My friend Liz was worried that her 14-year-old son, Andy, was traumatized. While on a ski trip, he had seen a child fall off the chairlift. Andy was sitting in close range, and he saw the paramedics airlift the boy to a hospital. Liz tried to process the accident with Andy, but he wouldn’t show any reaction. She made a few more attempts at conversation before letting it go.
The following weekend, Andy, an avid skier, refused to return to the mountain. Liz quickly connected the dots. She called me and asked me to put on my school counselor hat. How could she know whether he needed support, she wondered, if she couldn’t get him to talk about it?
Teen boys have powerful feelings, but parents often mistakenly assume their silence means they prefer to be disengaged, says Kenneth Ginsburg, author of “Raising Kids to Thrive” and co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “That’s the mythology we have to fight against,” he explains. “Boys have rich inner lives, and they care deeply about loyalty, friendship and protecting the people they love.”
According to Ginsburg, preserving and strengthening the parent-son relationship in the teen years is more about embracing a philosophy than completing a checklist. “If you stay present, really believe in the kid, treat him like the expert in his life and talk at the pace he’s able to listen, then the details will work themselves out,” he says. He adds that some boys do become more silent as they enter adolescence, but that just means that parents need to communicate with them differently. Here are six ways parents can continue to connect with their sons as they enter their teens.
If parents maintain the constancy of their love and the unconditionality of their presence, they will create a safe space for boys to share feelings. “Parents need to know who their kid is, allow them to be uneven and continue to enjoy them,” Ginsburg says. He urges parents to be attentive listeners and to focus on meaningful exchanges. “A lot of people think high-yield conversations are about grades and controlling behavior, but they’re really about staying connected with your kid and knowing what matters to them,” he explains.
The relationship will suffer if parents fixate on deficits instead of celebrating their son’s strengths. “If your son is not a good athlete, and you focus on that instead of noticing that he’s a great artist or a loyal friend, he won’t feel that you believe he is good enough as he is.”
Parents need to be accepting and nonjudgmental. “The themes of adolescence include: are my parents proud of me, do I fit in with my peers, am I capable at school, do I have any idea what I can do with my life, am I comfortable with my developing sexuality and, most basically, am I good enough?” he explains. “If you put all of those together, you can begin to see why it matters so much that a parent loves a child for who they are.” That is the foundation that offers the security for a young person to answer all of those profoundly challenging questions.
If parents want teen boys to be able to share their feelings, ask for help and express vulnerability, they need to address stereotypes about what it means to be a man. “If you talk to people in their 50s and 60s,” Ginsburg says, “men kept their feelings inside and stayed silent until they convinced themselves they felt little.” He notes that it’s much healthier to allow young men to have a feeling, then figure out how to acknowledge and express it.
Fathers, especially, need to be role models. “When I get really stressed out, do I pretend I don’t care or do I call a friend? When I’m having a bad day, do I grab a beer or go for a run?” Ginsburg asks. “Every time I express an emotion and choose to solve a problem instead of going into a corner in a state of denial, I model how to be a real man who has real emotions and who deals with them.” He notes that we need a more nuanced, reality-based sense of masculinity that includes the importance of human communication.
When parents demonstrate genuine curiosity about their son’s passions, they are more likely to establish a strong connection. Attend his class play or soccer game, and know what he’s studying in school. The more parents know about their son’s life, the more topics they will have to discuss. Find activities that are natural extensions of his interests, whether it’s a sports event, a movie or a museum. Know the kids he hangs out with and how he likes to unwind. This doesn’t mean overstepping boundaries. Parents can show authentic interest without violating their son’s need for privacy and autonomy.
To facilitate conversation, parents can ask boys concrete questions that are clearly finite. “Ask them the best or worst thing that happened in school, or whether things went better with the math teacher,” says Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.” Otherwise, he says, “they are thinking, ‘Where is this leading, and why does my mom need to know this?’ ”
Parents also need to be willing to be patient. “When you feel like you have to dive in too deeply at every single moment, you might actually push your son away,” Ginsburg says. “You might go for a walk or go fishing or just be present, and after 30 minutes or three hours of silence, the nuggets will start coming out.” Parents need to be willing to tolerate the quiet while their son reflects, and trust that communication will happen at the right moment.
Parents can get creative about when and how they engage their son in conversation, says Aziz Abdur-Ra’oof, a former National Football League player and educational consultant who mentors teen boys. “If they like a certain video game, ask them to teach you how to play,” he suggests. Whether it’s dinner or bedtime, he also recommends that parents establish a consistent time when their sons expect to talk, then provide conversation starters and be really present. “That means the TV is off,” he says. “If you take a phone call mid-conversation with them, they will think you don’t care.”
Ginsburg likes connecting in the car. Boys may find talking less intimidating in that setting. Eye contact is optional, and you are driving past real subjects that you can choose to talk about without invading your son’s personal space.
If parents want teens to talk about uncomfortable topics, they need to be willing to start the conversation. When it comes to sex, for example, Thompson notes that most parents haven’t told their sons anything. He urges them to give their kids the facts and make it clear that they are open to questions.
Parents also need to be careful not to overreact to a comment when their son wades into sensitive territory, because it might shut down the conversation. “Parents might make a big deal about something their child said, but the kid didn’t even mean it the way they thought,” Abdur-Ra’oof said. The dialogue is more likely to continue if parents maintain a mind-set of curiosity and stay even-keeled.
Parents also need to cut themselves some slack. As Thompson says, there is no magic parent who holds the secret to getting a 15-year-old boy to open up.
A month after the ski-lift accident, Liz persuaded Andy to give skiing another try. The drive to the mountain was tense. When they arrived, Andy’s father wordlessly coaxed him onto the chairlift, and they went through the motions together. His dad’s calm, quiet presence gave him courage.
On the drive home, Liz was relieved when Andy finally shared his sadness and asked about the injured boy. She told me the experience has changed how they communicate. She no longer pushes Andy to talk, keenly aware that he’s most expressive when she leaves room for silence.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.
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