A: You are not alone in wondering where your kind boy went; almost every parent of a teen turns around and thinks, “Wait, what happened?” Like you, my friends are baffled by what appears to be an overnight change. But take heart: Your son is manifesting changes 14 years in the making.
I find it helpful to delve into what is developmentally “normal” for a teen. (I put normal in quotes because there is a great deal of latitude in what normal means, and a parent should never cling to any norm as gospel; instead, it should be a guidepost.)
The growth of your son’s brain is as rapid and wild as when he was 2. And you may not remember those years, but they were tumultuous. Because teens often swing from loving and happy to angry and brooding, living with one can be baffling. A teen’s desire to try other personas and personalities makes it even harder; hence that feeling of not knowing which child you are going to get on which day.
The arrogance you are seeing is also normal. Like a stubborn 2-year-old, a 14-year-old really does feel like they know it all, and it is difficult to tell them any different. Yes, perspective is around the corner, but for now, expect that your son thinks that he and his friends have all the answers. And this arrogance can actually be a good thing. The brain is preparing itself to push away from home and go out in the world. This swagger is rehearsal for adulthood, and is much needed for teens.
Does this mean you just sit there and take in his arrogance and norm-pushing? Yes and no. The most foolish parenting move you can make is trying to take this bull by its horns. You will never win, and even if you did, what would you have accomplished? Breaking his spirit? Creating a teen who is a follower? The world needs youthful exuberance and bravery more than ever.
Instead, get curious. When your son flouts a well-worn standard, ask him what provoked his thinking. Ask him why he sees this norm as lame or outdated. Ask him why his thinking is better or more beneficial. For this to be a true conversation and not a critique in sheep’s clothing, you have to be truly interested. Often teens have a way of seeing the world that is new and beneficial. In his book “Brainstorm,” Daniel Siegel asserts that today’s teens are more thoughtful, have a sense of agency, are engaging in fewer risky behaviors and see themselves as leaders.
If you hear interesting ideas but an edge of meanness among him and his friends, know that you have more than two options (ignoring or shaming them). If you feel comfortable, you can say: “Gentlemen, I see your point of view, but your language and tone are lacking. Restate it, please, or get quiet.” Alternatively, you can call your son into another room and say, “Listen, I hear you and your friends, but this is what I am not down with; either end it or I will.”
If you think that your son’s friends are truly headed down a path of serious misogyny, brutishness, racism or other ugly speech or thinking, I would invite you to be brave and call the other parents. I am not suggesting you call these parents and blame their sons for the group’s behavior. Instead, this is a heads-up call to bring everyone on the same page. Maybe all the parents could separately begin to talk to their children, maybe the group of young men could get involved in some kind of service to others, or maybe everyone decides that the friends need a break from one another.
Essentially, I am asking you to take the middle road. Do not take his attitude and arrogance personally, but do not ignore the signs of deeper problems. It is easier to wave a “boys will be boys” wand over a lot of these behaviors, so I strongly recommend befriending the parents of the other kids, to check your assumptions against theirs. You may not all agree, but parents need to talk to one another more often. We need to be courageous and assume that other parents want the connection, too.
As for resources, in addition to “Brainstorm,” I am a big fan of Michael Thompson and his books about the emotional worlds of boys.
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