Off the path

Off the path

Dr. Miriam Adahan

Almost daily, I receive phone calls or letters from desperate parents whose children have decided to leave the path of Yiddishkeit. I understand their pain. I’ve been there. When one of my children showed signs of rebellion, I struggled

with all the feelings which parents in such situations know so well: fear, shame, guilt and anger, but especially deep grief.

There are a lot of ways to “lose” a child, and one is by having a child reject a life of Torah and mitzvos. It is a kind of death experience for parents. Judaism means shared values and rituals which allows people to bond despite differences in personalities. Without this “glue,” the bond is broken, sometimes forever. The child leaves emotionally, and often physically as well. And that feels like death -

no more, no less. While the child is thrilled to be “free” of what he feels are the

burdensome rules and regulations of Torah, the parents know all too well where

these “freedoms” might take him: perhaps into immorality, intermarriage or drugs,

G-d forbid. People often reassure parents “S/he will surely return and everything

will be fine.” But to the mourning parent, these assurances ring hollow.

Why are some children attracted to the secular world? People like to offer

theories. Yes, when there is an involved father and true shalom bayis (i.e., parents

express love and respect for other), children rarely stray. But the sad truth is that

few fathers spend quality time with their children, and mothers nowadays also

tend to be busy outside of the home. The level of physical and emotional abuse

has risen drastically. But many other factors come into play. Yes, some parents

are too strict - but others are extremely permissive. Some parents are physically

and emotionally abusive, but there are very loving. Many who stray have learning

disabilities and feel like failures in school, but others are creative souls who are

turned off by what they see as a boring school system. Sometimes it’s the TV in

the house, which taints their pure spirits, but many who go off the path come

from homes where even a computer screen was not allowed. Some were crushed

by nasty-tempered teachers, but others with the same teachers were not. There are

always inspiring people in the frum world who serve as positive role models for

those who are looking for such. But “believing is seeing;” i.e., once a child is

already turned off, he finds many reasons to support his hostility.

Sometimes the children were always “difficult,” while others were “model

kids” until this sudden break. Sometimes the “cracks” begin very early, around

the age of 9 or 10, but the most difficult years tend to be from 14 until 18. The

first signs are often subtle and seemingly normal. For girls, there are the earrings

which dangle farther down than the school permits or the hem line which is just

millimeters above the regulations. Boys may chafe at wearing tzisis when it’s hot

or complain about having to get up to daaven early in the morning. Both boys and

girls may experiment with the latest secular hair styles and clothing and complain

loud and long about what to them are “oppressive and joyless” religious rituals

and uncaring teachers.

You probably tried to be understanding, perhaps begging your child’s

teachers to be patient and allow them some “breathing space,” or change your

parenting tactics or get your spouse to change his or hers. You have probably

spend many sleepless nights trying to figure out what went wrong. Was I strict or

too lenient? Whose fault is it - my spouse or me? That nasty teacher? The

influence of that secular relative or boorish child s/he became friendly with?

By the time a child reaches his teens, it is usually too late for you to be

much of an influence. Other people and pastimes have grabbed his attention.

Your pain grows deeper as her skirts get higher and his kippa gets smaller. You

watch helplessly as your child turns away from everything you cherish and

embraces a world you reject. You cry for their souls, knowing that a life without

Torah is like driving on a highway blind-folded. How will they give meaning to

their lives? How can they bear all the many disappointments and losses without a

strong belief in G-d? What low-level types will they turn to for guidance?

STAYING FRIENDS

I once read a story about a man who came to the Ba’al Shem Tov and

complained that his son had gone off the path (Yes - it happened back then, too.)

The Ba’al Shem Tov said, “Love him.” “You don’t understand,” complained the

distraught father. “He’s going off to bars and taking up with shiksas.” “Then love

him even more,” answered the Ba’al Shem Tov.

The more outrageous the child’s behavior, the more difficult this is to do.

There are no manuals on how to act when a child dresses immodestly, is using

drugs or is kicked out of school. “Tough love” may not work. A child can be out

on the streets or with friends if parents deny him a bed to sleep in. You try to

tread a very narrow line between flexibility and firmness, frantic to hold on to the

last vestiges of a relationship, not knowing when to speak, when to be silent, what

is safe to speak about and what will cause an explosion and even further

alienation.

The following advice to parents may not apply to every family, especially

when extreme behavior, such as drug use or intermarriage is involved. However,

the following may help you to maintain a positive relationship:

1. PRAY. Keep asking Hashem to open your child’s eyes to the beauty of

Yiddishkeit. A person’s journey is in HIS hands, not yours. Furthermore,

at this age, your influence is minimal.

2. AVOID USELESS CONTROL TACTICS: To gain control, you may

threaten, nag, withhold money, cry, scream, lecture, induce guilt in, deliver

ultimatums to, suffer in loud silence, enlist the aid of endless advisors,

bargain with, interrogate, spy on, command, complain, drag to counseling,

provoke, scold, chase after, etc., etc. But if your child is bent on leaving,

he will. If this is his goral [fate], then this is what he must go through.

People are often influenced by forces beyond our control or

understanding. We cannot dictate to others what or who to love. Our

brains our finite and the Plan is infinite. You cannot interrupt another

person’s journey in life without severe consequences. One parent

“married off” a rebellious child at a young age in order to “save” him, but

the child rebelled later on anyway, leaving a marriage wrecked and

children severely traumatized.

3. BE TOLERANT OF BEHAVIOR, AS LONG AS IT IS NOT

DANGEROUS, ILLEGAL OR IMMORAL. Some children need to go

away in order to draw closer. Like all losses, this one is meant to make

you better, not bitter. Better means more humble, more loving, more

forgiving, more patient.

4. MAKE THE PAIN MEANINGFUL: Allow yourself to mourn. After all,

you have “lost” a child in ways that others may not be able to understand.

However, don’t let this child destroy your life. Don’t make him/her feel

guilty for you pain; this only makes them want to escape from your

presence. Take on one extra mitzvah in the child’s name, like reading the

day’s tehillim, giving extra tzdakah or volunteering in help in any of the

hundreds of chesed organizations.

5. SET RED LINES: Be honest about what you cannot tolerate. For

example, tell the child, “When you come to visit, you must be dressed

modestly.” Or, “I do not allow smoking in this house. I cannot bear to see

you harming yourself.” Sometimes, you must limit the time you spend

with a child in order to avoid conflict.

6. OFFER POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: For example, “Leave your immodest

clothing at a friend’s house and change into them there, where I won’t

have to see you.” “Let’s get together once a week and eat out - without

discussing anything controversial.”

7. HAVE FUN TOGETHER. Many children associate Judaism with “no fun

and no funds.” If all they see is doom and gloom, parental strife and

endless criticism, they won’t want to be around you. The greatest chance

of bringing children back is for them to see you happy and fulfilled with

your life. Keep the home atmosphere joyful by saying your brochos with

enthusiasm and doing acts of kindness with joy. Be a positive model to

the child.

8. LIMIT VISITS WITH OLDER CHILDREN: If you cannot tolerate the

child’s behavior (e.g., immodest clothing, disrespect, etc.) keep visits

“short and superficial.” Your body will tell you when you can’t take it any

longer. It’s better to maintain distance if you cannot avoid becoming

physically or verbally abusive - or if the child is abusive toward you. We

don’t always like all the members of our biological family. They may be

here for our growth more than our love.

9. COMPLIMENT: Mention to your child what you think are his or her

positive traits. If you feel that there is nothing positive about the child,

seek help for yourself. Criticism alienates.

10. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY: Don’t blame the child for your own

unhappiness. A rebellious child is an easy “hook” on which to hang all

your disappointments in life. It often occurs during a “mid-life” crisis

when parents are unhappy with their marriage and feeling like failures for

not having accomplished more. Take control of your life: get out and find

fulfilling activities and causes.

11. BE GENEROUS: Because of the prevalence of drugs, do not offer cash to

a rebellious child. However, if you can afford to do so, be generous about

giving money directly to an institution or private teacher for healthy

activities, such as learning an instrument, work-outs in a gym or learning

any subject in which they show interest.

12. INCREASE YOUR SELF-AWARENESS: This experience is for YOUR

own personal growth. It will help to fill in the following:

Hashem gave me this nisayon to me so that I would develop

__________________________________________________

13. WRITE. A method which has been extremely helpful to me personally is

called “non-dominant handwriting.” With this technique, you write a

letter to Hashem expressing all your feelings with your dominant hand

(right hand for most). Then, with your left hand, imagine that Hashem

can give you back LOVE, COMFORT and CHIZUK. When I was

bursting with unexpressed and unexpressable sadness, this is what I

would do. And Hashem always gave me what I needed to hear at the

time. Each of us has a G-dly essence. Allowing that essence to speak to

us is how we heal.

My sincerest prayers are with all those readers who are in the midst of the

struggle with this painful situation. Eventually, Hashem will return all

the children to the path of Truth. In the meantime, our job is to make sure

that we ourselves are on that path.

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