Q. The years of adolescence are among the most challenging periods for parent-child relationships. Children who originally showed respect to their parents suddenly become loud, abrasive, cynical, and even highly temperamental. What can we do to deal with their tantrums and misbehavior? Are there any Jewish sources which I could use to diffuse the tension between me and my teenage child?
A. As you stated, adolescents tend to be more moody and irritable than when they were kids, as well as expressing more disobedience towards their parents and peers. This is because they are on the cusp of adulthood, between the time when they were totally dependent on their parents to the time when they develop a sense of self identity and self-sufficiency. In this intermediate period they are usually confused, unsure of their status and self-conscious due to the marked changes in their bodies.
If you attempt to fight them you will probably alienate them and not achieve any of your goals. It would be preferable to try and treat them in a different and preferential way as behooves the importance they now attach to their self-image. This does not mean that one cannot criticize their behavior, as even when their response is more impudent and irreverent than previously, they are still keenly attuned to their surroundings and are careful to note criticism. However, the criticism must be gentle and without any hint of pompousness and superiority.
Chazal teach us (Shemot Rabba 1:1). that “whoever afflicts his son, the child will have more love towards his father and more respect, as it is written ‘Afflict your child and he will give you peace and will grant your soul sweetmeats”. (Mishlei 29:17).This does not necessarily mean physical affliction, as one is forbidden from smiting an older child (Moed Katan 17a), as this might cause him to hit his father back and if he were to cause him injury he would be guilty of a capital crime. Rather it refers to constructive criticism which may enables one’s child to refocus himself and achieve the goals that you set out for him which ultimately will enable him to “grant your soul sweetmeats”.
King Solomon also wrote (Mishlei 13:24) that one who “deprives his son of his stick hates him”. However even here he concludes the verse by saying “He who loves (his son) chastises him”. Here too he does not mean literally punishing him physically but rather giving him Mussar (ethical advice) and leading him on the right path. At the time this may not necessarily be appreciated by the son and this is the meaning of the words “he will give you peace”, meaning that at that point one may not see the fruits of his words but ignoring the behavior will not make it go away.
It is not clear when one should comment on a child’s errant behavior and when one should remain silent. Ultimately the adolescent will respect his parent as he grows older and more mature and his irascible behavior will gradually disappear and at this point he may be more responsive to his parent’s chiding. Chazal in another place (Kiddushin 30a) state that a person has a major influence on his child from age 16 to 22 or 18 to 24 and therefore during this period he should try and persuade him to marry and also give him a direction in life. It is interesting to note that they give a minimum age of 16 or 18 when discussing educating one’s child. The Maharsha explains that there is a certain age at which a person is more receptive to criticism and this depends upon their personality, but we can learn from this that adolescents before this age are not usually responsive to their parent’s efforts to guide them.
In conclusion, there are certain awkward periods in a teenager’s development when it is better to be supportive and less critical of his behavior, but in the long run a parent will be able to influence and guide his child and the child will respond better to their father’s criticism.