Dear Carolyn: I am struggling with my 14-year-old son, a high school freshman. We have a happy family life at home, he gets good grades, plays sports and has lots of friends. I'm just tired of doing so many things for him and getting so little in return.
I try to talk to him about what he may be feeling, how his friends are doing, who/what is important to him, etc., but he shares so little with me and acts like I'm a nuisance to him. I always hoped he could feel comfortable confiding in me, but I feel all he needs me for is to be his cook, his driver, his lunchmaker, his bank machine, his social secretary, his school liaison, his sports cheerleader, etc.
I feel like I failed him as a mom in some big way, because I honestly know so little about him beyond what's on the surface.
We have three sons, 16, 14 and 12, none of them big talkers, but this one is particularly closelipped. My husband says this is a "boy" thing and he never shared things with his mother, but I know other boys share and confide in their moms, so I just can't help but wonder what I've done wrong.
I feel a little pathetic pining for my own kid's attention. But I can't keep opening my heart to him only to have him keep rejecting my attempts with one-word answers or by just ignoring me.
I'm kind of over this role where I am "at his service" and he gives me very little in return. I feel like he is at an age where he needs to become more emotionally mature and start making an effort with me, too. Is there anything I can do to change our dynamic? Or am I being unfair/unrealistic?
Struggling: As I read your letter, I imagined a news headline for it:
14-Year-Old Boy Doesn’t Talk to His Mother
Then I went, and I do apologize in advance: Haaaaahahahahaha! Hee hee. Ahem.
I know, I know, it’s not funny. It hurts.
But it is so solidly within the range of normal that it’s actually kind of a nice break from some of the more terrible stuff. I’d even show it to my own resident monosyllabist, but he only looks up from Fortnite when he wants to be fed.
Plus, you suggest your older son didn’t do this, which suggests it’s more complicated than being all your fault.
You’re understandably worried about the job you’re doing as a parent. There’s nothing wrong with that, either: Everyone who does anything should take a step back occasionally for a tough self-assessment. Raising kids, making widgets, voting, driving, being a partner or friend, writing advice, anything.
Just make sure you’re thorough in your thinking and include context, which in this case means asking whether your son is doing his job, too.
You say he’s performing well, that’s good.
He does seem to be slacking on another important job, his manners. That’s something you can address directly. Maybe: “I realize I’m your primary source of food, cash and rides, but the dispenser doesn’t work without please and thank you.” Make sure it doesn’t.
As for the job of becoming “more emotionally mature,” that work is in progress. I can’t say for certain there’s nothing else going on with your son, but around 13, give or take, kids (not just “a ‘boy’ thing,” ugh) start their push toward adult independence in earnest, and that means figuring out who they are, and that means stepping far enough away from their parents to see where one leaves off and the other begins. Some kids need only to glide a few feet off to the side. Others — often the most tightly bonded — can’t seem to launch themselves without a good hard shove off the family dock. Your middle son, perhaps.
Kids in this process need their parents nearby as much as they need them to go away. Your son is more likely to reach for you if you make it easy for him, emotionally, to do that — which means not chasing down news of his day, not correcting him constantly, not lamenting (to him) about not being close. At the risk of a four-metaphor pileup, think skittish dog: no crowding and no sudden movements.
Instead, be patient, be flexible, be joyous about the process, I swear — it’s healthy! it’s necessary! it can be funny, if you think about it! — and be quick to occupy yourself elsewhere when you feel the neediness and dismay coming on.
And, channel your wisest self when picking your battles. Manners are worth it, so it’s “please” and “thank you” or no sammich/ride/cash, and watch those grades, sports and friends for any sudden drops. Create and enforce some no-screen times, too, even in the car.
But polysyllabic responses? A luxury, my friend. Back off, and give the poor dog room to come to you.