Rabbi Yakov Horowitz: Parenting an At-Risk Teen


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yw logo10.jpgImagine going for a walk one winter morning and finding your neighbor sitting in his car vigorously turning the steering wheel – while the engine is shut off. When you ask him why he doesn’t start the car, he responds that his battery died, and he will soon get jumper cables to ‘give it a boost’. However, before he does that, he would like to turn the front wheels away from the curb so that he can instantly be able to pull out of the parking space once his automobile starts. You may walk away wondering why he is exerting so much energy turning the wheel of a stalled car, instead of waiting until the engine starts and the power steering kicks in.

This analogy reflects my thinking of how parents can be most helpful in assisting their at-risk teens get back on track. Very often, and understandably so, parents start helping their struggling kids by addressing the antisocial behaviors (partying or drug/alcohol abuse) or the rejection of Torah values (not keeping Shabbos or inappropriate attire). I have found, however, that the most effective thing that parents can do to really help their child is to assist him/her in getting his/her life in order. Once that is accomplished, it is far, far easier to help him/her with the other matters.

You see, as long as your teen is unhappy and/or unproductive, it is as if his/her life is on hold – as the vehicle of his/her life is stalled. The ‘power steering’ that enables positive change to occur and a sense of spirituality to develop can only kick in when the engine of accomplishment is turned on. You can exert a great deal of force turning the wheel while the engine is off, but you will be draining your energy, shredding the tires and digging trenches in your driveway while this is going on. It is much wiser to work on helping him/her achieve success first. The rest will follow, with the help of Hashem.

I often tell parents of at-risk teens to follow the sage advice of the Kotzker Rebbe (Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1859) who noted that the Torah informs us (Shmos 22:30) “V’anshei kodesh te’heyu li – people of holiness shall you be to Me.” The rebbi pointed out that the Torah places the word anshei before kodesh, in effect telling us to be a ‘mentch’ before attempting to achieve spirituality (his exact works in Yiddish were, “kodem a mench un nach dem heilig – first [become] a [refined] human being, and only then [strive to become more] holy).

While the rebbi did not express these thoughts in terms of at-risk teens, I feel that this concept represents the most effective way for parents to chart a course for the lives of their at-risk kids. Help them become ‘mentchen’ – functioning, productive young adults who have a reason to wake up in the morning, who feel that each day is a gift that ought to be unwrapped as the treasure that it is – before you work on the at-risk symptoms. For once they become happier and more productive; you will find it so much easier to ‘turn the wheel.’

In a very practical sense, it means to help him/her get a GED, or better yet help him/her resume schooling in a mainstream high school, yeshiva or college setting. Send him/her for career counseling and get him/her a job. Tell your child that you are in this together and you will always love him/her forever (you may get a roll of the eyes, but I can assure you that your child will be eternally grateful for this). Get your child into therapy if there are ‘issues’ that need to be resolved. Show leadership and express your love for your child by going for counseling yourself to help you effectively parent your child through this challenging stage in his/her life.

Please print this line and affix it to your desk or refrigerator. It is one of my favorites and I tell it to parents every time that I lecture on parenting at-risk teens. “No One Ever Changed the Oil in a Rented Car.” That means that the more ownership your teen feels in his/her life, the more likely he/she will be to avoid reckless and life-threatening behaviors. Giving them the keys to their lives will give them the ‘boost’ they need.

I would also suggest that you carefully study the theory of Abraham Maslow on “The Hierarchy of Needs.” (Click here) He suggests that there are five sequential ‘needs’ aligned like a pyramid. Once the more basic needs are met – safety, security, and belonging – a person can begin to work on achieving success and self-actualizing. In plain simple English, that means that if you lecture an unhappy, unfulfilled teenager about his davening or lack thereof, it is unlikely that your efforts will meet with much success. As with all theories, you need not agree with it in its entirety (I don’t), but there are profound lessons to be learned from his thoughts.

I will close this column with a final thought and plea. Please, please ignore your neighbors and societal pressure and l’maan Hashem do what is right for your child. Our patriarch Yaakov Avinu had the wisdom and fortitude to acknowledge the diversity of his children’s natures and abilities in his final blessings to them (see Bereshis 49). He celebrated their individuality, did not try to force one into the other’s shoes – and was rewarded by having all his children follow his path of serving Hashem. Parents who ignore the sage advice of his living example often pay a horrific price. Over the years, I have seen far too many children sacrificed on the altar of “what will the neighbors say?” when out-of-the-box children are forced into settings that do not match their natures. Keep your eye on doing what is right for your child. That’s all that really matters.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved. (Website)


  1. WOW!
    I have been involved in the Parsha for years and I am constantly floored by what Rabbi Horowitz has to say.

    Thank you for posting!

  2. Unbelievable. Thank you so much for all the work that you do, Rabbi Horowitz. I have been working with children for years and can tell you that my experience fully supports the teachings R’ Horowitz has put forth here. I only wish all parents would follow his tremendous advice when it comes to their children. If parents only knew what they could accomplish if they would take his words to heart…!

    My thanks to YW for posting this.

  3. Wise as usual. I couldn’t agree more. It all begins in the home. That’s the beginning of the therapeutic process. I suggest reading articles from Dr.Sorotzkin’s website and also John Bradshaw’s book Healing the Shame that Binds You. Extremely insightful!

  4. This is by far the most heart-warming, cogent, thoughtful, and logical essay I have read here or anywhere else on this topic – and the quote of the Kotzker Rebbe is golden, simply golden.

  5. well said!! we also must stop buying all the expensive names (ferragamo) that must of us cant even afford -$450 for shoes-(by the way if you want to know why the hole flatbush is walking around with the same belt thats because they only make one style a fake one

  6. Rabbi Horowitz has is finger on the pulse. Besides being brilliant he is as humble, down to earth and normal as they come. If we would listen to him and re-tool our school system’s we would be further ahead in this battle

  7. I enjoyed reading this article, as R’ Horowitz really says what needs to be said.

    Those of you want to disagree – you are entitled to your opinion. But – here is a person who dedicates his life to helping these kids & really hit the nail on the head with this article!

  8. How does one get their child to go for help if the child feels he is smarter than all of the therapists? And all of this as his life goes down the tubes more and more each day.

  9. RE: #10: If you haven’t already, you might want to hear out what your child’s objections are; they could very well be legitimate. Just by virtue of the MSW or PSYD or PHD doesn’t make every therapist effective, kosher, and suitable for your particular child. IMHO the same level of hishtadlus we do in selecting our shidduchim should be exerted in choosing a therapist.

    Perhaps your child wants guidance but is looking for a specific type of mentor?

  10. well said!! we also must stop buying all the expensive names (ferragamo) that must of us cant even afford -$450 for shoes-(by the way if you want to know why the hole flatbush is walking around with the same belt thats because they only make one style a fake one.

  11. According to the Rabbi home and family is very important in child formation, and I agree 100%. But do we really have that “home time” with our kids? My son will be going to 1st grade in his Yeshiva this September. His school is 9 to 4:30, now add time for a bus ride and he is not home till 5:30ish. How can a 6year old function normally when he has a workday of a grown adult? Then there is homework, and Sunday school. So when you have few kids at home when and how can you spend quality time with them? Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking Yeshiva’s education but i also want to spend time with my children.

  12. Perhaps people should also stop being all affronted and offended when teachers and Rabbeim (even English teachers *gasp*) have some important viewpoint to offer regarding a student. Teachers are not always out to get the students with difficulties, and they really do want to help.

  13. Tsahal- I agree that the kids’ day at school is too long. I’d love to take my kids to the park for some exercise after school, but there’s just enough time to let them unwind a little, eat supper, and begin the bedtime routine…oh, and the homework…(as if they didn’t just serve more than their time at the desk all day!)

    You know what would happen if teachers stopped assigning homework? The kids would have more balance in their lives- they could play, run, read books, paint, write letters… Then kids would grow up more normal and less stressed. Keep the formal academics in school- they spend enough time there!

  14. Dear All:
    While the ideas posed by Reb Yankele are very nice, it is my feeling that 22 comments on an editorial would require an article of real substance, while this seems to me to be mere fluff with a dash of some syrupy cliches.

    It would be extremely refreshing to read one innovative piece a year.

    Mr. Beyond.

  15. #23 and you’re the 23rd.
    Not “hole flatbush” but “W-hole Flatbush”
    I think #17, #22 has a point the kids have too much school/homework.
    To Rabbi Horowitz.
    Thank you. May i add to your vort.
    Rabbi Gifter said OBM, When Dovid hamelech told King Shlomo “Vechezaktoo vhoyeeso leISH. That was the most vital part of his Tzavoe/last will and testement.

  16. absolutely Fantastic! Whats more, not only is this important for “teens at risk” (anybody with intellectual potenial) but for all teens and people for that matter. Chanoch L’naar al pi darcho (train the young in HIS way) simly first as a human being, then we can work from there.