Dear Dr. T.,
My husband and I are concerned about a change we see in our oldest who is seventeen. Though he’s always been a great kid and a wonderful example for his sibs, of late he has developed a challenging attitude. We can’t call it chutzpah because he is generally quite respectful; however, in word and tone, facial expression and body language, he conveys that he most certainly does not agree with our ideas, thoughts, plans etc.
Is this normal or are we looking at an ‘at-risk’ teen in the making?
Should we demand greater conformity or let him be?
Dr. T. Replies,
Parenting an adolescent is a whole new experience that requires a totally new bag of tricks.While a younger child tends to need his parents and view them as authorities, the teen generally feels that he ‘knows better.’ Because this is your first teen, you have not been initiated into the world of adolescence and are unsure of what to make of this behavior. Most probably Mark Twain said it best: When I was seventeen, I could not believe how little my Dad knew. When I became twenty-two, I was amazed at how much he had learned in five short years!
Know that this is a healthy process and falls in the geder of tzar gidul banim.
The best way to address your concerns is by developing an understanding of what occurs in adolescence. We are all aware of the physical changes, often accompanied by some psychological symptoms [like mood swings] that occur during this period. However, what is equally important is that during these years, particularly the later ones, the adolescent develops his own identity to become a person in his own right. This often begins with the process of separating from the parent so that he can become ‘not his parent.’ The process generally continues with the youth stepping into the peer envelope and doing exactly what his friends do. Then, through a process of trial and error- where the teen rejects different identities and ideas, he eventually arrives at an identity and a belief system that is uniquely his own.
So, it would seem that your son is in the beginning phase of what we call identity formation: he is rejecting the ideas of his parents. The fact that he rejects the ideas in a non-hostile manner indicates that though he is rejecting your ideas- he is not rejecting you! He will continue and try on new ideas for size- particularly those of his friends-until he becomes the person he wants to be. So, you may expect to see your son become enamoured of a particular chassidus, or become strictly Litvish. He may experiment with different modes of dress- tie/no tie, white shirts or [gasp] colored. But, play your cards right and he will stay connected -though he may develop an identity – or some ideas-very different from yours. Over-react, and anticipate a decidedly unpleasant power struggle.
As parents, we naturally want our children to buy into our belief system and way of life, and, the good news is that most of them –after some trial and error- generally do. After trying it all- children usually circle back home- because no alternate way of life can substitute for the healthy, warm home. Know, however, that you as the parent wield tremendous influence in this matter. How you react to your son’s effort to become his own person is often the deciding factor.
So, when you feel those winds of independence stirring, do not clamp down or force the issue. Because, if you dig in you heels, your teen will do the same and you will become enmeshed in a power struggle. Most teens take very small steps to ‘freedom’ at first. It is usually quite experimental and trivial- a baby step away from the center. However, the parents’ hysteria or over-reaction serve to exacerbate the situation and it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy [i.e. you think he’s going off the derech, you treat him that way, and surprise! He does!]. And it is particularly when they lock horns with their parents that they up the ante and move to the next level. When there is stiff opposition, many a teen goes fom zero to a hundred in a very short time.
It often helps the parents to remember that there is halacha and then minhag or chumra. While halacha is non-negotiable, the rest is not! Though you may not like your child developing his own ‘ways’, this process does not stand in the way of his becoming an erliche yid. So, whether it’s put on a gartel or take it off, makeup or none – recognizing that the teen has an opinion worth discussing avoids the inevitable conflict engendered by the parent who won’t accept any opinion different from his own. Develop an ability to respect his thoughts on issues that really don’t matter that much, klapei shimaya, at the end of the day.
Know and believe instead that your child has a right to see the world differently from you. It is not a crime, or even a mistake for your teen to view something from another angle or different perspective. Nor is it chutzpah to express that difference, provided your teen continues to do so in a pleasant manner.
By giving our children permission to see things in their own light and to express that difference to us, we are validating that the child is capable of independent thought. He has a right to his own beliefs and permission to state them. He is a being who is separate from us who deserves to have his perspective respected. Because this stance is totally non-threatening, the teen does not have to hunker down and defend his view. It is a gift when a teen can express a different view without hostility or anger and his parents can listen and accept.
At the end of the day, we all have the same goals: not a child who is a robot, but a child who is worked out and has come to a place of true avodas Hashem that is meaningful to him. Gear up for this challenge and hopefully these difficult years will go well for both you and your son!