Torah Advice for Raising Teenagers

by Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro

Teenagers are like the barad (hail) of Mitzrayim: Two conflicting forces of nature, adulthood and childhood, mingled into one. Autonomy and dependence functioning together; ignorance and knowledge guiding at the same time. Even the halachic status of teenagers is that of half-child and half adult. Children under 13 are not punished for their sins; adults over 20 are. Adolescents from the ages of 13 - 19 - precisely during the teenage years - are punished by Bais Din like adults, but are not punished by heaven, like children1

Unable to reconcile these two conflicting parts of their identity, they become confused about who they are, where they belong, and what they want out of life. Then they become prey for the yetzer horah. Setting its sights on this lost sheep, astray in a confusing and uninhabited golus between fairyland and the "real world," it will warmly stop to offer directions. As the Rambam succinctly puts it,2 "The physical forces of adolescence are an obstacle to the development of moral principles." Or, in the words of the Ibn Ezra,3 "It is natural for bochurim to love fun and pleasure."

What teenagers need most of all, then, is stability, security, and confidence. They need balance and equilibrium. And that is why Hashem created parents.

Sholom Bayis: First Priority

Troubled teenagers come in all shapes and sizes, from all types of backgrounds. However, there is a markedly disproportionate amount of them who come from homes where the parents have little or no sholom bayis4. Besides the anger and frustration that a child can develop when his home is sundered by divorce, separation, or constant pot-throwing, the child who comes from a broken home learns distrust and instability. Children look at their home as a microcosm of the world. When the most basic "rule of nature" in the home is proven unreliable, they learn that there are no rules. Where people are concerned, what goes up does not necessarily come down,; one plus one does not always equal two; and the good guys certainly do not always win. Suspect everything, trust no one, believe in nothing, they feel, for trust and faith leads to disappointment - like it did in the home. They have confidence only in the strength of their own right arm.

It is difficult enough to get rebellious children from shattered homes to believe that there is some sort of system "out there". It is even more difficult to get them to want to be a part of it.

How to Love Your Children

"A father can direct his children even where they have a difference of opinion, because they know he loves them." 5 If a child feels unloved by his parents, the parents have lost control.

In order for a child to flourish, he needs love, just like food, water, and shelter. However, understanding somebody is a prerequisite to loving them. Rav Nachman of Breslov ZTL once said about the misnagdim: "They don't have anything against me; they have something against the person who they think I am. And he deserves it!"

When a child feels that the parent doesn't understand him, doesn't know who he really is, what he is really like, what motivates him, and why, he comes to feel the parent doesn't love him. "She doesn't love me - she loves the person who she thinks I am," is what the child feels. So the parent, with tears in her eyes and frustration in her heart, says to the kid "I love you so much," and the kid, with anger and disinterest replies "You do not!".

When this happens, the mother, who really does feel love for her son, but probably doesn't approve of everything he does, will mistakenly interpret his son's reaction as a demand for approval. "If I don't let him do everything he wants, he thinks I don't love him," she might say. Knowing that she cannot approve of certain actions, she will blame the child for being unreasonable, unrealistic, and "impossible to talk to."

The child, on the other hand, sincerely feels unloved, and knows in his heart that it is not approval he is craving but understanding. He feels like a stranger in his own home. He feels that his mother has no idea who he really is. "She doesn't love me," he thinks. "She loves that other kid who she thinks I am. He's lucky."

Sometimes parents may perceive their child not as he really is, but as they themselves are, or as the child's siblings are. Parents may automatically assume that their child possesses certain traits, goals, potentials, and capabilities, because of the general nature of the household they come from. Not all children are reflections of their parents or their siblings. Other parents may feel their children are a certain way because that is how they would like them to be, regardless of how they really are.

If you want to know the key to a teenager's heart, it is understanding him. If the kid feels you know who he is - and he will feel it if you really do - he will accept your disapproval as coming from a loving friend. Which you are. (That doesn't mean he's going to listen, though!)

Fear and Shame

A child may do something wrong behind his parents' backs. Sometimes this will not bother the parents. They will say, "Well, at least he's ashamed of what he did." The truth is though, that the child isn't at all ashamed to tell his parents what he did. He is scared. Fear is not shame. It is no big deal for a parent to make his children scared to confide in him.

And confide in him he should. Children should feel free to confide in their parents, even if they did an aveirah. The Torah declares a father to be a "friend" of his child.6 And a friend, according to the Torah , is someone who you can tell your innermost thoughts to, even if you did an aveirah. Rav Michoel Feuchtwanger ZTL, a talmid muvhak of the Avnei Nezer, derived this from the fact that the first time the word "friend" is mentioned in the Torah, it is in connection with Chirah, a friend of Yehuda. V'chirah re'ehu ha'adulami. That is the Torah's definition of friendship. "And that is what a father is supposed to be."7

Teenagers want to be able to confide in their parents. A father is first and foremost an advisor8, although he may have certain adrenal tendencies that tend to be an obstacle to the objectivity and calm necessary to provide effective council. Getting your teenager to come to you with his or her problems is a great achievement, and could fill volumes of thick texts. However, there is one point that is paramount: Parents must learn how to listen to their children.

How to (Really) Listen to Your Children

Parents must always ask themselves, "What is my child trying to tell me?" Very often the answer has little to do with their words. A seventeen-year-old Bais Yaakov girl once confessed to her father that since the 8th grade, she has been leading a double life, which involves boys, behind her parents' backs. Although that was the only declaration made, two separate problems were communicated. One, the boys; and two, the girl was too frightened to talk to her parents about an issue that has so greatly affected her life for such a long time. The girl felt like a stranger in her own home; she felt that her parents have no idea who she really is. It is probably that second, unvoiced problem, that frightened the girl into finally bringing the issue out in the open. This is the issue that should be dealt with first.

1 Shabbos 89b. See Chasam Sofer YD 155, Kli Chemda I p.48
2 Moreh Nevuchim 3:51
3 Amos2:11
4 Chazal (quoted in Devarim 21:11) may have alluded to this. "If he marries her (an eishes yefas toar) he will end up hating her, and end up having with her a ben sorer umoreh (rebellious, criminal son)." First he comes to hate her. Then, because he hates her, they have a ben sorer umoreh.
5 Seforno Bamidbar 11:12
6 Rashi Bereshis 45:8 Vayasimeini l'av l'Paroh, - l'chaver ulepatran
7 Rav Shimon Schwab shlita, in an articleentitled "On Being a Friend to Your Child," Yated Ne'Eman Oct. 26, '990
8 Seforno Bereshis 45:8 "Father - [meaning,] an advisor