Sara Teichman, Psy D
Dear Dr T.,
We are worried about our seventeen year-old son, a good boy who lives in the dorm of his yeshiva. He is very frum, and particularly scrupulous and meticulous in his mitzvah observance. He is well known in his yeshiva for being the last to finish davening and for being honest – to a fault.
So, what’s the catch? Well, with Pesach approaching, his frumkeit has become more intense. He keeps calling home with questions. ‟Do you know how to check for insects in the marror?” “Don’t you think we should throw out our toaster oven rather than clean/sell it?” “We need to buy all our products with only this one hechsher.” At this point, we are worn down by what feels like harassment and are not looking forward to his coming home.
Do you think his behavior is normal or do you share our concerns?
Your question is a very important one and deserving of a response beyond the scope of this column. The issue you present can be anything from typical adolescent behavior to the beginnings of a severe OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). While looking at context (Do all his friends do this?) and behavior (Does he exhibit any that are new? Different? Strange?) may provide you with some clarification, if this intensity persists or worsens, a good mental health screening is in order.
In my response here I will try to help you understand your son and suggest some ways to deal with him.
The teen years are often a time of great passion, and many a teen goes a bit overboard in his effort to grow. His boundless energy and enthusiasm may go unchecked. Things matter: everything is black and white. Some teens focus on grades, others on their appearance. Some concentrate on relationships, and some on religion. Extremes, chumros, anxieties – these are some of the ways that the intensity manifests itself. So, a teen in this stage may daven for lengthy periods or stay up all night learning. All this could be a stage. And, in fact, he and his chevra may be in silent competition about who is ‟the most.” If this is the case here, hopefully the staff members of the yeshiva are aware of what’s going on and are monitoring it closely.
The teenage years can also be a time of great idealism for some. It is a time when teens feel their power, believing that they know best how to fix the world. They have not yet been worn down by life, and they take every detail seriously. While we adults may sometimes console ourselves with “That’s the best I can do,” to the young, idealistic teen, such acceptance is impossible. With their youth comes energy and strength, and they may firmly believe that perfection is a possible.. So, while we are realistic about what we can or cannot do, the teen who is idealistic feels that he must give his ultimate to everything he does, no matter how insignificant. Hence, his emphasis on each point in frumkeit – both his and yours. Despite your discomfort here, all this may simply bespeak his clumsy – yet very sincere – desire to grow in yiddishkeit.
Sometimes extreme religiosity is a form of unconscious rebellion. Just as some teens rebel by doing less than what’s expected, some do the opposite and actually do more. It really is two sides of the same coin: both types of teens are challenging authority and taking the law into their own hands. In both cases, the teens are saying, “Don’t tell me what to do! I will do as little – or as much – as I want.”
While all these scenarios are not that unusual – albeit very unpleasant – they may pass and/or resolve themselves. However, because some forms of mental illness begin in the late teens or early 20s, it is critical to rule out the possibility that the kind of obsessive behavior you describe is not an early warning sign of illness.
So, how can you determine if your son’s behavior is serious, or just irritating?
Initially, I would recommend a conservative, ‟wait and see” approach – unless the symptoms are increasingly alarming.
So, to start:
- Observe carefully. Any changes in behavior in other areas? Can your son interact with family members? Does he have a sense of humor? Does he seem anxious, angry, or depressed? Use your responses as a yardstick to measure the severity here.
- Check with the yeshiva Is he waking up on time, eating, keeping regular hours? If he is managing to keep it all together, you can take a much more relaxed approach.
- Spend time with your son. Talk to him, listen, go out together. Get a feel for him and where he is at. Do you sense any major changes? Can he let go and enjoy the ‘everyday’?
- Avoid being reactive. This is not chutzpah, an emergency (though it may be serious), or an attack on you and everything you stand for. This is an ongoing situation that is not necessarily aimed at you.
- Be respectful. Try to understand, not just discount, what your son is saying. Enter into his world and see things through his eyes. He may be reacting to peer pressure (‟Who’s the frummest of us all?”) and going overboard to win the admiration of his friends. Maybe his thinking is still immature, unfocused, and confused – or perhaps this is his misguided attempt to become sincerely devout.
- Trust your own judgment. At the end of the day, you are the parent. You know your child best. If you continue to feel uncomfortable or worried about your son’s behavior, you need to take those feelings seriously and act on them. Consult with a professional.
The difference between ‟normal” and ‟abnormal” is one of degree. We all feel sad and worried sometimes, but that does not mean that we have depression or anxiety. A good rule of thumb is that when symptoms interfere with daily living – because of their intensity or degree – it is a sign of illness. But, if your son is otherwise functioning well, managing his emotions, and maintaining his relationships, there is far, far less reason to be concerned.
So, despite your worries, stay cool. Observe, interact, and weigh and measure the choices. Consult with others, discuss with your spouse. And, while you hope and daven for a simple explanation for your son’s issues, be ready and armed with courage if you have to take the next step.
The Book Nook: The Parenting Partnership by Dr. Meir Wikler is a series of questions and answers on basic parenting issues. Dr Wikler – a Brooklyn psychotherapist, writer, and lecturer – provides comprehensive and insightful replies to the many issues that beset parents today.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com