My son is in fifth grade in yeshiva, and he’s a wonderful boy (I know I’m biased). Recently, he has been coming home unhappy and seems very down on himself. Not only that, but his davening has taken a turn for the worse and he mopes around the house in the morning and at night, which he never used to do. I have a weird feeling that something is wrong, but when I try talking to him he says, “Everything is fine!” and walks away. My husband strongly feels we should bring him to the rav or let his rebbe from last year speak with him (they were very close). I want to bring him to a therapist. My mother, who is very close with us, feels that he’s just becoming a teenager and he’s fine. We agreed to follow your suggestion. Can you please weigh in?
Your question is one of the most common ones I receive. There are so many factors that can affect a child of this age, and some are serious while others are just a part of growing up. However, if you think that something is bothering your child, you should trust your gut. Before deciding who should be talking to him, I suggest finding out as much information as possible.
Call the rebbe and English teacher. Ask how he’s been doing and if they noticed any recent changes in his behavior or work. Find out if anything is going on with any of his friends. Try and establish if there are any points of the day that seem to be more stressful than others. Is he more or less relaxed on Shabbos? This information can be very useful in helping determine the cause of his mood swings.
The next step is to have a talk with your son. This shouldn’t be a flippant conversation in the kitchen; you need to have your husband in the room, and your son should have to come in and sit down. It shouldn’t be an attack on your son; rather, you can explain to him that you love him and are concerned about certain behaviors. Explain in detail how his moods have changed. I wouldn’t bring up the davening as a main point, but you can mention in passing that he seems “more distracted” than usual in shul.
If he is responsive but doesn’t think it’s a big deal, in most cases it’s O.K. The fact that he’s able to communicate with you implies that he is just going through puberty and needs some extra attention. Unless his behavior drastically changes for the worse, I would just keep an eye on him in this case. You might want to give him a one-on-one day with you; you’d be surprised how talkative kids get when they’re given a day off from school.
If, however, during the conversation he gets defensive or shuts down, quickly stop and tell him it’s OK. Don’t make an issue out of it, and don’t start whispering with your husband when your son walks out. (Kids hate that.) This isn’t something that you’ll be able to resolve on your own, so you’ll need some outside help.
(1) The best move would be to bring him to a therapist. You should do a bit of research and try to find one who has experience with children or preteens. Parents used to be hesitant about bringing their children to mental-health professionals due to the social stigma, but these days it’s pretty common and actually very helpful.
(2) Bringing your son to the rav isn’t really the best decision in this instance. I’m a huge fan of involving the rav when it comes to chinuch, but this is not so much a chinuch issue as a psychological issue. While it’s always nice when kids get some time to speak with the rav, I don’t think this will solve the issue. So though it probably won’t hurt, it’s not my first choice.
(3) I don’t think that letting a rebbe speak with him is a good idea. Generally, I won’t speak to any of my talmidim about issues they are having unless it’s directly connected to my class. For example, if a boy is having an issue with a different boy or even a few boys in the class, I would speak with him. It’s not smart for a rebbe to give therapy to his talmidim from earlier years, although I’m not going to share the reasons in this response.
(4) Your mother might be right about letting it go, but why risk it? There is a chance that hormones are the cause or just some silly issues, but it could be a real problem. Ignoring issues doesn’t help them go away. Hopefully, the therapist will talk to your son and tell you it’s really nothing.
I’m a big believer in a mother’s intuition. I know a mom who let her daughter stay home from school because she seemed off, even though she had no fever or other symptoms. Later that day this girl ended up with a high fever and a bad case of the flu. Her husband told me, “There’s no medical way my wife could have known she was sick!” I can’t explain it.
I would like to mention one important thing. You need to tell your son that you’re bringing him to someone to talk to. Most kids don’t have a problem with this, especially once the therapist tells him that, in most cases, everything is confidential. However, you should never make it into a threat or say insulting remarks. Comments such as, “Well, in that case we’re going to have to bring you to a shrink” or “Behaviors like this are why you need to see a doctor!” are hurtful and will lessen the therapist’s ability to help your child.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly emails and read the comments, visit YidParenting.com.