New York – In the early ‘90’s, I entered the world of at-risk youth, receiving countless calls and consultations about teenagers who were abandoning shmiras Torah and mitzvos, leaving yeshivos and their families, and moving into a street life which we thought only existed among the goyim. Behaviors that were observed, to the shock and dismay of all, included hanging out till all hours of the night, alcohol and drug abuse, involvement in various forms of criminal behavior, tattooing and piercing, and cross gender relationships. Slowly, the issue emerged as a significant community problem, discussed at conventions and meetings of major organizations and in some of the Jewish media.
There have been some major inroads in addressing the problem, including the development of yeshivos geared to meeting the psychological and educational needs of these youngsters, the formation of MASK (Mothers and fathers Aligned Saving Kids) which has a helpline, parent support groups, a variety of school programs, GED courses, school staff trainings, parent and youth mentoring, referrals, crisis intervention, and a wide spectrum of prevention programs. (I’m sure I left out a few of their services.) There are also other mentoring programs, not for profit drop in centers, in Brooklyn, NY such as Our Place, and HomesweeeetHome, and askanim that go to the streets to reach out.
As with everything else in our lives, Yidden all have opinions about this issue. Most opinions have some basis and are worthy of discussion. One thing is bothersome, if not sometimes hurtful. One thing heard often is, “It’s all the fault of the internet.” Or “All these kids come from dysfunctional families.” Some throw the blame at chinuch, the media, bad friends, or the store window of a shaitel macher. Having worked with many hundreds of kids and families from all factions of the frum community, I resent these “single issue” attributions. They are simply not true, and are dangerously misleading. And the grain of truth (sometimes several grains) gets lost in the dismissal of many other variables that may be every bit as important.
I read the earlier article here on VIN about the study being funded for Met Council that will examine this issue more carefully. My skepticism is related to the difficulties in conducting scientifically valid research in the frum community, as well as the lack of confidence that the findings will result in much change in direction. I have just had my moment of pessimism. Now let us examine the sources most commonly considered responsible for kids at risk. Again, each has a degree of merit, and any one child can be connected to any combination of these. Probably no two children will be exactly the same.
Let’s list some of the prominent “causes”.
* Adult hypocrisy. Many of us are poor role models. We say one thing to our children while doing another. Included here are the beis din – secular court issue, “coming on time to shul”, talking during davening, manner of speech, respecting others and elders, etc. You get the gist. Viewed by kids, words are more easily dismissed when inconsistent with modeled behavior.
* Abuse. Many believe that the vast majority of at-risk youth have a history of molestation. While I do not believe that, the percentage is alarming and disconcerting. My understanding is that the concept of abuse includes several areas that are not sexual in nature, yet destructive. Physical abuse and neglect are legendary. Also is the exposure of the child to public embarrassment.
* Bad friends. While negative peer influences are certainly a factor, these are mostly relevant when a child is already less than rooted in the “derech”. They become open to looking elsewhere for fulfillment, accepting the thrills of the street as a substitute.
* Learning disorders. Many children who turn to at-risk behaviors were unsuccessful in mainstream yeshivos and schools. Our systems, despite major strides and innovations, still leave too many behind. Most mosdos are ill equipped (or poorly trained) to offer individual needs to help these youngsters succeed. Failure breeds poor self esteem, and together these will predictably result in lack of feeling part of the community.
* Rejection and expulsion. My pet peeve. I believe that our yeshivos are apt to reject a child who misbehaves, and to do so in a manner that is experienced by the student as a deep emotional rejection. Without debating any specific incidence, most cases involve the misapplication of discipline, the lack of patience on the part of the yeshiva and faculty to address the issues (which often require professional intervention), and the questionable belief that the “bad” child will “ruin others”. My observation is that the expelled child stands little chance of succeeding in the next yeshiva, unless there is significant intervention to reduce the damage of the rejection, and there is warm welcoming by a caring mechanech (beyond the resources of most yeshivos). Why not turn to the street?
* Unstable family situation. There is a noticeable percentage of at-risk youth who come from homes which are dysfunctional. This may be due to less than optimal single-parenting, such as cases of divorce or death of a parent. There are intact homes in which the lack of shalom bayis impacts severely on the child. Lack of parent unity is very destabilizing to children. The street becomes more inviting than the home that is seen as “unstable”. In parent meetings (MASK support groups), it is often the case that both parents are involved, but fail to give the child a consistent message. The “good cop-bad cop” strategy is useful, but needs to be applied carefully. If not, the mixed messages fed to the struggling teen serve as an additional push to outside the home, often into the waiting and inviting arms of the street.
* Mental illness. This is a very broad term. There may be multiple combinations of symptoms of mental illness, as well as varying degrees and causes. Not all childhood disorders are easy to diagnose and treat. The maladjusted child may find challenges in life that make the societal and cultural norms unbearably difficult.
* The Different Child. A common complaint of a parent who has a child at risk – “All my other children are wonderful, adjusted, on the derech.” Parents cannot be blamed for trying to raise all their children the same way. But some children just have needs that vary from those of their siblings. What worked with one may not work with another. It is the exception when parenthood follows training. How many young, inexperienced parents will turn to their parents and in-laws for guidance, when a professional might be better equipped to guide them? Experience of the older generation is valuable, but may not always have the answers. The child whose needs have not been met by parents is unhappy, looking elsewhere for success and fulfillment.
I am sure there are other factors that can be relevant in individual cases. It’s irresponsible to dismiss the problem with blanket statements, “It’s all because of (blank) or (blank).” I am not sure the research will help that much, but I am curious what it will find.
A fitting final message is that there is help. Contact information for MASK was mentioned earlier. There are also mental health professionals who specialize in adolescents. Mental health referrals are also provided by Relief (718-431-9501). May HKB”H help the helpers, and guide us all in providing the environment of kedusha that our children will grasp tightly.
Dr. Twerski holds a Ph.D. in psychology from University of Pittsburgh. He has been strongly involved in dealing with addictions in the frum community, has published articles in much of the frum media, and serves as a group facilitator for MASK, Director of Education for Bechiros, Professional Advisory Board for JACS, and consults regularly to the community on issues of addiction and shalom bayis.
Dr. Twerski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org