Ask Jenny – “My Teen is Not Happy in His School. I Don’t Know What to Do.”

“I currently am having trouble with my 15 year old, 9th grade son.  He is not happy at his school.  His current school fits who he is and who he hangs with, but it is far too difficult educationally.  One teacher told me that I have to weigh grades vs. social because schools that are socially appropriate for him are not educationally and vice versa.  My son is suffering terribly and just wants to go somewhere where he can succeed.  He tells me that he can handle not being in an environment that is appropriate for him, but I am not too sure.  I am not sure he is strong enough to go to a religious HS as opposed to a Yeshiva.  A religious HS is made up, usually, of students that are not that strong religiously and many end up ‘off the derech.’  I am not sure he realizes how difficult it will be for him to maintain his faith and beliefs in that environment.  He begs me almost daily to let him switch schools.  I really don’t know what to do.  Keeping him in the Yeshiva could be, at this point, harming him more than being in a less religious environment.

Do you have any comments on this?”

– Yael

Hi Yael,

Thank you for submitting your question.   I read your question over a few times and here is what I am ‘hearing.’  Your son has expressed to you that he is not happy in his school, that he is “suffering terribly and just wants to go somewhere where he can succeed.”  He is telling you that he feels that he can handle being in a different school, but you are “not too sure.”

Yael, you sound like you want what is best for your son, but you are not 100% sure what that best is right now.

All children, and people for that matter, have a need to feel that ‘they are capable.’  Teens, in particular, have a general fear of failure.  It sounds to me like your son is begging for a chance where he can feel successful and capable.

Your concerns are also valid, and it is difficult to choose.

I would like to make a few suggestions to help you move forward on this with your son to help the both of you come up with a solution that works well for everyone.

First, it may be a good idea to make a list – for yourself – of the ‘knowns’ versus the ‘unknowns.’   For example:  you know that your son is unhappy, you don’t know what will happen to him religiously.  We cannot control what we do not know, we can only control how we react to the unknown.

Secondly, I would like to suggest that you have a talk with your son where you take the time to first really listen (without talking at all) to his point of view (POV).  Let him get it all out – his concerns, his wants, etc. – without you making any judgments or comments or sharing your point of you.

Start the conversation with something like: “Okay, we’ve been going back and forth on this for some time now and I would like to have another conversation about this.  This time I would really first like to hear your point of view.  I promise to listen, not make any judgments or comments, to keep my mouth shut and listen to you respectfully.   Then, I am going to share my point of view with you – and would like the same respect and non-judgment from you.  After we both share each other’s point of views, let’s then work together and brainstorm for solutions and decide together on the solution that will work the best.”

When you are listening to his POV, just give him the floor and your full attention.  Make sure he really feels heard.

Once he has had the opportunity to speak,  you may want to repeat back what he said to make sure you understood his POV and to let him know that you want to understand his POV.  You can start the sentence by stating “I understand that..”  Give him the opportunity to make any corrections.  Through this he will learn how well he expresses himself and whether or not he is expressing his real wants and needs in a way that others really understand it.  (This teaches him how to take responsibility and be proactive in letting others know what he really requires – instead of just assuming that others know.)

Now take your turn to share your POV.  Ask him to repeat it back to you the same way you had to make sure you are both on the same page.

When you are brainstorming together – pick up on the things you heard him say:  his real concerns, wants and needs.  You want to be able to address those needs in a way that helps him feel empowered.  For example: “I heard you say that you want to go somewhere where you can succeed.”

Then start asking some open ended questions so you get to what is real for him, like:

“What does success mean to you?”

“How will you know when you have reached success?”

“What is important to you?”

Ask him to make a list of what is important to him (his studies, friends, religion, etc.) and then ask him to put it in order of importance.  If studies and religion or friends come out equal or very close to one another – help him figure out a way to be able to balance both or all.

You can say something like – “I understand that your studies, friends, and religion are all of equal importance to you.  How do you think you can meet all of those needs?  If you choose to go to a less religious school, what is your plan for fulfilling your spiritual and social needs?   If you choose to stay in your current school, what is your plan for fulfilling your academic needs?”

Do the same when you talk about your concerns going back to your POV.  Say something like: “I am afraid you will be influenced by students that are not strong religiously.  What do you think about that?  What support do you require to help keep you committed religiously?”

Then hear him out, let him address your concerns.  Believe him and trust him.  Listen to his suggestions.  Make some of your own.  Give him the message that you really care and want him to succeed…in life.

In general, kids that have gone off the derech are children or teens that have been lied to, hurt, misguided, not trusted, not accepted or abused by a trusted figure in their lives.  You can find out more about the reasons kids go ‘off the derech’ by reading Off the Derech:  Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism.

Showing your son that you trust him and believe in him, while at the same time supporting him and guiding him in helping him make the right choices for himself, will give him the message that he is capable and that he will and can succeed – and that you are available to continue to give him support and guidance when he requires it.

I am sure you are getting the gist of what I am suggesting here:  Hear him out, get to the core of what he really desires, and help him figure out how to accomplish what he wants by validating and supporting him and giving him the tools to problem solve and come up with the solutions that would work best for him at this time.

I hope that this was helpful to you.  PLEASE keep me posted.


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8 Responses

  1. Jenny Sassoon

    YES, that makes perfect sense! AND is such great information for us parents. So, thank you so much for sharing it.

    Parents – according to this lovely and intelligent young woman, if we want our kids to feel comfortable opening up to us – and allow us to guide them and support them – then WE HAVE TO “LISTEN ONLY TO THE TOPIC AT HAND” and “RESPOND TO ONLY THE THINGS THEY ARE SAYING AT THE MOMENT” so that our kids can HEAR THEMSELVES, without feeling judged, or being compared to anyone else.

    How wise.

  2. Shoshana

    It’s hard to say…

    I’ve been trying to think about that a lot, why I would talk to a stranger with no hesitation…

    I think it’s because the stranger would be listening to the topic at hand, and only that. They would respond to only the things i’m saying at that moment.
    With my mom, she would respond based on things that have happened in the past, or to my siblings, and with certain presumptions…

    Does that make sense?

  3. Jenny Sassoon

    Thank you so much for sharing Shoshana.

    You also mentioned above – that you would more likely be open to sharing and talking to a stranger rather than your mom.

    What is that ‘stranger’ doing (or not doing) that you think makes you feel more likely to open up to them?

    What would your mom have to do / change for you to feel comfortable opening up to and problem solving with her?

  4. Shoshana

    It’s hard to say.
    I’m not a parent, so I don’t know how it feels to have a child, and to give them the freedom they need, to make decisions about life, and allow them to maybe even make mistakes.
    The mom was saying how her son said he would be fine and could handle being in a less religious environment, but the mom doesn’t think he can. At what point should she step back and let him make a mistake, or hopefully, prove her wrong.
    Yes, he’s only 15, and he might not know what’s best for him, and might not understand the ramifications of his decisions, but he still deserves to be happy, and if he thinks he will be happier in this other school, then why not let him try?!
    Yes, they should make a game-plan. If he can vocalize that he wants to maintain his level of religiosity (and hopefully even grow), then they should sit down and think of practical ways in which he can do so. And I think the mere fact that he can express it as a concern is a huge step in ensuring his awareness and sensitivity for the subject, and also shows a great level of maturity…
    I’d say hear him out, and if he really believes it’s best for him, you have to trust that.

  5. Jenny Sassoon

    That’s my goal – to get kids to open up to and feel comfortable talking to their own parents. Parents, sometimes unknowingly, give off this judging vibe to their kids – and that’s why kids would rather speak with anyone else than their parents — and most of the time it’s b/c kids are feeling so judged, scared, not heard, etc.

    When parents work hard and learn new tools to relate to their teens – coming from a place of respect and non-judgment – teens are more likely to open up to them.

    What is your take on this?
    What would you suggest to this parent?

  6. Shoshana

    Hi Jenny.
    I just wonder how the kid will handle the conversation, davka coming from his mother.
    If my mother tried to have a conversation like that with me at that age, maybe even now, about something that seems to be a point of contention, i think i would just be annoyed. I would’ve been more than happy to discuss it with someone else, especially in that way…Why is that that i would’ve sooner listened and talked to a complete stranger than my own mom? It’s probably just a problem in my relationship with my mom…

  7. Jenny

    Thank you Venus.

    And “Off the Derech” is a great book. The author is the first to do a study on the topic. It is very insightful. I highly recommend it.

  8. Venus

    I love how your response gives guidance without a specific answer. This is a great way for parents to work WITH their teens to help them find workable solutions for any dilemma. The open-ended questions are powerful.

    Thanks for the book reference. Looks like a great book. I may purchase it, even though I’m not Jewish. :o)

    ~ Venus

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