Helping our teens grow into greatness
By: Paula Levin
Parenting teenagers is not for the fainthearted. It’s brutal, thankless, confusing, painful, scary, and often heartbreaking. My mother in law tried to warn me when my kids were little – “It’s not all coochi-coo.” Boy was she right! The worst part is that we’re flying blind. I don’t know about you, but I never got a manual, and I literally don’t know what I’m doing. Fortunately, as a writer, I get to research, explore, and investigate the world, and speak to people who know more than me. I hope you and I can learn the easy way, what so many have learned the hard way.
Teens are struggling
“In my 15 years as a social worker, I have never seen acting out like this,” says Lisa Klotz, who works with teens at King David Schools. “Teens’ lives have been turned upside down through this pandemic, making what is already a very difficult life stage so much harder.” Lisa contextualises this challenge within a broader developmental stage described by Erik Erikson as identity vs role confusion, where teens struggle with figuring out who they are and where they fit into the world. “Between Covid losses, trauma, and social isolation, they have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic. Some are struggling to reintegrate into social groups and many are grappling with depression and anxiety. Constantly hanging over their heads is the fear that they will make their loved ones sick! It’s a lot to bear.”
Rabbi Gartner is a family educational counsellor who specialises in education crisis management and works with families around the world. “Teens in South Africa have particular challenges different to teens in other countries. Stuck behind high walls and spending all their time on devices, they have very little independence, very little freedom, very little responsibility, and very little accountability. We do everything for them, from making their arrangements and appointments, to driving them where they need to go and picking them up. This can be a blessing, because they can’t just disappear and live on their own when they clash with their parents. They can’t cut them out because they are totally dependent on them so this buys us some time to get things right,” he points out.
“The first step to helping teens through this challenging time is to see where their struggle is. Is it sensory? Are they too inactive? Can we help by taking them to the gym, or working out with them at home? Maybe they need help regulating their use of devices – and that needs a discussion on taking breaks, on how screens can be addictive.” Rabbi G explains that their bodies are raging with hormones while they are more sedentary than they have ever been before. “We see a seesaw effect, the more still the body is, the more overactive the brain is,” he explains. “But maybe the struggle is in the relationship with the parents. Are we as parents trying to control them? Because, for example, we are sociable and like to interact with people, do we expect them to be the same? Do we allow the possibility that they are different people to us? When they don’t conform to our values, like in the way they dress, does this trigger our own shame? In pushing our values, do we push them further away from our values?” he asks.
“The world has changed. And that means we have to change,” says Lisa, whose work at King David is inspired by Brené Brown, author and professor at University of Houston’s graduate school of social work. Brené’s thinking is shaping how the schools deal with teens testing boundaries. “While our code of conduct has not changed, how we deal with consequences has shifted,” Lisa explains. Brené Brown teaches a critical distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt says: “I did a bad thing”, shame says: “I am bad”. Most importantly, no one will be publicly named and shamed – that’s old school. If any disciplinary process is required, this happens with the student’s counsellor, and it happens within the clear context that the student is still held in high esteem, they have incredible potential, they are intrinsically good, and that they can come back from whatever behaviour was inappropriate.” Lisa believes it’s vital to send the message that vulnerability and failure are ok. “It’s ok not to be perfect, it’s ok to make mistakes, in fact it’s encouraged! That’s how leadership ability is nurtured, by daring greatly and taking risks.”
Separating between behaviour and essence has strong roots in Jewish thought, and is a particularly important point to remember when dealing with teen misbehaviour or outright rebellion. Famed psychiatrist Rabbi Dr Avraham Twerski (obm) once shared that when he did something inappropriate as a young boy, his father would say to him “is pas nisht” – meaning it doesn’t fit, it’s unbecoming, it doesn’t suit you. Such lowly behaviour doesn’t live up to such a lofty individual. This leaves the child’s self esteem intact, while not glossing over the room to grow. When a teen is shamed, it can affect his core belief about himself and when this inner spark is lost, so is all motivation to do any better – with sometimes tragic consequences.
Sam and Kerry Hurwitz* believe that just such a process happened to their oldest daughter Tammy, who moved schools multiple times before grade 8. Diagnosed and heavily medicated for various learning difficulties and presenting with behavioural problems, Tammy heard the message loud and clear, over and over – she was defective, she was ineducable, she was a failure and a disappointment. Unwittingly, unconsciously her parents colluded with her teachers – assuming there was something fundamentally wrong with their daughter. “When she refused to go to school in grade 8, I gave up. I was so tired of fighting and trying. She was nothing like I thought she would be, and should be, but I couldn’t see then that that was ok,” Kerry says. What followed was a year of partying with the wrong crowd, drinking and smoking marijuana. “I was totally embarrassed by Tammy, I couldn’t control her, I couldn’t make her just be normal.” As Rabbi G explains, every child wants to make their parents proud, but if they feel that’s impossible, they choose rather to be naughty, than a failure.
Kerry even looked into sending Tammy away. “I was at my wits end; I didn’t want her to be part of our family. But I was strongly advised to keep her at home at all costs. That sending her away would turn marijuana into heroin, to medicate the pain of total rejection. And that could destroy her.” After a year of aimlessness, things finally shifted. Tammy was blessed with a mentor in the form of her dancing teacher, who offered a steady diet of affirmation, focused on what Tammy could do, not her deficits. This was an avenue where if she worked hard, she would see results. The frustration and futility of years of school melted as Tammy tasted mastery. A tiny seed of self esteem blossomed unexpectedly. “One day I had a surreal experience where I suddenly was sick of my life the way it was. I was sick of my friends, I could see they were destructive. I took a long hard look at my life and who I was and I didn’t like what I saw. I asked myself if anything I was doing was even making me happy,” Tammy reveals. Her inner resilience kicked into high gear. She cut off communication with her friends and started practicing dancing for hours a day, determined to qualify as a dancing teacher.
At the same time, her parents found an alternative approach to education that was more learner-centred, where Tammy had the space to find what interested her, without all the negative and critical messaging. It was a shift from compliance toward curiosity and creativity, from a climate of command and control toward a climate of possibility. On her own, given the space to live life on her terms, Tammy realised it was in her own interest to finish high school because she wants to pursue a career as a psychologist. Now, intrinsically motivated, she is finally thriving academically. Much more than this, she is open to life, curious about bettering herself and, best of all, she is deeply connected again to her parents.
Get to know your teen
For me, Tammy’s miraculous story is a lesson in acceptance of who our children are, and curiosity about their passions and potential. We need to pay close attention to our children’s essence, to their interests and talents. The biggest mistake we can make as parents is to believe that our children are a blank slate onto which we can imprint our aspirations and expectations. “I truly thought that our children come into the world and we have to teach them our language,” says Kerry. “I learned the hard way that they have a language of their own and it’s my job to learn it.”
This is profound. Our children are each gifted with a unique soul – in the words of Jewish mysticism, “a literal piece of G-d on high”. They have incredible wisdom, beauty, and radiance to share with the world. Yes, we must teach them right from wrong and give them the boundaries that create the safety to explore without harming themselves or others – but fundamentally, we must respect their individuality, their separateness and personhood. They are not there to make us proud, to give us nachas. “Our children are not a reflection of ourselves. They are unique people, who reflect their own choices,” says Rabbi G. Indeed, they are on their own journey, as described so eloquently by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, who said, “Your children are not your children…They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” What then is our role as parents?
Help them grow into greatness
Of course, we are not mere facilitators or benevolent witnesses to our children’s lives. We have a crucial job to do and that is to pass on our values. As Jewish parents, those values are rooted in the Torah, and encompass its magnificent vision for humanity, with respect and love for one another as its central principle. “Our job as parents is to teach our children our values. It’s not our job to make sure they accept them. Hashem gave them free will, how can we take that away from them?” asks Rabbi G. This was quite the mind shift for me! I guess I had thought I should use any means necessary to enforce my rules. But as my teens get older, it gets harder to “make” them do anything, and punishments and consequences have begun to feel inappropriate and downright authoritarian!
“It’s not about control, it’s about respect,” Rabbi Gartner says. And respect begins with a real relationship. “You can’t form a proper relationship without trying to learn about who your teen is as a person, how he or she thinks, what’s important to them. Your child needs to feel heard. Before resorting to rules, have a discussion about what you need, hear what your child needs. Negotiate. Talk about various solutions, and finally explain your boundary.”
A deep and positive relationship is the most powerful tool you have to influence your teens, so it’s vital to feed that relationship. “Respect for your values is what will help a teenager set boundaries for themselves, when they are out of the house and are faced with temptations and risks that go against the values of the home,” says Rabbi G. “I suggest that parents spend regular one-on-one time with their teenager. And make sure they know it’s not because they’re in trouble, just that you want to get to know them better. I doubt that they will reject this. They might not want to do it over a coffee at a restaurant. Maybe restaurants are unpleasant for them. Get curious. Ask for their ideas and solutions.”
This relationship is something you have hopefully been building all their lives. But many of us have been chipping away at that relationship with a relational style that doesn’t respect the child, and sometimes that needs to change. “I’ve done a lot of introspection as a person since Tammy began to self destruct,” says Kerry, “and I realised that I had some things all wrong. I learned the value of horizontal communication over vertical, top-down communication. This is where we don’t tell our children what to do, we share our thoughts and they share theirs and it’s not a power struggle. I spent so many years telling my kids, “because I said so,” and devaluing their thoughts and opinions. People get very uneasy at the thought of horizontal communication, as if that gives children too much power. But really what it does is acknowledge our equality, that we are both human beings with ideas and perspectives and preferences that can be explored and negotiated together. Horizontal communication turns instructions into conversations.”
A loving relationship doesn’t preclude boundaries, but boundaries are not about controlling the other person as much as standing firm about your values. “I tell parents that they don’t have to know everything their teen is doing outside the home. If they smell like they had a cigarette, don’t even ask them about it. Don’t turn natural experimentation into something they need to assert their identity, or make a statement about their independence. Ignore it. But in your home, communicate what your boundaries are, what your values are, and ask them to respect those values while they are in your home. The stronger the relationship, the more they will respect those boundaries.”
Rabbi G says that many parents have a hard time maintaining their boundaries because they are afraid of their children’s emotions. “We seem to think that happiness is the only acceptable emotion and if our children feel angry or sad about our boundaries then we must change them.” Parents also compromise their boundaries because a rejection of their boundaries feels too much like a rejection of themselves. They can’t tolerate the feeling that their children don’t like them. Rabbi G points out that our ability to securely defend our boundaries gives teens the strength to honour theirs.
So, as much as raising teens is about teens, it’s about us as parents. It’s about looking at our expectations and our reactions and seeing how they affect the young people in our lives. But managing difficult teen behaviour is not all there is to the story. Our goal is not carbon neutral – our goal is empowering teenagers to become their very best selves, and transform the world in the process. “Because teens in South Africa have so little freedom, they have very few responsibilities. This is not healthy for them. We need to give them opportunities to be accountable.” For example, if they want to be fetched at a certain time, we need to give them the responsibility to let us know in advance. And if they don’t, then we need to let them face the consequence that they might have to wait. As parents, we need to let them feel the consequences, even if they are a little painful – but obviously not if they are very harmful or dangerous. This teaches responsibility and accountability.
“We also need to cultivate a culture of respect in our families – of saying please and thank you to our children, so that they too learn to express courtesy and gratitude.” Modelling the behaviour of the kind of humans we want them to become is the best way to teach our values, says Rabbi G. “If we see people in need, we need to step up and help them. Not assume that ‘the community’ will come to the rescue. If we want to raise young people who create a whole new kinder and better world, we need to step up and make a difference right now. This is how they learn that they have the power to change things, to impact others. It’s up to us to teach our teens, by our own example, that if we want to live in a certain kind of world, we have to create it. We each have the ability and talent to make a difference.”
By Kahlil Gibran
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
*Not their real names. All details have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.