New York – At-Risk Kids: Why Children Rebel


    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 [email protected]

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    1. There are many reasons WHY & HOW it has happened but we need to focus on what to DO with the situation and how to rectify it. Many are at-risk nowadays (not only kids) but we only really hear about the ones that go off the derech. Apart from dealing with those who are already off the derech, we need to take those different reasons and find ways to close the gap that stops those who are at risk from falling off.

    2. I will not pretend, that I am an expert in this field; however, the only area where at risk is a obvious concern, is drugs or other illegal activities. Hanging out in the street, going to the movies or date is the norm. It is the parents who want to force their views on the child. If the child has an exploring mind, regardless of the love of his parents, some kids have the ability to discern between what is real and what is just a front for the neighbor. The only solution for kids, who are not willing to be in a yeshiva, is to push them for a secular education. At least hopefully they will grow up to be a productive citizen.

    3. as someone who was kicked out of many schools, I think the Rabbi is very correct about the effect it has on a child. You feel worthless, dejected, unloved and search elswhere to fill the void.
      I do not envy the next world of my “rabbis” at school

    4. Dr Twerski has it absolutely right.

      However, I do believe there is one more factor that he did not list.

      We, as a community, actively shun those who go off the derech. When “at risk” kids ARE being abused (not just sexually), we do not believe them, & we call them names. We see it here on VIN. An at-risk child who has had some behavioral or emotional problems will always be viewed by the overwhelming majority as “untrustworthy” and a “liar”.

      I have worked with various kiruv organizations over the years. A common thread among those who left the derech as teens and are coming back, was a feeling of absolute rejection. They felt abandoned, and hated… YES, HATED. It is important to realize that *WE* as a community created that feeling for them, and *WE* need to change it. WE need to shut up and at least be willing to listen to them without judgment.

      *WE* are responsible for these kids. *WE* will be held accountable for standing by while each one gets lost. *WE* will pay the price for rejecting every kid who doesn’t fit the “perfect” mold, instead of reaching out to him/her.

      Words are nice, but individual action is what is required.

      • May I dare add that the rejection that is done is not only for the kids from same community that has slightly changed. It is first and foremost to any yid from a different color/background. A chasid will reject/hate a Sefardi, a Litvak will disregard a Dati Leumi, And a frum person will consder a person less frum as a goy.
        Back to the discussion at hand. It is this pervasive attitude that we project to anyone different, including kids who still want to stay frum, just change the style of frumkite. Once rejected they tend to spiral downwards.
        I may add that it may be to them not having a comfort zone in religiosity and once they find it will level out or turn back to what works for them at that time. But is only when they are solid in their understanding of what its all about (at their level).

    5. Most kids who go off the Derech don’t become druggies, they become regular chilonim and I’m surprised at Rabbi Twersky for retailing what is essentially misleading propaganda.

      The vast majority of kids who go off the Derech do so to join the society that surrounds them — to dress in jeans and a sweatshirt, go to the movies, live outside the constricting often stifling rules of Halacha, to get a decent job, choose their own boyfriend/girlfriend — to live a modicum of the normal carefree, and happy existence they perceive the rest of the world enjoying all around them.

      That isn’t a crisis, its a reality when you live in a country who’s founding principle is the the right to individual liberty and freedom and to pursue happiness, and with perhaps the most fluid and dynamic sociology of any country on Earth. Confining our kids into ever more rigid and restrictive lifestyles devoid of any kind of personal choice, will lead directly to more and more asking themselves the simple question — “do I want to learn yet another blatt or go to the movies.”

      • I don’t know how old u r but u definitely have the thought process of someone from an older generation.todays boys and girls that go off the derech have no drive,have no interest in working and are very much into alcholhol and substance abuse and have too many friends that will be there more than glad to cheer them on and support them and make them feel comfortable with the poor choices they make!!

      • To say that the at-risk kids just want to be part of secular society tells us much more about the one making this observation than the at-risk kids. If someone can equate going to the movies with learning a blatt gemara then his is spiritually bankrupt and totally insentitive to the emptiness & boorishness of secuar society. He/she is probably worse off than the kid at risk as he stands no chance to come back to his senses. Simply because he lacks any true sense of what Yiddishkeit is all about. He/she needs a bigger yeshua than any kid at-risk.

    6. As a frum member of A.A. for 30 years, but sober 4 years, I’ve heard many horrific and tragic stories from people in recovery. What almost everyone says is that whether they were molested as a child, come from dysfunctional families, feel different than others, witnessed ugly situations, peer pressure, or just plain old curious about alcohol or drugs…. although these might have created a “good” setting for alcohol/substance abuse, they all agree that these are NOT the reasons for their alcoholism. Truth be told, for all the horrific childhood stories, there are just as many stories of children coming from the most stable, loving, and nurturing homes that become alcoholics. People become alcoholics because they are bodily and mentally different from their fellows. That being said, there is no 100% prevention for this disease and it IS defined as a disease bybthe American Medical Association. Thats why some insurance companies cover it. Anyway, the most productive way of dealing with the situation, after the medical/physical aspects are dealt with, is through the process of one alcoholic helping another. I talk to kids in Yeshivas regularly about my experience, and you should see the light in their eyes when they identify and realize that they are not alone with their feelings. I could go on and on, but my hope is that my comments open up a discussion on this life threatening matter.

    7. Another reason is that kids see the Chareidi world making fun of the State of Israel, Chabad, Secular Studies, YU, and then sees the fighting between groups, and even fighting within the same group and the constant court battles. He figures if bad midos are OK for our leaders, then he will act out, as well, as he wants no part of this nonsense.

    8. I hate to say it, but I believe that half of the kids at risk are there just because they know that they are not burning bridges. If we would completely reject these unfortunate “Reshaim”, then many “Tzadikim” will think twice before crossing the line. This is how it was done for thousands of years, and I suspect may be the way to continue.

      • The problem with your approach is that it implies that Judaism is a prison which the older generation must lock the younger generation into. When children percieve this attitude, they automatically want to escape. I believe that our way of life is the best that the world has to offer. None of my children remain frum due to lack of choices. I, as a parent of a child in a free society has the job and challenge of using their formative years so t
        hat they are too happy to consider any other choices. This is a difficult job since I have to
        compete with other attractions from the outside world. Believe me that what is out there doesn’t come close to what we have. What are you afraid of? Do you think that Hashem’s program can’t compete with what else is out there? Your methods were more suited for a time when the only other choices were to be an unsophisticated poor peasant. Today he is completely welcome as he is, in society at large (not to mention thousands of Yeshiva students who have already left the fold and stand prepared to) help hom do the same. Today we have no choice but to create well rounded, happy, and informed children who choose Judaism because it is the best and most correct decision.

      • Actually your name (Fearless) is a mistake. Fearful people always want to erect high walls of protection. When Moshe sent the Meraglim he said to check if they have walls, or live in open cities, meaning if they live in walled cities they are weak and we can defeat them. Rethink your name and your strategy.

    9. Dear Rabbi.
      Its high time for these words to said. You couldn’t be more right.
      I just hope that the people that need to read this will do so and positively improve the situation.

    10. what?????????????
      these prof. allways say
      its the fother & mothers problem
      not the children
      allways them to blaim
      most Doctors will tell u
      the child is no good because parents etc.
      so they hurt the child even more by brakeing him
      help him
      pick him up
      don’t knock him
      the prof. a lot of them are Reshaim
      &kill; the children
      make child hate parents

    11. To #9 – Anonymous Says:
      “to live a modicum of the normal carefree, and happy existence they perceive the rest of the world enjoying all around them”. Please be honest and say what you mean – not a “normal” life but a “goyishe” life! A Yid who talks/thinks like this, obviously has no real appreciation of the beauty and depth of his/her Yiddishkeit. And don’t start blaming your parents or your yeshivas. Yes, they may both share some blame, but grow up and discover the real Yiddishkeit on your own. Avraham Avinu did it. Thousands of Baalei Teshuvah and Geirim have done it. You can do it too!

    12. To #9
      “Most kids who go off the Derech don’t become druggies, they become regular chilonim and I’m surprised at Rabbi Twersky for retailing what is essentially misleading propaganda.

      The vast majority of kids who go off the Derech do so to join the society that surrounds them — to dress in jeans and a sweatshirt, go to the movies, live outside the constricting often stifling rules of Halacha, to get a decent job, choose their own boyfriend/girlfriend — to live a modicum of the normal carefree, and happy existence they perceive the rest of the world enjoying all around them.”

      Two problems. One – Rabbi Twersky never stated that all become druggies. The point I found in the article is that all are rejecting the way of life of their families and youth. What’s the rebellion about.
      Two – The teens we are discussing have chosen to abandon Yiddishkeit (to greater or lesser degrees). Their move into the street life is an escape from something. Just what are they fleeing? The suggestion Rabbi Twersky gave is that each child has his/her own experience, but that these factors are the common ones that contribute to it. No, they are not just “attracted to the glamour” of the goyishe lifestyle that lacks the confines of halacha. Rabbi T. is right. Oh, one more thing. They do not find happiness there either.

    13. Your last is a very interesting point — and goes to the core of the issue. More often then not, its the parents doing the the rejecting. My experience is that the second a kid switches from a white to a blue shirt as far as the parents are concerned, he might as well eat hazzer on Yom Kippur.

      And with that rejection, you have a kid who might have had the opportunity to explore who he or she is within the safe confines of a loving family, instead having to make a black and white choice — the unchanging mesorah of his parents, or a complete break.

      In a loving environment, a kid might become modern orthodox. Rejected by his parents and family for daring to see a movie, he’ll go completely off the derech.

      • Great point. I have seen this happen many times.
        I have also seen the other way. where the parents adjusted to the change and accepted the childs change (it was not easy). The teenagers turned out great.
        My only problem with this theory is verbilizing it. Why is it that if a parent will completely reject the change then the child will go off completely? Please eleborate, if you can.

    14. Well written article. He is on the mark with the reasons and as I believe he mentioned, most of the time is a combination of the reasons so that zeh v’zeh v’zeh gorem.

    15. B”H the issue is finally being discussed constructively. The bottom line is that parents should be more concerned about their children’s welfare than worried about what others will say. Who cares what anyone says. Do what’s best for your child.

    16. He mentioned something about the schools and I would like to mention something here.

      A younger relative of mine is in mesivta in a large jewish community outside of New York City. He cannot stay for the next grade because the rebbe of the next grade wants m’tzuyanim and not just good kids who work hard. My relative is KNH on the way to being a good kid, but efsher not yet (BSD he will be ) a m’tzuyan so he doesnt want to be with that Rabbe whom he feels has already labeled him as a bad kid.

      Such a rebbe should not be a rebbe or should get a major dose of a reality check. Dont be super farfrumt oyf yemim’s cheshbon. How many teens will be affected by this rebbe.

    17. What’s more important? Staying on the derech or your childs happiness? Too many parents are becoming more concerned with how others perceive their children than with their childs’ success and happiness. This behavior by the parents is setting the foundation for an unhappy child and the possibility of that child looking for an escape. Why would any parent in their right mind want to have a child who is “programmed” rather than a happy child. It is completely selfish and self-serving behavior on behalf of the parents. What could possibly bring a parent more happiness than having a child who is happy and has a sense of self-esteem. Being happy and having self-esteem is the best possible form of prevention against alcohol/substance abuse.

    18. As a parent of B”H multiple children it is important to realize that not all children are the same. Each child has different needs, temperaments, intellectual capabilities and emotions. As a parent it is difficult to give each child the specific attention they require. Now take a look at the Yeshivah classroom. Most Yeshivahs average 20 students per class. Teachers have a hard time giving each child personal attention. They also must follow a school curriculum. Naturally the teachers take the path of least resistance and gravitate towards the more studious and well behaved students. Students that can’t keep up or require more attention usually end up not learning much or getting excused from class. Some students may be singled out by the teacher as an example and are ridiculed or treated as the class clown. It is imperative that teachers recognize that not all students learn the same. Some students learn by listening, some are more visual, some require hands on training. When students have trouble comprehending the subject matter, teachers should try to explain things with different examples, use visual aids, or hand out creative projects for students to collaborate on. Unfortunately many teachers when asked by a student to explain something that they did not quite understand the teacher just repeats what they said over and over thinking that the more you hear the better you will understand it. Teachers should also try to utilize the chavrusah method more pairing children that are more capable of mentoring others with children that require additional tutoring. During the chavrusah period the teacher can pull aside both children that are more scholastic to give them additional lessons or children that are weak to give them chizuk. Children that cannot thrive in “mainstream” Yeshivahs are forced to find “alternative or special” schools. The issues with these schools, even though their intentions are good, are a) that the children attending them are labeled and b) usually they are cost prohibitive for the average low – middle income Jewish family. Children that require additional counseling, therapy or other professional services usually cannot obtain them as they are also cost prohibitive for the average low – middle income Jewish family. We need organizations that can help parents that require alternative schools or additional professional help with emotional, resource, and financial support. Children that do not feel mainstream, or feel ostracized in school unfortunately look for support and friendship outside of the Yeshivah network. Children that are rushed to medications, unfortunately tend to look for non prescribed medications that will make them feel better. Yehivahs, parents, and organizations must work together to make our educational system one that “all” children can thrive in. We can’t lose sight of our children as they are our futures guarantee.

    19. I believe “Adult Hypocrisy” is the wrong term. Many adults are truly conflicted in their Judaism. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, not labeled as a psychological issue.

    20. bottom line there is’int anything we can do for these kids . its bad DNA ! they’re born with it. 90% of the time all our efforts will be futile. regrettable fact,

    21. I discussed this subject with Rabbi Twerski, the author of this post. Here’s what he told me. He uses the perspective of addiction to help understand the OTD youth, although certainly not all are addicted. He claims that the addict is not looking for pleasure (though that might be a small part of it at the beginning), but is really running away from pain. What that pain is – is not the same for everyone. I guess the suggestions in the article give you an idea what some of them might be. The bottom line is that the kids are not running to a secular lifestyle, they’re running away from what we’re giving them. So it is inconceivable to worry about them without paying attention to us. Are we “at-risk”? Are we giving our kids the best world possible to grow up in?


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