I have a friend whose young teenage son has some developmental issues, including social and emotional challenges. He is a very sweet boy, but as I see him interact with girls his age, I am nervous about his ability to appropriately navigate various interpersonal situations. Like all teens, he is maturing and is beginning to express his romantic and sexual desires, but I think he needs more help than he is getting from his parents and other adults in his life. What should I do? I fear that I may insult my friend and cause a rift in our relationship by raising this uncomfortable issue. Are there any specific interventions you might recommend?
Dan Brosgol says…
If your friend’s child has social-emotional issues, he is probably receiving support, either in school or privately, to help him navigate the minefield of adolescent development. If you’re picking up on inappropriate expressions, then I can assure you that you’re not the only one, and that he has a few other responsible adults looking out for him, whether they be therapists, teachers, guidance counselors, or others.
That being said, it does take a village to raise each other’s children, and all of us are responsible for one another in some way. However, as the seriousness of your question clearly indicates, this isn’t just about giving your friends a heads-up about inappropriate Snapchatting or social media posting—it’s more weighty than that, and you should tread carefully. If you are good friends, hopefully you can have a conversation about the young man with his parent, hearing from your friend about how he or she is feeling about him and his struggles. If the opportunity presents itself, you’ll know more in that context if it’s appropriate to offer your own observations. If you and your friend are truly close, that kind of discussion will be taken seriously, though it is true that there are risks in raising tricky issues in any relationship. (If this isn’t a close relationship, maybe you aren’t the best person to raise the issue at all. Is there someone else who is?)
If after that conversation you still feel anxious about the kid and that his needs aren’t being truly understood or treated, then if you aren’t a clinician or an expert, I would stay far, far away from diagnosing or assessing a child that needs treatment, therapy, support, or more. If you feel it is necessary, consider whether you’re in a position to gently suggest such an assessment or other professional resources to your friend.
Dan Brosgol is the Director of Prozdor, a 500-student supplementary school for students in grades 6-12 operated out of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He holds a BA in Politics from Brandeis University and both a certificate in Jewish Day School Education and an MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew College. Dan is pursuing a doctorate in education at Northeastern University and is regular blogger for JewishBoston.com. He is an avid runner and Boston sports fan, and lives in Bedford, MA, with his wife and four children.
Carla Naumburg says…
I wouldn’t necessarily assume that your friend’s son is getting the professional support he needs. Perhaps he is, but it’s also possible that his parents and/or school don’t have the necessary resources. And we parents can be somewhat blind to, or in denial about, aspects of our children’s struggles.
It’s not clear to me whether or not you’re worried that this young man might put himself or others at risk in some way. If you have serious concerns about safety, consider finding a social worker or other professional in your community who could offer you a brief consultation.
Either way, take a minute to get clear on what you hope to achieve by raising this with your friend. Do you have ideas about what she should be doing? Are there programs or therapists in the area you can recommend? You mentioned that there are “other adults” in the young man’s life—are you one of them? Are you willing to step in? (There are no right or wrong answers here, but it’s important to think about what you are willing to offer before you get involved.)
From there, call up your friend. Take her to coffee, and connect with her. Set aside your assumptions, ask how she’s doing, ask about her son, and then get quiet and listen. You don’t know everything that’s going on with this family, so before you offer anything, it’s worth trying to to learn more. You’ll have a sense soon enough if the time is right for you to offer some loving and constructive thoughts. If it is, be kind as you share your concerns. If not, let it go for now, but stay connected. Regardless of the details, raising a teenager is hard, and parents need support.
If you can’t or don’t want to do any of this, that’s ok. But then you should probably recognize that you’re not the one to raise this issue with your friend.
Carla Naumburg, PhD, is a clinical social worker, writer, and mother. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post, among other places. She is the author of Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters (Parallax, 2014) and Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family (New Harbinger, 2015). Carla lives outside of Boston with her husband and daughters.
David Jaffe says…
Like Carla, I wouldn’t assume that your friend’s son is getting adequate help. Unless his school is unusually well-staffed, social-emotional issues too often fall off the radar screen of teachers and school social workers.
While school personnel are likely aware of the need to address sexuality in a general way with their students, it’s entirely possible that the other adults in his life are not speaking with him about it at all. For many parents (even those of typically-developing kids), talking about this topic with their teens can feel awkward and uncomfortable.
An idea from my own experience that may be helpful here: Several months ago, eight couples in my community who all have young teenagers began meeting to discuss how to parent our children now that they want more independence and are starting to show romantic interests. We discussed expectations about dating, romantic and sexual expression, curfews, and unsupervised hang-out time, and we all found it helpful simply to process with other parents how and what we were thinking about all of this.
The Jewish value of tzniyut, or modesty, is almost completely missing from the world in which our teens live. It’s not just about clothing, but refers to a way of being in the world in which not everything is public and needs to be revealed, and of treating ourselves and other human beings with care and respect—both on social media, and in expressing romantic and sexual desires in-person and in real time. After thinking through together our own values around tzniyut, and articulating expectations for our teenagers and our community, each of us now has a natural opening to approach one another when we have a question or a concern.
Could you imagine pulling together a group of parents to talk about similar issues? This would give you a chance to talk with your friend (and others) on equal footing. In that neutral environment, you would likely learn a lot about how she’s thinking about her son’s development and his challenges—and then have an opening to raise any issues later, one-to-one, if at that point you still feel it’s necessary and appropriate.
Rabbi David Jaffe is the Founder and Principal of Kirva, a training institute dedicated to helping individuals and communities access Jewish spiritual wisdom for making sustainable social change. His book, Changing the World From the Inside Out (Shambhala) will be published in September, 2016. David was the Spiritual Advisor at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA until 2014 and teaches with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, The Mussar Institute, JOIN for Justice and many other local and national Jewish organizations. His writing, teaching and consulting focuses on the intersection of moral development and ethical action in the world. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, two teen sons and their charismatic cat, Bugsy.
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