Parenting Adolescents - The Opportunity and the Privilege


A family

Why does the age of adolescence challenge us as parents? And what should we do better? Rabbi Eli Shinefeld - Lecturer at the Family Center at Orot Israel College - offers a positive and empowering perspective for parents of adolescents.


A. Learning about the Adolescence Age

At the end of a lecture focused on the adolescent age, two parents approached me with tears in their eyes. "You don't know us, but anyone who knows us knows what great parents we are, or more precisely, what great parents we used to be..." they said. 

"When our kids were little, we gave them what they needed the most. Warmth, love, connection, respect, everything. And truly, the atmosphere at home was amazing. But today, our home is so different. Everything we thought we had has disappeared. Our little children grew up, and they cause us distress, and we cause them distress. We feel that we're no longer the successful parents we once were."

The difficult and sometimes desperate feelings of parents of adolescents, as conveyed by this story, are not exceptional in my personal experience. I can share that they are not the only parents who feel this way... Why?

The adolescent age presents parents with various educational challenges different from those they knew when their children were young. Therefore, parents need to adopt new skills that they have rarely used before. For example: educational partnership, inclusion, patience, respect, and more. These skills do not replace the familiar ones but rather add to them and are built upon them.

Parents don't need to be educational experts, psychologists, or highly trained therapists. Parents who learn about the characteristics of adolescence and familiarize themselves with several educational principles for these ages can certainly provide proper educational guidance to their adolescent children. Otherwise, unnecessary frustration will flourish at home, and much needless resentment will accumulate.

Another important clarification: the notion that " Everything we thought we had has disappeared" is not accurate. Although reality is not always rosy, we must remind ourselves that nothing disappears. The foundation built when our children were small is embedded within them. The warmth, love, trust, and strong connection that had been established will continue to accompany them over the years. Upon this foundation, additional layers will be built to suit the stages of adolescence.

B. What is it about the Adolescence Age that stresses us so much?

The adolescence age is a period of rapid changes, occurring on various levels. One day we are impressed by our growing daughter's caring for her younger brother, and the next day we are discouraged by her desire to sever ties with family members. One day we are moved to see our teenage son wearing a Tzitzit, a large kippah, and praying from the heart, and the next day we see him and the Divine, so to speak, not in the best relationship.

The adolescence age is perplexing. It confuses us as parents, and it confuses the adolescents themselves no less. Parents wonder about the emotional, spiritual, familial, and other changes their children are undergoing. The adolescents themselves are unsure about who they are and what is happening to them.

In order to understand why the adolescence age is so confusing, we must attempt to define it. Defining childhood is relatively easy; it's a period where the child is dependent on their parents. As we saw in the previous passage, a child is not independent, neither materially nor emotionally, and they need a responsible adult to guide and lead them in the right direction. In those ages, the educational hierarchy is quite clear—the parents are responsible for the children's education.

Defining the age of maturity (adulthood) is also relatively simple. It's a period in which the adult is capable of managing themselves independently. They can and should take care of themselves on their own. While it's true that even when children become adults, their parents still have an important and meaningful role—good guidance, proper advice, and sharing the wisdom of life accumulated over the years can always assist—responsibility and decision-making are entirely in the hands of the adults. In the age of maturity, like in childhood, the educational hierarchy is quite clear. In childhood, the educational responsibility is on the parents, and in adulthood, the educational responsibility is on the adults.

The period of adolescence is situated in the middle, between childhood and adulthood. It begins after childhood and extends into the beginning of adulthood. Adolescents can be defined in negative terms: they have left the realm of children, but they have not yet reached the realm of adults. So, how do we define them during this time? Are they, not children and not adults, or are they both children and adults, or are they sometimes children and sometimes adults? A confusing period, as we've already said?

C. Unique Educational Responsibility Requires Educational Partnership

Defining adolescence as a time when "they have left the realm of children and have not yet reached the realm of adults" leads to practical educational guidelines. On the one hand, it's not accurate to treat adolescent children the way we treated them when they were small children because they have left the realm of children.

On the other hand, it's also not accurate for parents to completely relinquish their responsibility, thinking that adolescents can lead their lives independently without guidance and direction, because they have not yet reached the realm of adults. It can be said, therefore, that the exclusive educational responsibility that parents had when their children were small changes during adolescence age to a shared educational responsibility between parents and adolescents.

During these ages, the educational responsibility lies on the shoulders of both sides, collectively. Some parents find it challenging to let go of the educational responsibility, which was largely theirs for many years. They struggle to understand that educating their adolescent children cannot be done in the same way as they did with their young children.

A struggling adolescent told me that he was in pain because his parents were "suffocating" him and treating him as if he were a young child. "Sometimes, I'm late for a few minutes after evening prayers, and then I find on my phone's screen a multitude of missed calls from my parents' phone. They won't let me breathe." 
This is a mistake.

On the other hand, there are parents who believe that they should provide absolute freedom of choice to their adolescent children and not intervene or monitor their behavior. This is based on the notion that adolescents need to manage their lives independently and uniquely, as a preparation for real adulthood to come. This is also a significant mistake. While teenagers are not small children, they certainly aren't full adults either. They need ethical and moral guidance and boundaries.

In summary, we have seen that the concept of "adolescence age" needs to be learned. We have identified the central factor that confuses us parents when our children reach adolescence, and we briefly discussed the difference between educational responsibility and educational partnership.

Of course, there are many more educational principles that are worth getting to know, so that our parenting can be at its best.

The author is a lecturer at the Family Center of Orot Israel College.