In Your Face: The Challenge of Unruly Teens

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.

It is essential that we address a distressing problem which, unfortunately, is increasing in our community: the defiant and disruptive behavior of some young people.  This behavior usually occurs in adolescence, but can sometimes affect even pre-adolescents.  These children are often diagnosed with “conduct disorders” or “oppositional disorders,” but whichever term is used, it refers to a young boy or girl who acts out destructively.  They may present extremely difficult problems in the home and/or at school.  Parents and principals are at their wits’ end, not knowing how to help the child or to maintain the integrity of the school and family.

It may seem that in such cases, educators have a lesser problem, because they have the option of expelling the child from school.  Based on my discussions with principals, I can assure you that they cringe at this solution.  They feel a definite responsibility to help the child, and are terribly frustrated when they have no choice but to expel a child in order to preserve the stability of the school.  Difficult as this is for principals, it is much more difficult for the parents.  They have an even greater emotional investment in the child, and do not have the option of “expelling” him from the household.

It is difficult to ascribe a single cause to the increase in childhood and adolescent disruptive behavior.  One possibility is that there may be various social and cultural factors that have contributed to this increase.  The ’60s appears to have been a watershed, with a breakdown of all authority: law, religion, and family.  “Do your own thing” became the motto of youth, and this implied total disregard for anyone who stood in the way.  This — together with misguided recommendations for excessive permissiveness in parenting — has certainly contributed to the present problem.  Although the structure of a Torah-observant home does help to lower the incidence of rebelliousness, it does not totally prevent its occurrence.

Whatever the cause or causes, the important question is, “What can we do about it?”  In the past, the social structure was such that parents and educators had greater control over youngsters whose immaturity could result in reckless behavior.  Today, society seems to have wrested control of children away from the parents.  Yet we still hold the parents responsible for providing for the child, though he or she may be pelting them with verbal and/or physical abuse.  Given this situation, we must search for ways to keep these young people from hurting themselves, and to prevent the noxious impact upon others in their surroundings.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution, and in view of the challenge which confronts both parents and educators, it is absolutely essential that the two join ranks to provide a uniform approach.  Nothing can be more undermining to a solution than to have the parents and the school pursuing separate, and, at times, mutually contradictory approaches.

Ideally, parents and schools would work together, but there can be numerous reasons why this is not always the case.  Parents may sometimes be defensive, feeling that the situation is their fault and that they must have done something wrong.  This defensiveness may result in their denying that there is a problem, or perhaps blaming it on the school.  Parents must realize that these problems can occur even when parenting has been of the highest grade.  One man in his forties, who is now settled and stable, had a devastating adolescence, being expelled from many yeshivos and ultimately ending up on drugs.  When I asked him where his parents might have gone wrong, he said, “Why are you implicating my parents?  I was meshugah.”

Sometimes a youngster’s behavior may indeed be due to turmoil within the home.  In this type of case, parental defensiveness may be due to the need to present an appearance of being a trouble-free family.  In some circles, the likelihood of children finding a good shidduch may be diminished if there is a suspicion that all is not in perfect order in the family.  These parents are often reluctant to go to the school for help, for fear of exposing things the family would prefer to keep secret.

On the other hand, there may be some anxiety on the school’s part to probe its own failures.  Schools, like families, may have secrets that they do not wish to expose.

These considerations are understandable, but not justifiable.  Both family and school have an obligation to do whatever is best for their children and students.  Furthermore, we have had ample evidence that “cover-ups” do not work, and that unresolved problems eventually surface in a much more damaging manner than would result from sincere evaluation and proper management.

So it is important that there be close cooperation between the home and school.  They must join ranks instead of being divisive.  They must face up to the problem instead of denying it.  I have advocated the establishment of a much closer working relationship, an actual partnership between parents and the school, much more functional than the traditional PTA.

Some principals have confided that they are reluctant to do so, because that might stigmatize the school as having problems.  Let’s be realistic.  All schools have problems.  The only question is whether they will deal with them more effectively or look for simplistic, ineffective solutions.  In some cases, it is the parent body that insists on status quo.  One school, for example, wished to initiate a drug prevention program, and encountered opposition from parents who feared that this would stigmatize their children as attending a school which was drug-ridden.

There are valid differences of opinion, even among psychologists, on how to manage a particular child.  Some may advocate an approach of manifesting unconditional love and acceptance, which runs the risk of showing other children in the home that such behavior is acceptable.  Others may advocate an approach of “tough love” and firm discipline, which carries the risk that the child may run off.  There is no single approach that is applicable across the board, and each child must be approached with a plan appropriate to him/her.  If there is no plan at all, vacillation between tolerance and rejection results.  This lack of a plan can only result in confusion.

Parents may try to enlist the help of a therapist for the child, but are powerless to make the child go to the therapist or cooperate with treatment.  It is wise for the parents to accept counseling for themselves, to deal with the child in a consistent manner.  These youngsters are most adept at driving wedges between the school and the parents, and between father and mother.  Appropriate counseling for the parents can eliminate this pitfall, and a close working relationship between parents and educators may identify the child’s manipulativeness.

The manner in which the child is treated can have long-term repercussions.  I know of a case where a youngster had to be expelled from school.  At his therapist’s suggestion, several of the teachers submitted comments about some of the boy’s positive traits.  He was then called into the principal’s office, where there were some teachers in attendance, and refreshments on the table.  The youngster was told that although it was necessary for him to leave the school, they were giving him a “going away” party.  The favorable comments were read aloud, and the staff wished him success, telling him to capitalize on these positive traits.

This was an implementation on the Talmudic dictum that when reprimand is necessary, “push away with the left (weaker) hand and embrace with the right (stronger) hand.”  Years later, this young man recalls his expulsion with an awareness of the consideration for his feelings, which made it a less traumatic experience.

It is unrealistic to close our eyes and hope that these problems will go away.  The only reasonable approach is for parents and educators to enter into frank discussions and perhaps bring in specialists in certain areas of child and adolescent psychology.  These specialists could try to come to an approach.  Hopefully, they could then prevent our children from the self-destructive behaviors that may result from impulsive behavior in an environment where there are weak authoritative controls.  The time is ripe for calling a special convention of educators, rabbis, community leaders, and interested parents to look for ways to resolve this vexing problem.

The founder and medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Dr. Twerski is one of the country’s leading experts on alcohol and drug rehabilitation.  He is the author of numerous books and his column is regularly featured in Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Spring 1998 issue of Jewish Action.