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Teenage Rebel

Teenage Rebel

Why do so many teenagers rebel against their parents?


First it was Hebrew school, then it was bar mitzvah lessons, then came the refusal to attend services "even for an hour" on Rosh Hashanah. "I'm not going," Jake said, folding his arms and firmly planting his right foot down on the kitchen step stool. "And no one can make me." And for good measure he added, "I might not even fast at all this Yom Kippur!"

Jake's parents, despite being thoroughly modern in every sense of the word – his father believed in giving his son total freedom in religion though he himself had become more traditional through the years – found to his surprise that he could not digest his son's words. His mother too, a child of traditional parents, was surprised that she felt Jake's words like a stinging slap.

So ingrained is tradition that it comes as a dreadful shock to parents when a boy of bar mitzvah age or close to it, conveys in word or deed: I am not participating. Perhaps it started with a milder refusal, like not wanting to visit Grandpa, but now it is full bloom – he was officially a "refusenik" – but the problem was, he was a dissident on the wrong side, as his parents saw it.

Conversations with the young man went nowhere. He even declared (probably to provoke his father) that he is an "atheist." He cast himself in a noble light. "It would be hypocritical," he protested with no small amount of affectation, "for me to participate in religious rituals that have no meaning for me."

Do I want to please or thwart authority?

His parents are frightened. "Did we raise a non-believer? Sure, the Jewish people have had many a rebel. Many have turned out to be great people, but not our son. Let someone else's son be the next Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky or Sigmund Freud.” Most Jewish parents want to feel they passed on the tradition to their sons and daughters. It is a matter of pride and a measure of their success to link the family with the larger community and the Jewish people.

As a psychotherapist, a great deal of my work has been with parents and children who are in conflict over some aspect of religious observance, but they don’t understand what they’re really fighting about. Sometimes the conflicts are so toxic they even threaten the near-indestructible bonds of family and tribe.


I do not know whether this was always true, but teenagers will rebel. Much of teenage behavior can be understood as a representation of the following conflict: Do I want to please authority or do I want to thwart authority?

This conflict is a reprise of a primitive dance that began at the beginning of life: An infant even a few months old has already learned to please his mother. He might smile at her or make eyes at her, or eat or roll over or do something, anything to please her. Eventually, he learns to please his father and other parent substitutes, his teacher, his synagogue, his country, and beyond. But there is another force in him. He doesn’t want to please at all. He wants to thwart. His father wants him to go to synagogue, his teacher wants him to listen, his mother wants him to put his laundry in the basket or take out the garbage – he’ll come up with every reason why it can’t be done. What’s going on here?

Well, here’s a clue. Everyone knows about the terrible-two’s. When a two year old refuses to put on her shoes – or take them off it may be puzzling to the parent. The famous psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler understood that when the toddler begins to say “no” it may be an expression of separation. She may be saying, “I am not an extension of you. I once was, but I am no longer.” Often, there is a capricious seesaw between “yes and no” without any apparent rhyme or reason to the observer.

This oscillation between yes and no seems to go dormant for a while, but then resurfaces in full bloom in the teenage years (and it echoes throughout life). The child who was once enthusiastic and cooperative suddenly refuses to participate. A once “good” boy wants to say no to the dismay of everyone. Doesn’t he want to follow in the way of his father and his people? He may well want that, but right now his greater pleasure, bizarre at it may seem, is to thwart.

The adult world, with its endless responsibilities and pressures, terrifies him.

Why? "Because he is likely scared out of his wits. The adult world with its endless responsibilities and pressures – the endless chase to make a living, the stumbling at work, the failed business enterprises, the ever-present failures of even the best of fathers, the normal humiliations of life – -it all terrifies him. Will he be able to hack it? Or will he collapse. When a boy derails his father and makes his father stumble, oddly, his fearful tensions are temporarily relieved.

Take the case of Jeremy, for instance. Although Jeremy showed early promise, after his bar mitzvah, he started slacking off. Whereas initially he had ambitions to master the guitar and woodworking, his life at school and at home took on the feel of a listless voyage. He was even seen smoking cigarettes and Heaven knows what else. Everyone was astonished. He was a great kid from a great family. He had a mind as sharp as a blade and aced all the achievement tests in math and science. But what people didn’t realize was that Jeremy's main objective, like many teenagers, was to protect his fragile self and to protect the people around him. Many a young man is plagued with fear of failure. If he is a "good boy," he will fail to be "true to himself"; if he is a "bad boy," he will fail his father and mother. Many are not aware that a teenager's instinct to protect is very strong. He lives in dread of harming everyone, including himself even as he feels he must also protect those around him.

To the adult, Jeremy may appear lazy or even that dreaded word “delinquent.” Actually, Jeremy is hard at work to resolve this crushing conflict – to please his parents or to please himself, if only he knew how. This is a formidable challenge. Given this, it makes sense that his energy would turn toward delay, distraction and a slowing down of his progress in life. His under-performance, for example, his coming late to synagogue, gives him a momentary reprieve from his dilemma. No longer is he "the good boy" with a bright future. He is just a shlep who comes late to synagogue or a ne'er-do-well who smokes. He’s throwing people off the scent of who he is or could possibly be: I’m no prodigy and I'm certainly no good-boy. Don’t have any grand ambitions for me.

Silence and Words

Perhaps Freud’s most useful contribution to the world was his insistence that human behavior is likened to the tip of an iceberg. We see only what sticks out above the surface of the water, but we know that the ice is a thousand fathoms deep to the ocean floor. We don’t know why a child or anyone else does things. The reasons are hidden sometimes even to the person himself. All well and good, you may say, but what is a parent to do?

Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules, but a parent has two powerful tools at his disposal: silence and words.

Silence? How can I be silent, one might ask, when my son does such-and-such? "Well one might consider that silence, saying absolutely nothing at all, say in the face of “I’m not going to fast on Yom Kippur,” is a very powerful form of rebuke. "In fact, when dealing with intimates, the seemingly "mildest rebuke, silence, is often the strongest. "What’s more, an added benefit to silence, is that a child learns to quell his urges to defy, to still his impulses, when he sees his father restrain himself from speaking even when provoked. ""

What do you need from me to succeed?

But there’s a time to speak too. "Here’s when: at some point the boy will make contact in a less provocative way. "Perhaps it is later in the week and he needs a ride somewhere and there is light conversation in the car. "The wise parent will wait for just such a propitious moment. Now you can use words, but choose them carefully. "I recommend something along the lines of “You are __ "years old now. "What do you need from me to succeed?” This is a question that when sincerely asked is almost certain to induce love and cooperation. "It is respectful and truthful and speaks directly to the adolescent’s need for both help and independence. It neutralizes the impulse in him to “monkey wrench” and sabotage. "

Nagging words, on the other hand, such as “reminding” a child to study, go to synagogue, do his homework or floss his teeth, is pretty well guaranteed to be pointless at best, and destructive at worst, sowing the seeds for a lifetime of thwarting and undoing.

There’s a story once told of a man who came to the Satmar Rebbe, of blessed memory. He was in a battle with his son. "The man wanted his son to be a rabbi, but the son wanted his father’s help to get to medical school. "The sage told the father: besser tzu zein a rofeh cholim vi a mater assurim. "Better to be someone who heals the sick rather than someone who permits what is forbidden. "

The holy man understood that if the man’s son were to become the “rabbi” of his father’s dreams, the son would still find a way to thwart his father.

September 29, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 10

(6) scott, October 3, 2013 6:43 AM


My nightmare is a child that does not rebel in some way. Because that child is not human. We are beings blessed with self awareness and choice. Just like we have to stumble before we walk, we have to use our ability to chose in stupid ways to learn how to use it properly.

The challenge for parents is how to keep the mistakes our children make during this testing phase as painless and non permanent as possible. Just as we put toddlers in play pens and put little fences up to close off stairwells we have to do the same with our older kids choices while still encouraging them to explore.

My dad did a poor job of this. He was the first in his family to go to college and be a professional. The first to marry a stranger (someone who wasn't country folk) that had the crazy idea that women should have education and careers. He was the first to move to the big city. He invented his own game plan which worked for him. He's a good solid man and has the best intentions for everyone. However, he couldn't see past his plan. Worked for him-had to work for me. He didn't know any different. Any deviation from his plan and priorities was a capital offense. So, since everything was wrong...why do anything right?

My exploration went into areas that weren't safe. I broke the fence blocking off the stairwell and tumbled right down the stairs. Thankfully, his lessons (and examples) on right and wrong were powerful enough for me not to hurt anyone or do lasting damage to myself. But I missed opportunities. I had no mentor.

Let your children rebel respectfully. Encourage it. Maintain that mentoring relationship and try so very hard not to take every stupid choice too seriously. They will come back and it will all turn out well. It did for me.

(5) Matthew, October 1, 2013 6:21 PM

In anthropology it's common to note that a young boy or girl wants to leave their parents at the onset of puberty, which isn't strictly around the age of 12, but sometimes younger. When a child doesn't get that wish he tends to become increasingly rebellious. Some children "leave" mentally in music they love or other media, but others need to leave physically. It's always a struggle for a mother or dad to let go, and in our society we do not practice this until at least the age of 16, if not early twenties, after college. But in primitive societies it was typically before 16.

(4) Anonymous, September 30, 2013 9:56 AM

Terrible statement

The Anonymous responder has basically said in fewer words that she would have rather her children - her own flesh and blood with their own unique life missions and beautiful souls to bring beauty and joy to world - should rather not have been created - dead. From an halachic perspective it is part of the essential commandments given to all mankind to populate and fill the earth with Hashem's creation, regardless of how painful bringing up children maybe. It speaks volumes how the responder could even think the thought never mind to express it. The responder obviously feels that she brought up her children the same way. She fails to appreciate what adolescents go through during these formative years and that everyone is different. People rebel for all kinds of reasons, and normal, healthy, loved, well-rounded children grow from the experience, and parents also grow although its hard for them too, and often challenging and exasperating, nonetheless gives them the opportunity to have deeper more meaningful relationships with their children. The responder clearly feels the need to be 'right' and she judges her children to be in the wrong and therefore demands an apology. The truth probably lies in the middle she probably had as much to do with causing it as they did, the reason being that she points out that she wasn't rebellious herself - clearly she didn't know how to deal with it without any life experience to guide her. I think she should apogolize to her children, and judge her children favorably as the Torah commands.

Brian, September 30, 2013 3:53 PM

Be patient...

It's so easy to be judgmental. It's so easy to jump to conclusions. Growing up isn't fun. It's confusing, frightening and awfully frustrating. My own son decided to reject going to shul on Yom Kippur this year as well, despite his religious background. You know, we only prepare our kids - like ship builders. We attempt to make them sound and sea worthy, and able to navigate though the storms that life will throw at them. Ultimately, we have to accept their decisions. We have to allow them to make their own mistakes, as we did. It can seem disappointing, of course, but only because we are projecting our identities onto our children. We want to be 'proud!' Bragging rights. We want to see our reflections in them -. just better! Hashem gives us the right to choose. We must do the same to our kids and feel the privilege of having participated in building that unique person, regardless of what they decide. It is, in the final analysis, their life, their rights, and their decisions to make. We have to accept their mistakes, and the choices that reflect their view of this life. We see G-d. Some call 'him' Hashem, some call 'him' Allah, some call it dark matter and others might well call 'him' nothing at all or perhaps a homosexual, black woman! :) I say, we as parents have to stop projecting ourselves dogmatically onto our kids, and recognize that while seemingly short, it's a long life. So many twists and turns. This is about winning the war, not all the battles and skirmishes. I would much rather have a son who is honest, empathetic, self confident and a good friend to his mates, rather than a dutiful shuckler, and a dutiful but posing phoney on Chag days. So, I have to accept. And, I have to be patient, as my parents were. We are so quick to forget the little rotten brats that we were ourselves...and here we are, parents with problems. Oh, how blessed I am to be a parent with problems, with a healthy and bright son, who has begun to make up his own mind...

(3) sharona, September 30, 2013 7:55 AM

It's a hard time for them. They are not exactly young children anymore, but they are not adults. They want to do so much but feel held back. I feel there needs to be a balance. On the one hand, they need their personal space. On the other hand, they also need boundaries. At this age, they don't totally realize certain consequences because their brain is not fully developed. It's helps to let them practice making small choices where they can see the result of their actions. I agree about when to be silent and when to talk. We need to find moments when they are receptive and we can converse with them

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