Whose Approach Is Right For Our Teenage Son?

Q: My husband and I have difference approaches when it comes to interacting with our 15-year-old son. He is having a hard time in school these days, particularly because he can no longer get away with devoting little effort to his studies. The work has gotten harder and now he must work much harder to do well. He misses the ample time he used to have for himself, and he has become moodier and harder to deal with.

I suppose that mothers generally have more patience with their children than fathers do, and my husband is in fact quite impatient with him. But my husband feels that I spoil him, and claims that my approach toward my son hasn’t helped at all. I want to keep lines of communication open with him, so I work a lot on listening to my son, even though I admit I don’t necessarily have answers to the issues he’s facing.

My view is that my husband is too hard on him. And so our son (let’s call him Moishy) just tunes my husband out and ignores his father when he gives him too many “commands.”

My husband feels that by “coddling” him, I’m giving him an unrealistic vision of “olam hazeh.” My husband has high expectations for all of our children, but Moishy has the hardest time dealing with his approach. Our other children appear to do fine with my husband’s vision of “excellence,” but Moishy seems to deflate like a balloon when too much pressure is put on him.

My husband says that accepting someone “where they presently stand” will not be a motivating force to help them strive to “greater heights.” What are your thoughts about this?

A: There are times when a parents’ stressing a child’s great potential provides the fuel to help their child soar to “greater heights,” as you express it. Sometimes later, in teenage years, this same parental attitude can create the opposite effect.

A teenager might say: “You think that I’m never good enough” when they hear their parents’ high expectations. They can feel embarrassed that they can’t be the star pupil or the baalas middos tovos that you had hoped for.

Though you may say, “I know that you have a good head,” or “You used to win all the middos tovos contests,” such comments are not among those that inspire teenagers going through self-doubt.

Empathizing with your son’s plight of needing to enter the world of “hard workers” is compassionate. Perhaps sharing with him a similar situation that you or your husband has faced in your own lives will be of help. You might tell about times when your expertise was overshadowed by another, or when you entered a social situation in which you began to doubt your abilities.

Attempting to problem-solve and finding ways to help your son academically can involve speaking to mechanchim about techniques and methods that focus on your son’s particular learning needs. Much research has been done in recent years dealing with the contemporary mindset and children’s and adolescents’ abilities to concentrate and learn.

If your son lacks social skills — due to his identity as being the class brain, perhaps — he can work with someone skilled in this area to help him develop them. You can make it time-limited (if he is resistant) and agree to some type of reward if he attends four sessions, for example. If his moodiness continues, and other issues are involved, individual therapy would greatly help.

You can explain to your husband that believing in a person sometimes means investing time to research avenues to help them reach their potential — rather than just saying, “I know that you have a good head.”

Your husband needs to rehearse ways, in advance, to appropriately respond to your son when your son is non-compliant to his requests. In this way, his relationship with your son will improve.