Parent-Child Dynamics Shift Before Bar/Bat Mitzvah

A family educator offers words of advice to the family.

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Most families immensely enjoy the day of their child's bar/bat mitzvah but do not necessarily appreciate the period leading up to the day. As emotions increase, so do tensions, questions, and other frustrations. The goal is not to decrease the emotions, but to find a positive framework for understanding them. 

Parent/Child Relationship Alters

The timing is exquisite. Enormous growth and change occurs for children between the ages of 12 and 14, and to acknowledge and celebrate that development is wonderful. One explanation for the intensity of the bar/bat mitzvah year is that it occurs during a year of growth for children and change within the parent/child relationship. Planning a major family event at a time when children are pulling away from the family is difficult. However, true to its roots, Judaism keeps the family engaged and enables families to move to a new stage of relationship with one another.

Adolescence Brings Big Changes

As children enter adolescence, change occurs in most aspects of their lives. Many move from a nurturing, often small, elementary school to a much larger middle school or junior high school. No longer are students always known and nurtured by their teachers. Their bodies change rapidly. Adolescents are often surprised by what greets them in the mirror each morning, and adolescence can be a time of instability and insecurity. Friendships are often fluid and volatile. Acceptance in the "group" is very important, and many will experiment with their identities in order to be included in a group.

For some, adolescence is a time of shyness. The anticipation of standing before a group made up of adults and their peers can seem overwhelming. Even those who appear unfazed are often much less secure internally than is apparent. The process of being afraid and insecure, working toward a goal, and succeeding with that goal is one that children will carry with them through adulthood. However, it is important that parents not downplay their child's fears. It is important that adults do not become so focused on their own responsibilities for the bar/bat mitzvah that they neglect their children's insecurities and fears.

Although adolescents are likely to turn away from their parents and toward their friends for acceptance and support, it is crucial that parents be available for them. As parents prepare for the event, it is helpful to model for children the notion that "nothing is perfect," and that we don't expect perfection from ourselves or our children. It is helpful for children to understand that mistakes will be made and that the goal for everyone is to do our best.

This is an age where children may be very critical of themselves and of their parents. They are always willing to point out any hypocrisy in their parents' lives. If parents can understand this as a stage in their child's life, as a universal aspect of separation, if they can listen and learn from what their children can teach them about themselves, everyone will gain.

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Margie Bogdanow

Margie Bogdanow is a family educator at a synagogue in Lexington, Massachusetts.