Parenting Jewish Teens

How to help your teens grow as they prepare to leave home.

In the Book of Genesis, we encounter many stories of individuals who leave their parents’ homes under difficult circumstances.  For today’s Jewish teens, the struggle for leave-taking begins long before the actual physical event. This is an emotional and often conflict-filled process of separation generally beginning around the time of bar/bat mitzvah, peaking between the ages of 15 to 19, and usually subsiding by the early to mid-twenties.


Peace in the Home

How well Jewish parents handle this natural but challenging process can have a significant impact on shalom bayit, peace in the home, and set the stage for relationships with the soon-to-be-adult children for many years to come. Since the teenage years are such a time of change, experimentation, and identity redefinition, it can be hard for parents to sort out which issues require their attention and which can be ignored. And given the fact that many teens enact the separation process around matters of Jewish observance,  it is not surprising that parents of Jewish teens may find themselves asking the question: “What happened to the child I thought I had raised?!”

Fortunately, Jewish tradition offers parents helpful guidance during this important and challenging family transition:

Model Desired Behavior

Though it may not be apparent, teens are keen observers of their parents’ behavior, and are quick to notice contradictions and inconsistencies, so sending clear messages–in words and in deeds–is essential. A tale is told about the Zhitomer rabbi who was once walking with his son when they noticed a drunken father and his drunken son stumbling along. The rabbi said to his son, “I envy that father. He has accomplished his goal of having a son like himself…I can only hope that the drunkard is not more successful in training his son than I am with you.” (Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living, Jonathan David Publishers)

Continue to Build Mutual Trust

The importance of parental honesty with children is clearly delineated in the Talmud (Sukkah 46b). Parents are instructed to refrain from promising their child something they might not be able to deliver, lest they cause feelings of disappointment in the child and teach dishonesty, however inadvertently. In relationships with teens, parents may feel the teen cannot be trusted because the teen secretly behaved in a way that violated family rules and norms. However, it can sometimes be the case that the parents have created a situation in which the teen might be strongly tempted to violate rules that are no longer realistic or appropriate. While a parent is responsible for preventing an adult (post bar/bat mitvah) child from committing a wrong if it is within the parent’s ability to do so (Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 54b, Sukkah 56b), unrealistic restrictions could sometimes cause a teen to commit a wrong. In this case, the parents are unwittingly putting a stumbling block before their child (Leviticus 19:14). Mutually respectful dialogue is essential to producing guidelines with which both parent and teen can live.

Chastise When Necessary, But Do So Carefully

The Torah clearly states the obligation to let another person know when he or she is doing something wrong  (Leviticus 19:17). It is equally important, though, that this be done with great sensitivity. Notes commentator Avnei Azel: ” ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor’…What is the link between these two parts of the verse? The explanation is that one can only truly rebuke a person that one loves and whom one wishes to see mend his ways, such as the way a father rebukes his son. The closer a person is to another person, the greater the love and the more earnest the rebuke. A rebuke which is the product of love is more effective.” (Torah Gems Volume 2, Yavneh Publishing House)

Manage Your Anger

Teenager behavior can be quite vexing and even downright infuriating. An enraged response on the part of the parent, however, should be avoided. According to Maimonides: “Anger is…an exceptionally bad quality. It is fitting and proper that one move away from it and adopt the opposite extreme. He should school himself not to become angry even when it is fitting to be angry. If he should wish to arouse fear in his children and household…to motivate them to return to the proper path, he should present an angry front to them to punish them, but he should be inwardly calm. He should be like one who acts out the part of an angry man in his wrath, but is not himself angry.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot 2:3) Parents can apply this advice by taking a few minutes, if need be, to collect their thoughts, put the situation in perspective, and respond appropriately to the problem at hand. This approach stands a far better chance of getting the desired results.

Positive Interactions Should Outweigh Negative Ones

If parents are always chastising their teens about the more annoying aspects of teen behavior (messy room, inattention to schoolwork, issues about money, laziness, loud music, to name a few), there will be little opportunity to normalize the relationship. The Torah warns against being vengeful or bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:18), because such behavior can cause us to continuously view another through an overly negative lens. The advice of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107b) is to discipline with the left (weaker) hand and to reach out with the right (stronger), so that reconciliation is possible. Relationships between today’s parents and teens can deteriorate quite quickly unless parents deal with difficult issues and move forward in a constructive way.

Respect Differences in the Area of Jewish Observance

It is often quite difficult to accept the fact that a teenager may not want to participate in the family’s Jewish observances in the way he or she did when younger, and this can feel like a rejection of a parent’s core values. However, the Talmud teaches us not to impose restrictions that cannot be adhered to (Bava Batra 60b), so it is wise to make accommodations during this time, where possible, in order to facilitate an eventual return to parental teachings. A wonderful model for this can be found in a tale that is told about the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), the founder of Hasidism. When a distraught Hasid came to see him, the rebbe gently asked: “What is the problem?” “It is my son,” the Hasid bemoaned. “He no longer follows our religion,”  “Do you love your son?” the Baal Shem Tov inquired. “Of course I do!” the man cried. “Then love him even more,” was the rebbe’s response.

Move from Control to Consultation

Our forefather Abraham is instructed by God to leave his native land and his father’s house and to go to a land that God will show him (Genesis 12:1). Why the redundancy? If you are leaving your native land, are you not by definition leaving your father’s house as well? Perhaps the message is that in order to grow to become the person you are meant to be, you must step out into the world in a decisive way, leaving behind the rules, regulations, and practices of the home in which you were raised.

At some point children need to separate from their parents, both emotionally as well as physically. Despite the legitimate and real feelings of loss that Jewish parents may experience during this transitional period, it is important to facilitate this process in a constructive way so that teens can grow into emotionally healthy adulthood. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the University of Judaism puts it this way: “While casting a giant shadow over our children’s perceptions and actions, their maturation entails a retreat of the parents’ ability to impose their own preferences. Ultimately, children learn to become responsible for themselves and their own behavior. Can we, as parents, learn to let our children take charge?” Knowing when to hold them close and when to nudge them toward independence is one of the most difficult–and important–trials of parenting Jewish teens.

Encourage Teens to Stay Involved in the Jewish Community

Pirkei Avot (2:4) urges us to not separate from the community, and this is great advice for Jewish teens and their parents. Recent studies indicate the strong influence of parents in teen decision-making about continued involvement in Jewish activities such as Hebrew high school, youth groups, summer camps, and Israel trips. These are positive experiences in which teens continue to learn, grow, and socialize in settings defined by Jewish values, a wonderful antidote to many of the objectionable images and messages so antithetical to Jewish beliefs and practices that can be found in the popular media.  Jewish parents, too, can benefit from remaining affiliated with Jewish institutions such as the synagogue and community center during their children’s teenage years, and parents can help create Parenting Jewish Teens groups when pre-bar and bat mitzvah family education programs are no longer available.

In the Torah, when God calls out to individuals for whom God has a special job, the response that indicates commitment in every sense of the word is, “Hineini–here I am!” Perhaps the job of parenting Jewish teens today is to say to our teens, “Hineini,” and to live its message in our parenting each day.

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