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How to mother a teenage boy

Your mothering approach and skills have developed over time and once your son has reached adolescence, you have been involved in his life for 13 long years.

Each stage of his life so far has asked for different things from you. His baby years required that you be commander, bottle-washer and nurturer/feeder, sleepless and loving all at once. His early childhood dominated your life and you spent your time pushing prams, carrying cots, toys, bottles and watching out for his safety continually.

By middle childhood and prep school you gave up carrying him and shifted to seemingly endless lifting and driving.

As prep school was coming to an end, just loving and praising him didn’t seem enough. A more sophisticated parenting skill was asked for.

Suddenly you needed to learn emotional IQ, conflict resolution, creative stimulation, decision-making skills, goal setting, power-play negotiation and motivation skills. A business-management coach would have been useful!

Creating a reliable loving base

During the first 10 years it was easy to say that you wanted your boy be the best he could be and you were commited to ensuring that he felt loved and supported by his family.

You were his biggest fan and the greatest presence in his life. Mothering had grown with you and him and pulled you in, sometimes without your permission.

William Pollack tells us that the love of a stable mother makes a boy stronger, emotionally and psychologically. His dependence on you creates a reliable loving base that provides him with the courage to explore the outside world.

And then the pre-teens come. And there are changes. Around 12 or 13 your son seemed to push you out of the driver’s seat, and he issued instructions and criticism.

Who changed the rules? Playing peek-a-boo was so much easier. He now tells you what to do and what not to do with a new authority. He begins to criticise your advice, comments and idiosyncrasies. He compares you to other mums, or to dad.

Suddenly your loving is not always wanted or is simply not how he wants it. You come down on him and he becomes compliant for a while and then he’s back at you again.

Your mothering approach of “loving-kindness” seems to be shifting and you are left more with “don’t talk to me like that”, “watch your manners young man”… You hear your own mother’s voice coming out of your mouth and you wonder if all the loving and lifting did any good at all. Frustration sets in and you wonder where the golden years went.

As he enters his early teens you sense that he doesn’t want you around at all. Sometimes he simply ignores you, other times he tells you straight out: “Don’t treat me like a child”, “leave me alone”, “no I will go on my own”.

What is happening? What is the answer?

It’s simple: mothering needs to change.

A whole new approach

The formative years and the middle childhood have laid the foundation for good self-esteem, basic relationship skills, social skills, morality and family preferences and functions. You may think he has forgotten everything you enforced in these areas but it is there, it is laid down.

The teens take you into new territory and parenting is a completely new job. It is easier for us to hang onto the familiar, especially what worked before. But raising this generation of teen boys requires a paradigm shift in our mothering style.

Your values, your beliefs, your style of parenting have been deeply influenced by your own upbringing and the era you were born into. In fact each generation reacts to how they were parented in a positive or negative way, yet it seems each generation brings with it an answer to the question: “How should boys be raised?”

Most parents of teenagers today are either from the “Baby Boomer” generation born in the 1950s to 1965 or from Generation X – those born in the latter half of the 1960s. Boomers asked for space as children and rebelled by being hippies or just not telling their parents where they were; as adults they became “yuppies” with materialistic values.

Women began to work, forcing men to take part in child-raising. They believed in allowing their children to develop into their true self. Most Boomers probably did not set boundaries; they over-indulged their children with material goods and believed in quality time not quantity because their lives were full of all sorts of “doing”.

The Generation-X parents (now 42–50 years old) are more aware that materialism is not the answer; they enjoy their sport and leisure time and search for balance. They are more educated about parenting than the Boomers and don’t put their jobs ahead of the family.

The Boomers and the Xers have been busy raising the “Y” generation, the millennial children who are now in their teens or early 20s. You were the first parents to be really child centered. (Remember the “Baby on Board” and stick-figure family stickers on your peers’ cars?)

The Millennials have been adored, desired and cosseted. Their self-esteem and who they are has been prized. The swathes of video footage and photographs record every moment of their precious lives.

Different era of development

Some of them were raised in a “detached”, “develop as you want” way or, with younger Xer parents, their connectivity to the family has been over-emphasised (you can tell because they don’t want to leave home).

Many have been raised either by a single mum or stepparent, and some in their short lives have spent more time behind screens than we have in our long ones. They have more information at their fingertips than any other generation and they know that black-and-white thinking is a thing of the past.

They believe in truth and balance and want to do the right thing, that which benefits the community. They are wise and questioning and cannot be told what to do.

Raising these teens requires a paradigm shift for the over-attached Xer and the over-busy Baby Boomer parent.

We need to parent as an experienced mentor because these teens respect expertise. They are quick thinking, fragmented and lose concentration if a parent is long-winded or repetitive.

They love to discover things themselves and will not be told what to do. If something makes sense to them and the benefits are explained and discussed, then they will naturally go along with it.

They believe that as their parents we need to earn respect and they love honesty, directness and instant information. They will respond quickly and accept their lessons if your approach recognises openness and respect, collaboration and negotiation. This new generation is afterall astoundingly loyal and committed to communities and the wellbeing of the environment.

Adapting to their way

Baby Boomer parents may get exasperated that their teens are easily distracted, adaptable, get bored easily, don’t get excited with great adventures and are fully aware that there are shades of grey in every situation.

They will speak up and they will challenge; they won’t just accept your values or way of doing things.

If you are willing to be a team player and adopt a more conscious approach to living you will receive the commitment and acceptance of your wise teen.

As mothers we need to trust that we have laid a solid foundation and we need to let go of our need to teach, lecture, enforce rules and hold on.

We need to take our eyes off the chores, the duties, tidiness and cleanliness; we need to know that our own precious values and desired character traits may not be his.

We may be self-motivated, well-planned, have lists, take initiative, appreciate independence, enjoy adventure and believe that every second counts. But this is us, not necessarily our kids.

You may prize these qualities and think they’re the answer. He may approach life in a whole new way that probably means he has a much more present and conscious approach to the world around him. He may be less list-oriented yet strangely intuitive.

He may not be that motivated to try something that requires effort. So does this mean we just give up and let him be? No, we just need to realise we are mothering a “Y”-generation teenage boy, who is moving into a future that he needs to be prepared for.

Sometimes he does know best. Ask him his opinion. Negotiate, discuss. Yet never give up on connection, trust, fun and love. Enjoy his energy.

Look more closely at the dynamic

The idea of raising a boy with the understanding that he will leave you, is a difficult one to make peace with. Separation and rejection issues may arise and should be reflected upon.

Our teen sons will be unhooking their dependence on us as their life task in this phase is to seek autonomy as they discover their manhood. This can be a painful process for both mother and son. If you have deep fears around separation, abandonment or rejection, you may overreact, which can complicate this inevitable process.

When a mother is stuck in old mothering habits, she usually resorts to what worked in the past. Her movement is towards her son. She wants to continue to nurture and be involved by doing. There are different styles of mothering and there are a myriad of core intentions that mothers bring to their relationships with their sons.

On the one extreme there is the symbiotic mother who cannot see her son as a separate being to herself; on the other end is the resentful mother who blames her son for her unfulfilled life and her inability to achieve her own goals.

I have found that most women continue to mother their teen son with the same mothering style that they used when he was a boy. Therefore her needs are inwards at the time that his needs are outwards. The drama is inevitable.

Mum needs attachment, closeness and control. A teen boy needs his independence and autonomy.

As a parent of a teen, you aren’t going to get through this clash if you continuously use an authoritarian manner. If you are supportive and assist the developmental tasks, you solve conflict and at the same time raise the kind of adult you want for the long term: one who can make his own decisions, is self-regulating and considerate of others’ needs.

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