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How to reach your teen son

Some pointers for coping during this tricky, volatile time.

So often, during therapy sessions in my practice, I’ve encountered the sulky, surly, withdrawn attitude of the young teen, and the frustrated or embarrassed reaction of the parents. But when I was on holiday with families with teens recently, I witnessed this first hand, outside of my professional sphere.

I was fascinated by the reactions of the various parents. (No wonder people are wary of being around psychologists!) One of the sons yo-yoed between positively social behaviour and total withdrawal behind headphones or shut doors. This was followed by surliness, rudeness, and blindness to anyone else’s needs, then fun engagement and kindness to his parents. The parents were exasperated, frustrated or grateful – depending on his mood. One divorced dad, desperate to please his son, seldom set boundaries or requested good manners, leaving other adults to be ‘bad cop’. Another set of parents were very clear about boundaries, expecting and requesting decent behaviour of their sons.

It underlined what I tell my patients. If parents aren’t comfortable in their own skin and unclear about their role, they resort to being the cool mum or dad in a desperate effort to get the teen to like them. My question is, at what cost? Seeking approval from the teen tips the power balance. Teens subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, sense the lack of clarity of a weak parent and claim their ‘power’ over the parent very easily. The teen boy instantly feels big and bold and does not have to go through the struggle of finding his own competency. But this very struggle against hierarchies is essential for the maturing young male. Earning respect and status is what helps a teen boy to discover his place among men.

Here are some suggestions on how to help your teen son (and yourself!)

Grow up!
You may be thinking, ‘This is about my teen. Why are you telling me to grow up? Why should I change? I’m the parent!’

But if you are open to growing with your teen and developing yourself, your relationship will deepen and you will enjoy becoming a better, wiser person in the process.

By the time our sons reach adolescence, we need to have matured into adulthood ourselves or we will be crushed by the stampeding teen. A midlife mum or dad should have the self-awareness, clarity and moral compass of a mature adult. Yet, judging by my first-hand holiday experiences, too many parents are either too strict, full of teen ego and arrogance themselves, or are too insecure to parent appropriately.

We don’t stand a chance of reaching our sons and raising them into maturity unless we are clear about our values. We need to have reflected on some of the big questions about what constitutes a good and meaningful life. We may not have all the answers – but we should at least have some of them.

Values are ‘caught’ not ‘taught’. We need to be a clear example of the type of person we would like our sons to be. Families who try to teach consideration, responsibility and gratitude with reminders and lectures yet do not demonstrate this in the home will not pass on these values. Also, the more confident we are of our personal and family values, the more capable we are of allowing a son to experiment with his own identity and values.

Respect, care and responsibility are important for the development of a moral compass. Use the golden rule of ‘doing to others what you would have done to yourself’ as a guideline.

Parents need to be honest about their internal drivers. Intrinsic values are those we act on and believe in because that is who we are. Extrinsic ones are those we act on to fit in and to please others. Are you doing something because you believe in it or because you are trying to please someone else? Be honest about how your stated values translate into action. An easy way to discover our true intrinsic values is to contemplate where and how we spend our time. What we do routinely is telling – it shows us what is actually important to us.

Your values, your beliefs, your style of parenting have been deeply influenced by your own upbringing and the era you were born into. Each generation reacts to how they were parented positively or negatively, and brings their own answer to the question: ‘How should children be raised?’

We need to be aware of our own personal dynamics; who we are and why are important questions for a parent as answering them brings a healthy dose of self-awareness and information to the parental process.

An empowered, resourceful mother remains open and available and loving to her son – and engaged with her own life. Her own talents, competencies, interests and work become essential. When a son admires his parent, the process becomes easier.

There’s no such thing as the perfect home, the ideal mother and the perfect teenager. We need to be who we are, but we also need to strive to tend and mend our home relationships.

Understand his change of life
Adolescence is all about growth. Although it may appear to be all about rebellion, moods and contrived sulkiness, it is a time of the greatest change during the human lifespan. Testosterone peaks, catapulting the boy’s body into dynamic physical and neurological change as it surges towards manhood. This impacts on him psychologically, socially and emotionally, urging him to try to assert control over his own life. His entire world view, identity and personality shifts. At no other time will a boy feel so vulnerable and confused yet so powerful and confident. His desire for independence, space and freedom is unleashed, but with no manual on how to achieve this. The goal is to become a successful adult but he doesn’t have the benefit of experience. He needs to explore the options and discover, by trial and error, his place among men and women.

Boys want independence. If we encourage and understand this, we are going with the tide, not against it. He still needs reassurance and guidance but we need to offer this within a two-way conversation, not through top-down instructions. Be firm but fair. Most parents believe they know what’s best, and that all their son has to do is listen. They forget the first step, which is to build a good relationship – one that is respectful and curious about the teen’s process, that sees things through his eyes and discovers what is meaningful to him.

Expect to be challenged and criticised; expect bad moods and backchat. But there doesn’t have to be constant conflict. If boys are raised in an environment where topics are openly discussed in a nonjudgmental way, and he is allowed to ask questions, have an opinion, share feelings (even anger, in a healthy way), he will feel safe enough to show who he is. There’s always room for you to ‘pull rank’ when he is rude or disrespectful. Teens do need clear boundaries or a direct statement with no room for negotiation – in moderation. Teen boys respond quickly and accept their lessons if you approach them with openness and respect, and collaborate and negotiate with them.

Don’t take things personally
Reaching a teen boy who has withdrawn or has become silent is tough. Understand is that he is not intentionally trying to hurt you. He is assaulted by changing feelings, thoughts and motives that he is not clear about. This is unpleasant for you but it is a necessary phase. He is struggling with his ego, his identity and the world around him in an effort to learn how to be mature. Because he is asserting himself and trying to be less dependent on his mum, clashes increase. Stick to your values and boundaries where appropriate, but stop taking his attitude so personally.

We believe that reaching out to engage, love, nurture and help is what creates and sustains a relationship. Yet our craving for the nice and the bright and the happy, while avoiding the hurtful, the dark and the painful, detracts from true loving. Although the act of reaching out is not negative in itself, I’d like to bring our attention to the attitude or mood that accompanies it. Are we reaching out from a place of regard and love or from a place that is needy and manipulative?

The mother load
Testosterone has hit and as women we don’t have first-hand experience! Many women are ill equipped to direct, coach and guide their son’s desire for the male world. Running concurrent to the biological impact are cultural norms influencing a boy’s behaviour and a woman’s attitude to it. Often, women lack insight into these powerful cultural forces, and are not personally empowered to deal with them appropriately. During mid-adolescence, boys experience gender intensification and their newfound macho behaviour is directed at mum. Strength and masculinity is often interpreted as dominance over women, with their compliance. Mothers often assume that their self-sacrifice and constant giving is evidence of good nurturing, not realising that their son unconsciously experiences this as weakness. He is compelled to follow the pack and the unspoken rules of being a man. Being dependent on mum means he’s weak (according to the male pack), so he often flexes his muscles around mum in an attempt to prove his independence and masculinity. Added to this, society dictates that men should be virile and macho – ‘boys don’t cry’. During the confusing teens, boys often adopt these attitudes. If a mother does not hold her son accountable for his behaviour, if she protects his ego by diminishing herself or apologising for her opinions and her needs, she is continuing the patriarchal system – raising her son to dominate women. This does not mean mothers need to be strict and distant; instead they should be clear about their values, worth and position in the world. If we want our sons to be respectful, compassionate and good communicators, we need to lead by example and be actively engaged with our competencies and strengths.

During his teens, your son develops a ‘boy code’ and a ‘buddy system’ that helps him navigate the world of men. The code of silence and loyalty are important tools of male bonding. Many women find this irritating and demand that there be no secrets, violating a boy’s privacy with his friends. In the adolescent male brain, the centres of emotion and communication are not as prolific as in girls. Your son may feel the same feelings as a girl but it takes him longer to formulate the words to express them, so he often resorts to physical demonstrations. Women value words and may miss the nuanced actions that their sons display.

Mothers are generally pleased to see their young men filled with testosterone, energy and boisterous enthusiasm, yet are frustrated when they display surliness, aggression, rudeness and lethargy. Mums want their sons to express emotion, yet he’s become monosyllabic! Men usually flex their muscles through dominance or hard silence. It is a challenge: can she allow room for his developing masculinity yet stand her ground against his assertive behaviour?

Most of us still try to parent our teen sons the way we parented them when they were little boys, and this is at the heart of many of the difficulties we run into. Our teen starts saying, ‘You don’t understand’, ‘I’m not a child’, ‘I can do this’, ‘Don’t treat me like a baby’ and dad may say, ‘You’re molly-coddling him, leave him!’ My eldest son told me to ‘Get a life!’ when I thought I was being the good mum following up on his school commitments. Suddenly we’re not being asked to help but we want to because it gives us a sense of involvement. A mother naturally moves in the direction of her child, but a teen naturally moves away. Your boy’s energy is with his friends, his interests, his school, perhaps his more towards his dad – but not towards his mum. We feel slightly redundant, rejected. And we react by asking more questions, trying to appease, trying to do more, or we start blaming ourselves. We never think, ‘Oh, I actually need to do less.’ We don’t say, ‘When you’re ready, you come to me.’

As a son begins his growth into manhood, he pushes for a new position with his mother – one that is more equal and separate. He tries to make space for his masculinity. The first step is to push against the feminine that he has cleaved to for so long. In The Invisible Presence, Michael Gurian tells us that a mother who doesn’t let go and needs to be in the prime position in her son’s life hinders his development into a mature male.

Another toxic situation is when a mother unconsciously dislikes the masculine. These mums have had poor male role models or have suffered from male dominance and aggression and become fearful or resentful of males. She may be overly critical or overreact to her son’s sudden hypermasculinity and wish him to show only his soft side. This is confusing for him. Some mothers run down their son’s father, which makes him embarrassed about his growth into masculinity.

You will continue to have a powerful influence in your son’s life whether you are in his presence or not. Make the decision that that influence will be one of beauty, grace, integrity, maturity and wisdom.

The single mum
Single mums find that a son starts to fill the role of ‘man of the house’ and are delighted with this kindness and authority. The potential problem is enmeshment, where neither mother nor son sees any fault in the other. I’ve actually heard mothers say, ‘He is the perfect man.’ This enmeshment hampers a boy’s development into his sexuality and healthy intimacy. His mother holds his heart and there is no room for him to discover the good, the bad and the ugly of young romantic love.

I believe single mums should look for good male role models and encourage these relationships. A boy learns about the world of men through his elders. Many mums, and single mums especially, feel the loss of their special boy acutely as he begins to pull away. Mothers don’t expect the deep feeling of loss. Most resort to the default position of ‘stepping in’ – we look for ways to be useful, needed, to engage, help, fix and stay connected. It’s the traditional feminine in overdrive. It becomes more complex if we can’t find a place where we are needed and perceive him to be rejecting us. We take it personally, and this can cause a strong emotional reaction. A boy needs to find himself by moving out from the world of mum. This does not mean he loves you less and soon he will return as a grown up and then a true friendship can develop – one that respects differences, separateness and one another’s opinions.

The last word
If you are open to developing yourself and your own self-confidence, your teen will respect you. Trust that you have laid a solid foundation and let go of your need to teach, lecture, enforce rules and hold on. We need to take our eyes off the chores, the duties, tidiness and cleanliness; own precious values and desired character traits may not be his. Get to know your teen and the world they are in.

Encourage his decision-making skills and enable him to develop his own moral compass. If a boy is only doing things to please the adults or his friends, he will never develop intrinsic values. A boy naturally wants to fit in and friends do become all important but this does not mean the influence of a good home disappears, but the most important aspect is his internal voice.

You aren’t going to encourage this if you continuously use an authoritarian manner. If you are supportive and assist the teenage need for more independence and decision-making, and help him solve his own conflicts, you raise the kind of adult you want – one who can make his own decisions and is considerate of others’ needs. Keep asking him questions like, ‘What do you think? What would you like to do? Does this make you feel proud? Do you feel good about your actions? Do you think this is the right decision? What do you think the consequences will be, and can you live with them? What does your inner voice advise you?’

Article featured in Fair Lady magazine, October 2016 issue.