Help for Parents of Teenagers: Interview with Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch

Today we’ll give babies and toddlers a rest and look at how to help our teens navigate adolescence. I’ve learned from personal experience that nagging and power struggles don’t work. Even if such tactics result in the desired behavior, they our effectiveness in guiding teens through these critical years.

Please welcome Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, author of At Risk: Never Beyond Reach, and the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force, an organization dealing with domestic abuse and marriage education.

If you have questions about your own teenager, you can visit his blog, At Risk Advice, where Rabbi Schonbuch answers parents’ questions.

Mother in Israel: Our society commonly views teenagers as living in their own world, one that we parents can’t possibly understand. Even if they don’t exhibit risky behavior, at the very least they have messy rooms, fight with their parents, and want to stay up half the night. Is this an inevitable part of growing up? Do all teenagers rebel, or can wise parenting prevent “typical” unpleasant adolescent behavior? What can parents do to keep things from getting out of control?

Rabbi Schonbuch: Rebellion is not necessarily a part of normal teen behavior – independence is. Every teen wants to explore their independence and test their limits, however that doesn’t have to turn into rebellion. Parents need to be aware of this desire and limit a power struggle by actively listening to their feelings. I believe that more than anything they want their independent feelings to be listened to. Most of the time they will not act out these feelings. So instead of fighting their comments, let them flow out and show them that you are listening.

MiI: That’s an optimistic way of looking at adolescence. It helps parents see that their children are growing and developing even when it looks like they are regressing. What do you remember about your own teenage years?

RDS: I found my “rebellion” by challenging my energy into studying music and organizing on behalf of Soviet Jewry and Israel in the 1980’s. I believe I had a healthy rebellion and rebelled against the mistreatment of Jews in the world. My music was a way to express my inner creativity and gain some level of recognition for my talents in a positive way.
You mention one in four families being affected by the phenomenon, and probably more. What are the early signs that a child is “at risk?” When should parents get help?

RDS: It’s hard to say in each and every case, but I would be happy to speak to any parent who is concerned and needs to know when to respond and when to let things ride until they resolve themselves.

MiI: You have written that the “magic pill” for at-risk behavior is forging a good relationship with your teenager. I agree with you there! But how do you start, when you and your teen are so angry that you can hardly talk to each other? How do you get past that in order to start communicating again?

RDS: Make a mental note to yourself: “My behavior until now hasn’t worked, so I am deciding from here on to go in a new direction.” The bottom line is to change the paradigm. You can’t look at your teen any more from the perspective of control; rather look at them as being in potential – as a separate human being full of good and not so good points.Most importantly go out with them and enjoy their company and stop arguing all the time. When you create quality time together you are investing in an emotional savings account. So start by putting in something into their pushka but and have a nice time (without arguing), actively listen to them and reduce criticism. In most cases this actually works to improve the relationship.

MiI: Your book lists 73 ways of spending time with your teenager, besides shopping and going out to eat. As a mother of six on a tight budget, I sure appreciated it!! What are the best ideas, in your experience?

RDS: If you can’t afford the time or money to go out, just spend a few special minutes together – perhaps alone in a quiet room for ten minutes, just talking. Or, take them grocery shopping, or even better take them with you in the car, buy two sodas, some nosh and relax with them for a few minutes together.

MiI: Another idea you mention is a mentor, or an adult within the community who already has a positive relationship with the child. Can you tell us more about that?

RDS: Parents can’t always be their child’s savior, but someone else, a friend of the family, an older teenager or young adult or a grandparent may be able to impact on their lives, without a power struggle. Parents need to allow others to influence, while they work on the positive relationship.

MiI: You place the responsibility squarely on the parents, yet we all live
within a community. Can the Jewish community do more to support families and teenagers, whether they are at risk or not?
RDS: Communities need to organize mentoring organizations by making lists of kids who need mentors and finding quality individuals who can spend about one hour a week meeting with them. This is by far the most powerful way to help teenagers.

MiI: Can you sum up the book’s message in one sentence?

RDS: Focus on the relationship, actively listen, limit power struggles and many teenagers will resolve their issues on their own.

MiI: Thank you for your time and I wish you much hatzlachah in your important work.

For other interviews with Jewish bloggers, check out Jblogosphere or click the “interview” tag below.


  1. Another great interview. Glad you aren’t sticking to your side of the mechitza.

  2. bouellette says

    very interesting

  3. I think this was great – although we’re not at this stage yet, I try to bookmark the idea of “relationship, relationship, relationship” in my mind.
    On another note, you never know where kids will end up even after a long disconnect. One of my own brothers was by far the very least likely of all of us to be religious. Today, he’s a (serious, not hippy) Breslover in Yerushalayim, happily married with 5 kids.

  4. Lady-Light says

    Very interesting interview. I wouldn’t have found you if you hadn’t visited my blog, for which I thank you. As for my kids, some are religious and some not (they grew up in an Orthodox home.) My youngest, who is in the Naaleh program in Israel and is shortly enlisting in the army, is becoming a ba’alat teshuva . She came to this on her own, after being in a secular Israeli school and seeing what it had to offer, Jewishly and spiritually (not very much…) But if I had tried to force her to become observant, she would have rebelled in the opposite direction.

  5. mominisrael says

    RM–Thanks. I want to post more about teenagers, but I don’t want my “regulars” (all three of them!) to get bored either! Interesting about your brother; I remember you mentioned him once.
    LL–Thanks for stopping by! A secular Israeli school would be a real eye-opener for an American teenager from an Orthodox home. Is she in Bnei Brak?

  6. mominisrael says

    Boullette–I checked out your blog; sounds like you have a challenging situation. I wish you a lot of luck. How did you find me.

  7. I’m a regular and my son’s Bar Mitzvah is coming up so I’d love to hear more abut teen-agers! I need all the help I can get.

  8. mominisrael says

    Anon–Mazal tov!! I started another post on the subject so thanks for the encouragement.

  9. Is the list of 73 ways of spending time with your teenager available on line?

  10. mominisrael says

    I’ve seen it so it must be. Did you look at his blog? But maybe he sent it to me privately in advance of the interview.

  11. I strongly recommend the book”Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers” by Gordon Neufeld.