). Get your child into therapy if there are ‘issues’ that need to be resolved. Show leadership and express your love for your child by going for counseling yourself to help you effectively parent your child through this challenging stage in his/her life.


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