It is time to take back the term "children at risk." Educators and mental health professionals popularized the term about ten years ago and we need to withdraw it. Labels can be helpful on clothing and shoes but not on children.
The term teenager "at-risk" is misleading. All teenagers take risks. A major part of all teenagers' view of life is their sense that they are invincible and therefore not subject to consequences. Yeshiva teens take risks daily with smoking and gambling. They also take serious risks with alcohol. It would be interesting to note the number of Hatzolah calls received regarding alcohol abuse this past Purim. We minimize these risk - taking behaviors by excusing them as ''normal'' teenage behavior. Minimizing certain risk - taking is reasonable for many but not for all teens. Therefore, I advocate using the term "troubled teen" to refer to teenagers with significant behavioral or emotional problems who take very significant risks. Correct labeling will enable us to better target appropriate interventions. A teen who smokes occasionally is at-risk while a teen who smokes frequently and abuses alcohol and drugs is troubled. While it is true that at-risk teenage behaviors can lead to worse behavior patterns, this is not always so. These two different categories require two distinct responses. In the frum world, our responses to the two categories are often the same - ignore either or overreact.
Research documents four source causes for teens who become troubled. These four factors are exposure to trauma; having a learning disability or emotional disorder that is not properly diagnosed or treated; inappropriate parenting; and poor socialization. These factors may be additive, or one alone may be sufficient to cause troubled behavior.
Approximately 15 percent of individuals exposed to a traumatic event develop long-term symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress. Teen trauma comes in three ways: it can be random, such as exposure to a car accident; family based trauma as in divorce or abuse; or it can be social in nature like when a child is bullied or not accepted socially. Ignoring trauma increases the likelihood that typical teen behavior will evolve into troubled teen behavior.
The third factor, inappropriate parenting, is correlated to the three previously mentioned categories but also stands on its own. Parents can traumatize a child. They may overlook, minimize, or inappropriately treat their child's learning or emotional problems. But, they are also more likely to be guilty of inconsistency. They may appropriately threaten to punish a child for an infraction without following through. On the other hand, parents may threaten for no clear reason. They may be consistent in their inconsistency: giving regular mixed messages. But perhaps the most dangerous parental behavior is simply allowing others to parent for them.
The Rebbe, the teacher, the school are often given license by parents to parent. It is not surprising then, that most teenagers do not communicate their feelings to parents. Several small recent studies in Jewish communities report that most teens would not turn to parents when feeling troubled. In fact, most parents do not even know what their children's concerns are.
In my practice, many parents want their child's therapist to parent. They drop off their child before, and pick them up after, a therapy session but will not make the effort to become integral to the therapy. No one can assume a parent's role and responsibility. Children whose parents do not parent may turn to others for support and understanding; they may turn to the wrong people or may turn away completely.
The frum world has taken a more highly structured and nuanced approach to teenage social interactions. Recently, many Yeshivas adopted the policy that a student seen talking to a member of the opposite sex will be asked to leave the school. This stricter stance may account for the increase in the number of troubled teens. Significant research shows that proper socialization, supervised and structured in an age appropriate manner, acts as a buffer against teenage acting out behaviors. A recent study in which "at-risk" teens were followed in a program designed exclusively for them indicated that 11 of 12 of these teenage boys had a significant problem. It seems that this isolationism is a causative factor increasing their acting out. I have seen programs where boys play pool with Rabbeim for a few hours and then meet up with girls and get into trouble. These programs do not offer socialization that would help reduce this behavior because the isolationism only increases the "forbidden fruit" aspect of teen behavior. Socialization issues must be addressed quickly and sensitively.
The frum community must bring parents, teachers, and community leaders together to stem the tide of troubled teens realistically and effectively.
Dr. Salamon is a long time member of The Awareness Center's executive board. He is the founder and director of the Adult Developmental Center, Inc. (ADC), a comprehensive psychological consulting practice. He empowers individuals and families to cope with the various psychological challenges that arise throughout the life span. Among his areas of specialization are substance abuse and alcoholism counseling, crisis management, child, family, and marital counseling, therapeutic interventions, and gerontology. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, a fellow of the Gerontological Society of America's Behavioral and Social Sciences Section and a board certified Diplomate-Fellow Prescribing Psychologist Register. An advocate for effective learning disabilities programming, Dr. Salamon is the co-chair of P'tach's educational advisory board. He has worked as the Chief Psychologist at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, and the Chief Psychologist at the Gustave Hartman YM-YMHA. He has taught psychology at C.W. Post College of Long Island University, Touro College, and the New York Institute of Technology. Dr. Salamon is the author of hundreds of articles, many assessment tools including the Life Satisfaction Scale and the Addiction Dependency Scale, and several books, including Home or Nursing Home: Making the Right Choice.