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Q Our 16-year-old son is starting to rebel against our family’s values, and we have not been able to stop him. I am thinking of sending him to therapy, but  I have been told that a therapist would only validate his behavior without pointing out that what he is doing is wrong. I am afraid that this will only make things even worse. Is this really the case? Or do therapists warn people about their potencial self-destructive behavior?

A Thanks for the question. I think there are several facets to your inquiry and I hope I can adequately address them all.

We have been witnessing an ongoing rise in rebellious or “off the derech” behavior in our children., I know many “good parents” who despite their best efforts have experienced this struggle with one (or more) of their children. Why this is happening is beyond the scope of this article and has been addressed in many different forums and mediums. One thing we are noticing is that many of the interventions that used to work in the past don’t seem to be as effective on the next generation. I think in particular utilizing the “power” we have as parents/adults to try and limit/control our children’s behavior seems to be more and more ineffective. I am not advocating abolishing all rules and consequences, but it seems that those should not be the primary tool in our toolbox. Instead of “stopping him” we might be better served to shift the goal to “helping him make better choices.”   

As far as a therapist’s role, there are many assumptions about what therapy should or shouldn’t be, and while I can share with you the approach I use, it’s important to check with the individual practices of each therapist.

I believe that one of the primary roles of a therapist is to help bring awareness and understanding to why a person chooses to engage in a particular behavior and to help them examine the pros and cons of this behavior. I do not believe that it is helpful for a therapist to try and persuade, instruct, or convince a client to make specific choices. * Even if a therapist  was  to attempt to “convince” a client to make different choices, he would likely experience the same unsuccessful result at the parents. The client would also likely lose trust and feel more unsafe in therapy.  So while it can be frustrating to parents when therapists aren’t instructing their children how to behave, we can see how that would be both ineffective and potentially harmful for the progress of therapy. As far as “validating” what the client is doing, I think the primary validation in therapy is helping them see that you understand what led to their choices (even the poor ones) and that you don’t view them as “crazy” or “stupid.”

Although as you pointed out in the question, there are times where one’s behavior might worsen while in therapy, we can view it as a part of the process of getting better. Of course, the therapist should determine what is causing the behavior to worsen.

As our children grow older, the natural shift in chinuch seems to move from instructing and perhaps enforcing to supporting, encouraging, and modeling the behaviors and attitudes we’d like them to adopt. I believe one of the hardest things for parents to accept is that our children are separate human beings who will make their own choices in life, some of which will make us proud and some that will be hard to accept. Being able to acknowledge and embrace that can alleviate some of the immense pressure we can at times put on ourselves and  which can also lead to power struggles and rifts in the relationship. Of course, prayer is something we can and should turn to as without G-d’s help, none of us could survive raising a teen 🙂

*Of course, there is an exception.  When the client is engaging in dangerous behavior, we clearly advocate for the side of safety. And while parents have asked me at times “Isn’t this behavior dangerous for my child’s soul?” it is usually detrimental for a therapist to share unsolicited religious values and beliefs. These are typically deemed judgmental by the client, making him or her feel unsafe in sharing anything about religious struggles.

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