By Rabbi Shaya Cohen, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Zichron Ayeh and founded Priority-1 in 1987 to help at-risk teenagers and their parents and families. According to many experts in the field, one of the most significant predictors of whether an OTD child will ultimately return to Yiddishkeit is the child’s relationship to his or her parents. In this open letter to parents of OTD children, Rabbi Cohen draws on his 30+ years of helping parents of OTD children, as well as his experience in establishing two high schools for “at-risk” boys and girls, to give parents ten tips on how to navigate their new reality.
There are few things as painful as watching your child abandon yiddishkeit R”l. We love our children and it hurts to witness them making terrible decisions. Parents often stay up at night agonizing where they went wrong – alternating between states of denial, anger, grief, and an extreme sense of helplessness. The instinctive reaction is to try to push, pressure, cajole, plead, gaslight, and guilt your child back into the fold. Over the past 30+ years, I have met countless parents facing this challenge, and it is clear to me that none of these approaches work.
It is essential to understand that you are at a pivotal crossroads. One choice is to follow your gut instincts, lash out and potentially ruin your relationship with your child and the chance of them returning. The other option is to take a step back and ask yourself what the Torah expects from you.
Here are ten thoughts to help shed some clarity on how to act in these situations.
1. YOUR CHILD IS NOT INHERENTLY “BAD”
The first thing to understand is that your child is not inherently “bad.” Every neshama in Klal Yisroel is holy and yearns to connect to Hashem. In my personal experience, I have found that many of the people who go off the derech R”l are exceptionally bright, kind, and deeply sensitive individuals. Many were never shown the beauty of Torah and mitzvos. Instead, they were presented with a religion that, from their perspective, forced them to keep a never-ending set of rigid and unbending rules. Some had questions about emunah, but instead of being treated with respect, their questions were shut down, and they were reprimanded for expressing heretical thoughts. Some left because they couldn’t tolerate the perceived hypocrisy or shallowness that they witnessed in their community. And still others felt ignored, stifled, and misunderstood; forced by our chinuch system to contort themselves into molds that they felt did not suit their personality and temperament. Many of these people are victims in one way or another, and it is a grave mistake to respond to their actions by ostracizing them from their family and community.
2. LOVE THEM
When a child goes off-the-derech, they often desperately want to maintain their relationship with you and still actively seek your approval. A therapist involved with this population recently recounted the story of a child who was struggling with Yiddishkeit. She wrote her mother a heartfelt letter, asking to keep the loving relationship that they had previously shared. The next day, her mother called her and told her, “Hashem blessed me with nine wonderful children, [and] now I will have eight” and hung up, permanently cutting the child out of her life. This parent made a colossal mistake.
An off-the-derech child is in a disorienting, angst-filled, and often painful place in his or her life. It is your job as a parent to make them feel that you will always consider them part of your family and that you love them as a human being. They should feel that you love them because of who they are – for their sense of humor, for their kindness, for their creativity, for their honesty – that you love them just because, and that you always want to have a relationship with them. Do not make them feel that you only loved them because they wore certain clothing or because they acted in specific ways.
Even if your child seems to be actively rebelling or trying to distance you from their life, do not react with anger or rejection. Stay loving and do everything in your power to maintain and strengthen your relationship with your child. Their actions may seem cruel and unfeeling, but many times they are – consciously or subconsciously – testing the limits of your relationship. Deep down, they are desperate for your acceptance and love.
Parents sometimes react to this advice with indignation. How can I show my child love when they are actively betraying the Rebono Shel Olam and our entire mesorah? The answer to this is simple. Hashem does not want you to lash out or distance yourself from your child. Chazal teaches us (Yevamos 65b) that just like there is a mitzvah to reprimand wrongdoers if they will listen, so too it is a mitzvah to refrain from giving tochacha if the wrongdoer will not listen. The Chazon Ish (Hilchos Shechita, Siman 2) writes that nowadays, we must draw our estranged children back with thick cords of love.
You may quibble over your halachic requirements, but anyone in this field knows the simple reality. One of the best predictors of whether a child will eventually return or not R”l is their relationship with their parents. By creating a hostile and toxic relationship, you may be ensuring that they will never return R”l. Even if you feel that you are not being true to yourself, embrace your child, love them, and let them know that you will always cherish them for who they are.
It is worth noting that people often err when attempting to reprimand others for their behavior. Musser should not make the other party feel attacked or belittled. Instead, it should make the person feel like a worthy person who has made a mistake. This point is made explicitly by the Shelah in his commentary on Leviticus 19:17 who writes that one must contextualize all reprimands with the preface that the sinner is a good and intelligent person and that his sin is out of character with his otherwise lofty stature.
Additionally, there is a remarkable exchange recorded in the gemara between Rav Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Yosi. Although Rabbi Yosi was the son of the great sage Rabbi Elazar, he did not follow in his father’s footsteps, rather he abandoned Yiddishkeit and began living a life of extreme depravity. The gemara records that when Rav Yehuda HaNasi met the wayward Yosi, he did not react by belittling him or screaming at him for his actions. Instead, Rav Yehuda HaNasi treated him like a prince, clothing him in royal garments and giving him semicha and a prestigious position amongst the Sages (Baba Mitzia 85a). Because of Rav Yehuda HaNasi’s wise and patient approach, Rabbi Yosi went on to become one of the greatest Sages in history. Chazal’s attitude is clear, one has far more influence when approaching someone with respect and validation then if one approaches with negativity and anger.
3. THEY ARE NOT BETRAYING YOU
When parents feel anger and rage towards their off-the-derech child, they often feel that their feelings are justified and lishaim shamayim. But it is worth taking a step back and analyzing your feelings. As parents, we all want our children to follow in our footsteps. When they follow a different path, especially one that goes against everything we believe in, it is natural to feel betrayed and hurt. Your child’s rejection of Yiddishkeit stings, and it feels like they are rejecting you and everything you stand for.
But they are not rejecting you. They are struggling to find their way in the world, and are often dealing with enormous anxiety, disillusionment, and internal conflict. Even though your child is acting inappropriately, they are not responsible for your feelings. You must take ownership of your emotions and recognize that it is not your child’s issue that you feel angry and betrayed – those are your own issues and you must work through them yourself. Parents who react with anger and rejection to their off-the-derech child are often simply lashing out over a perceived sense of entitled betrayal. These parents are not standing up for kavod shamayim; they are simply expressing their sense of, “how dare you not follow in my footsteps!”
4. WHAT ABOUT SHIDDUCHIM?
Another reason parents often feel anger towards their off-the-derech child is because they feel that the child is ruining the family name. Parents worry that people will start whispering in shul, and that the child’s actions will lower the family’s standing in the community. They worry that it will make it harder for the child’s siblings to find shidduchim. The response to that is simple. It is exactly this sort of attitude that pushes so many sensitive souls away from Yiddishkeit. Your child will immediately perceive if your anger at his actions are based out of fear of “what the neighbors will think” and not out of genuine concern for him or her and his or her wellbeing in this world and the next. They will see your harsh reactions as those of a “faker” and not those of someone who genuinely cares about doing the ratzon Hashem. They will think that you do not care about them and are only trying to protect your image within the community. This will corrode your relationship and hurt your chances of reaching your child.
Stop for a moment and think about what really matters. Does it really matter what the neighbors think? Hashem is running the world, and your children’s shidduchim have already been decreed before they were born. Trust in Hashem and recognize that the greatest act you can do to secure rachamei shamayim is by showering love on the struggling neshamah that He has entrusted to your care.
Additionally, it is important to remember that you are not the first family with an off-the-derech child, and you will not become a pariah because of your child’s choices. Over the years, I have dealt with so many of the “chashuver” families in our community who were struggling with an off-the-derech child. “Ein bayis asher ein shom mais,” truly applies in our generation, and it is a tragic reality that we need to learn how to properly approach.
5. DON’T KICK YOUR CHILD OUT OF YOUR HOME
Do not kick your child out of your home. It is their home too – and kicking someone out of their home is the ultimate symbol of rejection. Your off-the-derech child should feel welcome in your home. They should feel that you love having them around; that you enjoy their company at the Shabbos table and around the house. They should feel like valuable members of the household and not stigmatized for their struggles. They are part of your family and deserve to be treated with the full love and respect of a family member.
Some parents send their off-the-derech child away out of fear of them influencing the minds of the younger children. But this approach is often misguided and can backfire. Siblings stick together, and by kicking your child out of the house, you may galvanize your other children to sympathize with the off-the-derech child. You will also send a deeply toxic message to all your children; namely, that your love for them is conditional on them following your rules. Children are incredibly perceptive, and they may see the act of kicking their sibling out of the house as a declaration that all your relationships – even with your own children – do not rest on solid bedrock. It is difficult to imagine a more damaging message to send to a child.
If you are truly worried about your younger children being influenced, sit down with your off-the-derech child and have a frank and calm conversation. Discuss your fears and work with them to figure out a plan of action. You will likely be pleasantly surprised at how far your off-the-derech child will be willing to go to avoid influencing the other children. Additionally, your child will appreciate that you respect his or her input, as well as the fact that you consider them part of the fold.
Some parents feel the need to kick their child out because they simply cannot tolerate their child violating halacha in their own home. They cannot stand idly by while their child is michallel Shabbos or walks around dressed immodestly. The pain of these parents is incalculable, but it is worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. What is your ultimate goal? Your child is committing these issurim whether you like it or not, and there is likely nothing you can do to prevent it. Of course, their actions hurt you, but this is exactly your nisayon. Will you simply react, or will you make decisions after calm and careful deliberation of the costs and benefits?
All that can be gained by kicking your child out is permanently hurting your relationship with them. And that is exactly what the yetzer hara wants. Once upon a time, threatening to cut off family ties may have served as a reliable enough source of pressure to ensure proper behavior. Even entirely secular Jews refrained from intermarrying out for fear of being cut out from the family. But those days are long gone. Threatening to cut a child out of the family will do nothing to change their behavior and will destroy any positive influence the parents may have otherwise had on their child. Having your off-the-derech child in your life and building a strong relationship with them based on trust and acceptance is far more impactful in getting them to return than is anything else.
If you truly cannot envision yourself bearing the emotional pain of witnessing your child’s transgressive behavior, sit down with them and discuss it in a mature and loving manner. Do not give them a list of demands, rather let them know how much you would appreciate it if they refrained from various activities while in your presence. If you approach your child with the proper attitude, you will likely be surprised at how much they will bend in order to accommodate your feelings. It is important to remember that your child is going through a complicated and difficult stage in their life and try to be forgiving if they do not live up to your standards. Not every war must be fought to the death, and sometimes the greatest act of parenting is to know when to turn a blind eye and pretend that you did not see something. By adopting a positive chinuch approach, you will yield far better results in changing your child’s behavior.
6. MAKE YOUR OFF-THE-DERECH CHILD FEEL VALIDATED AND UNDERSTOOD
The process of a child abandoning Yiddishkeit is often traumatic for both the parents and the child. The process often involves pain, anger, and confusion, and the parent-child relationship may be deeply compromised by the end of the ordeal. As the parent, it is your job to begin the healing process and start rebuilding the broken bridges. The most effective method to begin this process is by making your child feel validated and appreciated as a human being. Talk to your child about their experiences, and listen intently and empathetically when they talk. If they criticize your parenting style, don’t get defensive or hostile; rather, try to absorb what they are saying. Children who have left Yiddishkeit often have incredible insight into problematic family dynamics, and it is worth taking their opinion seriously. Do not get offended; just listen and connect with them. Let them feel that you value them and, despite their decisions, look at them as worthy human beings who deserve love and respect.
The reality is that many people who have left Yiddishkeit feel that they have been wronged and hurt by various authority figures. The first step in helping your child heal is to validate their feelings. If they felt mistreated by a rebbe or mashgiach, listen with empathy to their points. If they feel mistreated by you, try not to be defensive. Whether or not you feel their criticism is accurate, recognize that what they are telling you is how they experienced it. Apologize for any pain they feel you’ve caused them and commit to doing whatever you can to repair the relationship. Even if you do not agree with their perspective, you can still validate their feelings and let them know that you are sorry for the pain that they are experiencing. Now is not the time to delegitimize their perspective or to try to show them the faults in their logic. Just be caring, real, and let them understand that you are sorry for their pain.
This does not mean that you must pretend that you are not pained by their actions. Be open and honest with them. Let them know that you are saddened by their life choices but still love them for who they are as a person. Your off-the-derech child is still your child and needs to feel that you respect them and view them as a worthy individual. Only once your child feels that you validate them as a human being will they be open to hearing what you have to say.
7. DO NOT LET THEM FEEL THAT YOU GAVE UP ON THEM
Parents sometimes feel that in order to maintain their relationship with their child, they must actively allow or encourage them to commit avairos. This is misguided. Parents have a very fine line to walk. On the one hand, it is often profoundly counterproductive to actively express your pain and sadness about the decisions of your off-the-derech child. Such displays are often viewed as manipulative and rarely help the situation. Most children know that their choices are causing their parents pain – and parents rarely need to say anything for the child to appreciate their position.
On the other hand, passively condoning forbidden actions can also hurt your child. Children are very perceptive and adopting a laissez-faire approach will not fool them. All they will see is that their parents do not expect them ever to improve and have given up on ever getting nachas from them. It can be devastating to a child’s self-image when they feel their parents’ sense of defeat and faux acceptance of their situation. This approach often leaves the child convinced that he is helpless to control his situation and that his parents have given up on him. This realization can be crippling and can deeply hinder any progress the child may be making. Your children should feel that while you love them, you are not ok with their actions. This is not an easy line to walk, and one must carefully find a balance. Parents need to emphasize that they love and respect their child, but they must also make it clear that they do not accept the child’s new way of life.
8. MAKE THEM FEEL COMFORTABLE AROUND YOU
One reason that many off-the-derech people avoid spending time with frum people is that they feel uncomfortable around them. They sense that everyone is walking on eggshells in their presence, and every time they walk into a room, they feel a sense of awkwardness fill the space. When an off-the-derech child interacts with his or her parents, this discomfort is deeply compounded. The child knows that their decisions are causing incredible pain to their parents, and they become deeply attuned to any subtle expression of grief or disappointment that may emanate from their parents. Slowly, the negativity of these interactions builds up, and the child begins avoiding contact with his parents as well as other people from his former life.
The solution to this is simple. Treat your child like a regular person. Yes, your child is causing you tremendous pain, but why is this reality filling the entirety of the relationship? Let your daily interactions resume as usual: eat supper together, laugh, schmooze, and work on building a healthy parent-child relationship. Your child’s frumkeit does not need to be inserted into every interaction you have with them.
It is also worth noting that it is generally not a good idea to debate religion with your child. The complexity of the parent-child dynamic as well as the inherent tension surrounding the topic of Emunah often preclude any ability to have a fruitful conversation. Even if your points are valid, your child has a much better chance of accepting them if they are presented by someone else in a non-threatening environment. Additionally, sometimes bringing in another person to have a three-way meeting with the parents, the child, and the outside party can help reframe the dynamic in a more helpful direction. Find friendly and warm haskafah experts who are willing to talk to your child and use them to engage your child intellectually. If your child brings up haskafah issues, avoid the temptation to participate in long, protracted discussions. Instead, validate them for asking a good question and ask them if they are comfortable talking about these issues with a knowledgeable Rabbi or expert. At Priority-1, we meet with teenagers and adults all the time, and we can have a much more significant impact than parents who try to influence their children alone. As long as you ask respectfully and do not overly pressure your child into meeting a Rav or haskafah expert, most children will be happy to have someone to discuss their questions within a comfortable environment.
9. ASK YOUR OFF-THE-DERECH CHILD FOR ADVICE REGARDING THE OTHER CHILDREN
I mentioned this earlier, but it is worth revisiting. I often meet parents who are struggling with an off-the-derech child, and one of the pressing issues we discuss is how to protect the younger children from following in their sibling’s path. I always tell parents that the smartest thing that they can do is directly ask their off-the-derech son or daughter for advice. Ask your child, “What can we change in our parenting approach to keep your younger brothers and sisters on the frum path?”
Not only may your child have valuable insights that are worthy of your consideration, asking them for advice is incredibly uplifting. You are showing your child that while you may have made mistakes with them, you are open to change and are interested in their perspective. That act of acknowledgment sends them the message, ‘We respect your opinion and feel that we can learn from you.’ It is incredibly validating and is often the first step in healing the relationship.
10. TAKE THE LONG VIEW
Often parents grow frustrated when their attempts to connect with their child do not result in the child returning to Yiddishkeit. These parents feel that no matter what they do, their child only seems to be drifting further and further away. The answer to these parents is twofold. Firstly, do not base your relationship with the expectation that your child will return. If your relationship is conditional, your child will sense your insincerity and your overtures will fall flat. Just be genuine and loving and do not base your relationship on an implicit attempt to be mikarev your child.
More importantly, have patience. Life is very long, and you never know the impact of your words or actions. Your child was likely struggling with Yiddishkeit for years – long before you were aware anything was wrong, and it is unrealistic to expect the situation to resolve itself quickly.
Think long term – be loving and real and realize that you never know what impact you are having on your child. Life is notoriously unpredictable, and it may take many years before your child is open to reflecting on his or her earlier life choices. When that time of introspection comes, the fact that you stood by your child’s side during his or her most tumultuous stage in life can have an enormous impact on their outlook. It is also worth remembering that even if you are unable to influence your child to return, by staying in your child’s life, you have a strong chance of having a positive impact on your future grandchildren. Be patient, daven, and understand that this process may be a long journey.