Dear Dr. Weisbord,
I have a 14-year-old daughter, the oldest of many children. We have a relatively peaceful house – at least we did until she started acting up. Getting her up every morning is a screaming battle. She sleeps late and misses her ride, then demands that I take her to school. We have brought up our children to help for Shabbos. Everyone pitches in to get ready. But this teenager finds a way to get out of helping. Usually, she claims a stomachache. She manages to avoid whatever I ask her to do. She also can’t be bothered with her family in other ways. She has friends in school and talks to them at night and gets together with them. But she rolls her eyes at any suggestion or activity that we do as a family.
I have tried punishing her, but it doesn’t work. My husband is afraid she won’t listen to him, so he mostly avoids her. I take her to school when she oversleeps, even though I’m sure you’ll tell me not to. I have been lying low with all her shtick, because I don’t want fights in the house all the time. Mostly, I am very worried that the other children will follow her example.
Is this normal? Or is it somewhat normal for a teen but tending to the extreme? How should I deal with this girl, who used to be a regular, cooperative child? And how can I keep the other children from being influenced by her?
Mother in a Mess
Dear Mother in a Mess,
Let me be the first to welcome you to the Parents of a Teenager Club! Sleeping late, rolling the eyes, sitting out family events, talking disrespectfully – these are some of the highlights of adolescence. Maybe that’s why someone once said, “Hashem did a tremendous chesed: He gave us 12 years to develop a love for our children before turning them into teenagers.”
The tasks of adolescence are truly abundant. They include questioning authority, “tryng on” new personalities to establish key aspects of identity, adjusting to a suddenly changing body, developing abstract thinking skills, and becoming more self-sufficient. In other words, adolescents are preparing for life by taking themselves apart and putting the pieces back together to form a new, more mature whole.
Rav Wolbe speaks about two primary aspects of parenting in his classic sefer, Planting and Building in Education: Raising a Jewish Child. Building refers to the direct intervention that we do, mostly with younger children, teaching the basics of behavior and physical care. Building, as the word implies, means creating a structure, with a clear picture of what the outcome will be. Planting, on the other hand, has no guaranteed outcome: We put the seeds in the ground, water them, and ask Hashem to make the work successful. We often don’t see the fruits that grow until long after we have performed our labor. For parents, this labor is the compilation of messages we send about our values and attitudes, about how we deal with life and its challenges. While we always aim for a balance between building and planting, it’s clear that, in the teen years, we do a lot more planting than building! And this means that, even though our teens still need structure and guidance, they also need us to step back a bit and give them space to begin taking responsibility for their behavior and accepting the consequences of their decisions.
These concepts require a shift in the givens of your parenting until now. You did not become an unsuccessful parent overnight; your home was peaceful and functioning well until now. That’s saying a lot for a household with many children, b”H. So, while the behaviors that your daughter is displaying are in the normal range, your task remains to respond and guide your child – with different tools.
With this in mind, here are several steps you can take as you hold on tight for a rollercoaster ride that might be terrifying, but will, iy”H, lead to a life of stability and healthy relationships:
- Realize the job description of “parent” is different at this stage. You are moving from a focus on building to more of a focus on planting. While you are used to being in charge of your children’s schedule and behavior (“ten minutes to bedtime”), you are now stepping back. Bedtime is actually a good example, since it’s far more difficult to “command” a bedtime at age 13 than at age three. The teen years are actually a time of growth for parents, too, as they remind us that we are not in control of everything.
- Think about your expectations. One parenting expert talks about parenting as a journey of 20-plus years, from birth until marriage. She doesn’t know if her parenting was successful until her child walks to the chupa as a whole person, emotionally balanced, frum, and with good relationships. Aren’t those three items a lot more important than finishing supper or staying up too late? When a child is eight or nine or ten, we think in terms of listening and obedience. Now we need to add the normal developmental behaviors and what our long-term goals are.
- Avoid taking comments and rolling eyes personally. These behaviors say more about your child than about you. Sometimes, on the way to doing what you’ve asked, these behaviors assert a bit of independence by letting you know, “I’m doing what you ask, but I’m not happy about it.”
- Switch tactics, especially when you see that current approaches aren’t working. This means – and yes, you’re right about what I’ll say – telling your daughter, in a calm and kindly tone, that you are not happy fighting with her and you’ve come to realize that she’s grown-up enough to take more responsibility for herself. You are happy and willing to give her two wake-up calls in the morning, five to 10 minutes apart, at the time that she designates – and then it’s up to her to get moving. And no, you will not be available to drive her to school, but you will give her the number of a cab company she can call. The first few days, you might want to consider leaving the house, even for a short time.
- Let her know that, while you continue to expect her to participate in erev Shabbos chores, you will give her a list from which she can choose one or two that she prefers. And they can be done on her schedule, as long as they are completed by 3:00 p.m. on Friday (or whatever time you need).
- Be sure to include her father in this new approach. It’s quite understandable that he wants to avoid this “new” child; keep in mind that she needs him and needs to know he loves her. It’s important for him to get her to accompany him on an errand, take her out for a pizza, listen to what she wants to share and avoid telling her what to think and how to act. A young girl needs approval from the man in her life, and her father’s willingness to spend time with her – in fact, his seeking opportunity to spend time with her – is a powerful statement of belief in her worth.
- Move beyond authority and conflict by asking her opinion once in a while. Did you read something interesting in Mishpacha magazine? Ask her what she thinks about it and, even if you don’t agree with her response, listen attentively and avoid arguing. You certainly can tell her that you see it differently, but you will think about her opinion.
The most powerful tool we have to influence our children in positive and lasting ways is the power of our relationship with them. This is particularly the case when our children are teens, because we cannot control their behavior. In fact, we can’t control anyone except ourselves. As you manage to become less reactive to such things as rolling eyes or snarling faces, while standing your ground on certain basics, you will demonstrate love, acceptance, and limits all at the same time. Your younger children will see that you remain steadfast in your love and guidance, even when your patience is sorely tried – and they will know that, if and when their turn comes, you will be there for them.