Q: We have an 18-year-old son who acts as if he wants nothing to do with us. He sits at the Shabbos table, for example, and does not participate in any conversation. If he is addressed directly, he responds in monosyllables under his breath. He is always the first one finished eating, after which he leaves the table and escapes to his room.
He is the third of our six children. And he has little to do with his siblings as well. From his rebbeim in yeshivah, we hear that he does have friends and chavrusos, although he is not very social. And his learning is considered satisfactory.
While we both feel his behavior at home is disrespectful, that is not our chief concern. What worries us is that he is not communicating with us at all. We do not know his goals, what he enjoys or who his friends are. He shares none of this with us. It is as if he has written us out of his life. Rabbanim we have consulted have encouraged us to “give him space” and not to insist that he talk with us if he chooses not to. We feel confused and frustrated. Can you help us?
A: Mark Twain once said, “When I was 16, I thought my father was so stupid I could barely tolerate having the old man around. Then, when I was 20, I was surprised how much he had learned in four years.”
Whether or not Mark Twain actually made that comment, the phenomenon it describes is undeniable. Many teenagers disdainfully detach themselves from their parents only to reconnect a few years later. Nevertheless, you are still left feeling confused and frustrated. Presumably, you are confused because you do not understand why your son is acting this way. And you are frustrated because you do not know what you can do to change his behavior. B’ezras Hashem, I will try to help with both.
Of course, Chazal understood the feelings of parents like you. And they appreciated the severity of the situation you are facing. “Rabi Yochanon said in the name of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, ‘A degenerate child in one’s home is worse than the war of Gog and Magog.’” (Brachos 7b)
While many adolescents shun their parents, certainly not all, or even most, behave that way. Whenever a teenager treats his or her parents with disregard, therefore, it is always pertinent to ask, why? While I cannot accurately assess your son’s unexpressed feelings, I can say that most of the young people who act this way with whom I have worked all harbored deep-seated resentments towards one or both parents. In most cases, those hostile feelings were provoked by one or both parents having been overly critical of that child.
I recall one such family in which the father was always putting down one of his sons. Whether it was his study habits, his grades, his davening or even his posture, this father never had a kind word to say to his son. Of course, the father had the best of intentions. And he was only dealing with his son the way his father had dealt with him when he was a boy. Nevertheless, what “worked” in one generation is often not appropriate for a later generation. Just as the father drove a car while his great-grandfather rode in a horse and buggy, this father needed to learn to be more positive.
At first, the son exerted himself to please his father. In spite of repeated failures, he kept trying. By the time he reached adolescence, however, he simply gave up. He stopped caring about his father’s opinion. And then he began avoiding his father at every opportunity.
It is very possible that you are positive to your son, and this explanation does not apply. In case the situation in your home is similar to the one I just described, what can you do to correct past mistakes? You need to think of your relationship with your son like a checking account. As long as your deposits exceed your withdrawals, you may issue checks. Once you write a single check for more money than you have in your account, however, the check will bounce and your account will be closed. Praise, compliments and approval are the deposits. Criticism, reprimands and complaints are the withdrawals. If you express more of the former, your child will tolerate the latter. If, however, it is the other way around, your child will close your account and shut you out.
The remedy, therefore, is to be sure to correct the imbalance. Make a point of eliminating criticism from your vocabulary and sharing only positive comments with your son. It will not come easy at first. But the potential benefits to your relationship will make it all more than worthwhile.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.