By Benzion Twerski, Ph.D.

If you ever read an article and said, “I knew that already,” this may be a familiar experience. Read on.

Our defiant adolescents are rebelling against authority. What does this mean? How did this happen? How do we stop it? How can we prevent it? Without all the answers, I offer my perspective, and the suggestions that emanate are obvious.

Developmentally, a child progresses from a state of total immobility, helplessness, and complete dependency to the opposite extreme. The drive is more than just curiosity to explore the world. The human seeks to master the universe. Despotic leaders throughout history have simply completed this journey without impediment or redirection. The most significant obstruction to this is the subscription to a system of values and superiority of a Higher Being. We are very familiar with this idea. We know it as kabolas ohl malchus shomayim, the acceptance of the sovereignty of Hashem and His Torah as our guide to living.

The young child emerges from his helpless state with all conceivable motivation to learn and conquer. If properly instilled with kabolas ohl from infancy, one grows into the ultimate mastery of the universe – naaseh shutaf la’Hakodosh Boruch Hu bemaaseh breishis, becomes a partner to Hashem in the creating of the world. When this spiritual dimension is deficient or missing, we observe rebelliousness and the aversion to authority that results in so much pain.

The child, intent on mastering the world without this spiritual partnership sees authority figures as competition. Rebbes, parents, teachers, and even law enforcement all qualify as authority and are targeted for rebellion. Rules are the dreaded implements of authority, and none are too sacred to be rejected.

There are not many options to confront this defiance. We can impose extremely rigid rules with serious consequences for violation. At the very best, this may inhibit the offensive behavior, but would be unlikely to result in a change of attitude. Once this child ventures on his/her own, rules and discipline are eliminated, and we observe the status quo. The alternative is to reach the child with love and acceptance.

This sounds mushy. I join all my colleagues in the fields of mental health, addiction, chinuch, and other parents in conveying this message about the importance of reaching the child with the moment of levity and fun, with the stroke on the cheek, with the hug and the kiss, and even with the forgoing of a deserved punishment (I like to leave a message that the child owes me one). These actions are not easy when we are in the throes of anger, when our respect and dignity have been desecrated, when we feel we have the responsibility of the world in our hands. We sometimes feel the need to “teach a lesson” or “set the record straight”. Where is the child after we have won our logical battle? Where will the rejected youngster go? MASK and the entire community that is busy with the “troubled teen scene” are groping for alternatives. It is clear that our tactics to date have not prevented the problem.