he phone was the final straw,” the woman on the line explained. “Suri knows she’s not allowed to have her own phone. But she just went and bought it without our permission. It’s like we don’t exist. She just shuts us out.”
“Where did she get the money?” I asked.
“She’s a very hard worker. She babysits all the time and she runs a day camp in the summer. She loves being independent. I don’t want to tell her she can’t work, I think its good, but…” Her voice trailed off. “We’re lost. We don’t know why she acts like this and we don’t know what to do about it.”
“She sounds responsible. What’s wrong with her having a phone?” It’s not that I am pro kids having phones, I just needed to understand what Mom’s objection was. That would tell me a lot about the situation.
“She’s on it all day, she barely ever looks up. We have no idea who she is talking to or what’s happening in her life!”
“Okay, I think…”
“Wait,” Mrs. Berman interrupted. “Hold on while I conference in my husband.” She pressed a few buttons. As we listened to the phone ring she added, “He’s very busy and doesn’t like to be disturbed at work, so he might not answer.”
“Hello?” The voice was curt.
“Hi, Zev, I have Rabbi Bensoussan on the phone,” Mrs. Berman said quickly.
“I have ten minutes until my next meeting.”
“I told Rabbi Bensoussan about the situation with Suri. He’s about to tell us what to do.”
I was already tired of this but I tried not to let on.
“It’s not what we need to do, it’s what she needs to do,” Mr. Berman said. “We just need you to talk to Suri, okay? When is the soonest you can see her? I’ll pay whatever it is.” He was clearly in a rush to get off the phone. “Mandy, I need to see the year-end reports for Jarco. And get Marcus on the phone, tell him I’m still waiting for his e-mail.”
“Check your spam folder,” I suggested.
“Check if Marcus’s e-mail went to spam.”
“Oh.” He forced a polite chuckle. “I was talking to someone else.”
“So was I,” I replied. “Look, as I was about to tell your wife, I think I’m going to need to meet with you and your daughter in person before I get involved.”
“Us? Why us? Suri obviously has a phone addiction — just do whatever you do for that!”
“That’s not how it works,” I said. “I can meet you Wednesday morning.”
“Mornings are tough,” Mr. Berman said.
“I know,” I replied. “Does Wednesday morning at ten work?”
They said it did and we hung up.
I wasn’t sure Suri was ignoring her parents spitefully. It sounded like she was trying to escape from them. Her work ethic fit this theory – she wanted to be independent. It seemed like she was struggling between two parts of herself — she could be mature, responsible and independent, but she was also displaying obnoxious and immature behavior.
Suri and her parents showed up on Wednesday at 10 a.m. sharp. Mr. Berman was talking on his phone, Suri was texting, and Mrs. Berman just stood there between them looking lost.
After a few minutes of introduction of who I am and what I do and don’t do, I asked Suri’s parents to wait outside while I talked to Suri.
“Look, it’s really simple,” Suri asserted. “I bought my phone with my own money. They have no right to tell me how to use my money. I get good grades, I take care of myself, they don’t need to worry all the time.” She rolled her eyes.
I looked at Suri. “You seem very mature so I’m going to talk to you like an adult,” I started. “I understand why it’s frustrating. Do you see any value in getting along with your parents?”
“Yeah, maybe, but I’m not going to give up my phone, ever!”
“I’m not asking you to. I’m just asking if you are mature enough to compromise with your parents for the sake of a peaceful place to live.” Mature, compromise, peace. I let the words hang for a moment, hoping they would have the desired effect.
The truth was, I didn’t feel like I was the right person to help the Bermans. There’s no one in the world who connects with everyone they encounter, and I wasn’t connecting with this couple. I was going to have to refer them to a family therapist who could help them. I suggested some compromises to Suri and then explained the recommendation I was going to make.
“I’m going to suggest to your parents that the three of you meet with a family therapist once a week. She’s very skilled, I know she’ll understand you. And what’s more—”
“One minute,” Suri interrupted. “My parents are going to come with me once a week?”
I knew what she was thinking — I’m trying to escape my overbearing parents and this guy is saying I’m going to have to spend more time with them!
“Yes,” I said.
And then it happened.
It was a fraction of a second. A flash across her face. Her entire demeanor shifted for an instant — just for an instant there was a light in her eyes, but then the tough look slid right back. It happened so quickly I almost missed it.
What was that? I thought. It looked like… relief? Triumph?
“Yeah, okay, whatever,” she said.
Suri turned to call her parents back inside. As they came in, she asked for the car keys so she could wait in the car. Her body language screamed this was a total waste of time.
The Bermans sat down and I explained to them that Suri was willing to make certain compromises, but that I was recommending they pursue family therapy.
“Family therapy?” Mr. Berman said with distaste. “Is that really necessary? Isn’t this just a phone addiction?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “And another thing. Dad, you’re going to need to start taking Suri out on a date once a week.”
He looked stunned. “A what?”
“A date,” I repeated. “Turn your phone off and take her somewhere she’ll enjoy.”
“Just me?” he stuttered.
“But where should I take her? I have no idea what she enjoys!”
“Well, ideally it should be someplace you both enjoy. But what she wants should take precedence.”
“Sure, I’ll take her for a manicure and that will fix everything,” he said sarcastically.
“No, but spending undistracted time with her doing something other than fighting will help,” I said. “And you’re right, a manicure is probably not the best idea.”
He shook his head. “This is crazy.”
“Trust me, not a manicure and not a baseball game. You need something in the middle. You could—”
There was a rustle from the doorway. Suri stood there, but she looked completely different. She looked… smaller. Younger. There were tears in her eyes.
“Suri?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
She didn’t answer for a few seconds.
“Bowling,” she said finally. She looked at me.
“We could go bowling.” She looked down again, speaking quietly. “We went when I was little. It was fun.” Pause. “I’ll be more careful about the phone,” she added, even more quietly.
No one said anything.
Then she straightened up and pointed directly at her father. “But you leave your phone at home and no one else can come!”
No one moved.
The silence was broken by Mr. Berman’s phone ringing. All eyes in the room went to Dad. He lifted his hand toward his pocket.
Dad, I thought furiously, there are three feet of desk between me and you. I don’t know how long it will take for me to jump across it, but if you take that phone out of your pocket we are going to find out!
Suri’s father let his hand fall. He opened his mouth.
Please, please, please.
“I had no idea,” he said finally. His eyes started welling up. He looked at me. “I didn’t realize.”
I said nothing, I just pointed at his daughter.
He nodded. Turned to her. Wiped his eyes.
“I messed up,” he said. “I would love to go bowling.”
Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.
Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan serves as mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva High School of Cleveland. He is a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) who currently maintains a private practice, and does motivational speaking and community education on addiction all over the US and Israel.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 792)