Advice From YidParenting
By Rabbi Yitzie Ross
Over the summer, we’ve been discussing OTD (“off the derech”) in our communities. We’ve discussed what it is, some of the causes, and ways to prevent it. During this series, I’ve received well over 1,000 e‑mails. Some were from parents sharing details that are absolutely terrifying, and others were from teenagers and young adults sharing their thoughts.
In both scenarios, it was painful to read. Families are torn apart because, let’s be honest with ourselves, parents fought the wrong battles. Sure, there are other reasons we discussed, but so many of these stories I’ve been reading could have been prevented.
However, that’s not the goal of this last part. We’re going to discuss the aftereffects: How to deal with OTD after it’s become a reality. (I’m borrowing from an article I wrote a few years ago about this subject.)
There are two things we need to keep in mind:
(1) Some children (including young adults) will come back; some won’t.
(2) Whereas you might think you’re being hurt, in most cases they’re hurting more.
We are all different. Just because your child does not want to emulate your way of life, that does not make him or her an evil person. If your daughter insists on wearing pants or partying, she is still a creation of Hashem.
Arguing won’t work. Explaining how much they’re hurting you is counterproductive. This isn’t about you. It’s about their expressing themselves as individuals.
It hurts. There is no doubt that it’s hard for parents to watch a child leave the path they were set on. However, he or she is still your child. Keep the connection open. The goal is not necessarily to make them religious, it’s to show them that you love them no matter what. They might return; they might not. Either way, you have a responsibility to your child.
If you have other children who are young or impressionable, it can be even more challenging. Tell your other kids, “Your sibling is going through a hard time and we love him no matter what.” Only positive.
You do have the right to ask this child to follow your rules in your house. If your daughter has gone OTD and is wearing pants, you can ask her to please wear an appropriate skirt in your house. You can also ask that they refrain from behaving inappropriately or discussing private matters in front of the other kids. Certainly, they should not bring non-kosher food into the house.
Keep in mind that most children who go OTD are not trying to change you or be vindictive. They’re expressing their individuality. One 17-year-old told me his father told him, “My way or the highway!” He chose the highway. Now they lost their son.
Obviously, every case is different. When in doubt, you can ask for help. A rav is a great person to ask if he has an understanding of people and loves all Jews. I am fortunate to have such a rav. If your rav is better suited for a halachic discussion, call a psychologist. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s a sign of strength.
I want to end by sharing a few short stories people have shared with me. One girl, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, told me the following.
“My parents have always been strict. If I had a problem with a teacher, I was always considered at fault. My parents would tell me every night that the reason they were so tough on me was that they loved me. That might have worked years ago, but actions speak louder than words. I didn’t feel loved. Once I became 15, I began acting out . . . wearing shorter skirts that I borrowed, or listening to music that I knew would annoy them. Thinking back, I’m not sure how I expected them to react. I kind of hoped they would pull me in and tell me they need me. I got the opposite. They flipped out and told me to sleep elsewhere until I acted like a bas Torah. That was the last time I slept at home. Last year my mother called me begging me to come back. Not going to happen. I’ve been reading your articles about this, and had my parents showed even an iota of love, I would’ve jumped back into their arms.”
The second story is from a parent’s perspective. “Hindsight is 20/20, but I want to share what went wrong in my house. My wife and I both agreed that our son was an at-risk child. Therefore, we tried to shelter him. We didn’t let him watch movies or have anything his friends had. When he complained to us, we always told him, ‘You’ll thank us later.’ Well, later passed and he never thanked us. He stopped acting religious, and we lost our relationship with him. Looking back, we knew it was happening, but we were too stubborn to ask anyone else for help. We finally caved in and spoke to a therapist who explained that there was a difference between sheltering and preparing. Instead of taking away everything, we should have been giving it to him under our supervision. The sleepovers should have been by us. Once we understood this, we were able to contact him and show him we changed. He is still not religious now, and we don’t know if he ever will be. However, we talk regularly. The door is open.”
The last story is of a chassidic family that has a son who went OTD. I met the father walking with this 19-year-old son (who was not wearing a yarmulke). As I passed, he called me over, and told me excitedly, “Mike got accepted into college!” His son was beaming. Parenting: he is doing it right.
We need to open any channel we can. Let them know that we love and care about them.
It feels right to end with a berachah to you all. I know this puts pressure on you, but may you be zocheh that your children should want to emulate you.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly e‑mails and read the comments, you can visit www.yidparenting.com.