Every day, Angie O. watches her son disappear a little more. “Eric was such a great kid,” she says. “Always open and smiling, always positive. But now, he’s just not there. He doesn’t talk. He never smiles. He flat-out refuses to do chores he used to do without complaining. And if I let him, he would stay in his room all day and just stare at the ceiling, or sleep the day away.”
Kimberly H. has an even bigger problem—her sixteen-year-old, Tim, has wrecked three cars, broken bones, and risked jail with dangerous driving. Kimberly suspects he’s also into binge drinking. “It seemed to happen overnight,” she says. “This new kid, Jeremy, started at his school and before I knew it, Tim came home with a black eye smelling of beer. And he thinks it’s funny when I get mad.” She realizes that Tim is living in the land of the “Four I’s,”—acting as if he is “Invulnerable, Invincible, Immortal, and Infertile”—and he is taking huge risks on a daily basis.
Why it Happens When it Happens
Tim and Eric are reacting in very different ways to the same set of sudden challenges that confront all teenage boys. The most common problem parents see is withdrawal—emotional, social, and physical. Clinical psychologist and author Anthony E. Wolf says that, “Once adolescence begins, teenage boys go to their rooms, close the doors, turn on the stereo, and come out four years later.” He wants parents to be reassured: it’s not anything they’re doing wrong, it’s just a natural (and annoying) part of a boy’s adolescence.
All too often, however, teenage boys are changing in far more serious ways, including drinking and drugs, reckless driving, aggressive behavior, and more.
High Expectations for Teen Boys Can Lead to Acting Out
Why does this happen? Teen boys suddenly find themselves trying to live up to a huge new level of social responsibility. They are expected to “man up,” to become leaders, wage earners, models of self-sufficiency. They are expected to succeed in the working world, to be the risk-taker in initiating social and dating relationships, yet still somehow remain sensitive and open to females as equals and partners. Because they feel totally unprepared to meet the challenge, the result can be either fight or flight—aggression and rebellion or retreat and withdrawal.
Another significant reason for this sudden transformation is the boy’s rapidly changing sexuality. “These feelings are … something that he very much wants to keep separate from his parents,” Wolf says. Thus, the withdrawal and unrealistic hope that parents just won’t notice.
Dave J. watched as his son Kevin turned inside himself. In a desperate attempt to find something, anything, his son would actually like, he enrolled them both in—of all things—a father/son cooking class. “Kev has talked about going to culinary school someday. So I signed us up for this class, even when he said, ‘no way.’ By the end of the twelve-week session, we were talking, in bits and pieces, about what was going on at school, and with his friends, and even with girls while we did our prep and clean-up. At least we have a little window opening up here.”
Giving Your Son What He Needs
So, how do you reach your teen son? First, act fast. Don’t let the withdrawal go too far. Parenting expert and author Susan Morris Shaffer says, “When boys don’t talk, [it’s because] they fear being perceived as weak.” In fact, they are simply finding refuge in what Shaffer calls a “face-saving silence.” Teenage boys are one of the groups at greatest risk for suicide, and it’s important that parents keep an eye out for self-destructive behaviors.
Second, set limits, and don’t feel bad about it. Your son undoubtedly will resist, but he still needs—and even wants—boundaries to be set for him.
Third, your son can really benefit from a strong relationship with his father. More than 40 percent of American boys are growing up without a father in the house. Even fathers who live with their sons may have emotional baggage and trust issues—perhaps because of their relationships with their own fathers—that can interfere with getting close to their teen.
With or without a dad in the picture, a boy needs healthy contact with other boys and other male adults, too. Consider seeking out a mentor program sponsored by local churches or clubs run by carefully screened and trained adults. These programs give teenage boys contact with male adults as well as peers, working on civic projects, going on trips, or just hanging out—small but important opportunities to learn and live with other people, as they find their place in the world.
Bringing it Home
Ultimately, Angie and Eric’s dad, Robert, succeeded in nudging Eric into covering sports for the school newspaper. “I’m crappy at sports myself,” Eric admitted. “And unless you’re really, really good, there’s not much you can do with teams when you’re in high school. But this way I’ll still be involved in sports, even if I’m not playing.” The results have been good so far, and his father is cautiously optimistic. “He’d still rather sleep ‘til noon,” he admits, “but when he does get up, he’s doing something. And who knows, he might even have a career.”
Kimberly—a single mom with no father in the picture—came to admit she couldn’t handle her son by herself, and turned to school counselors for help in choosing a therapist. A written behavioral contract and strong, strict limits seem to be helping. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” she said. “He’s talking more and his behavior has really improved, but he’s still seeing some of the kids I think are real trouble for him. Still, it’s much, much better. And at least I’m not in this all by myself.”
How Parents Can Help
Whether you’re dealing with a lump of grump hiding out in his room or a suddenly wild child, your son can be reached. Stick with these strategies:
- Set limits (even if he protests—loudly)
- Avoid lectures or long conversations; try ‘small doses’ of intimacy
- Understand that he’s not doing this to hurt you—try not to take it personally
- Nudge him into low-pressure group activities
- Find a mentor
- Keep enforcing family time: meals, trips, family visits (again: no matter how much he seems to hate it)
And for more serious situations, Scott P. Sells, Ph.D., author, teacher, and executive director of the Savannah Family Institute in Georgia, offers steps towards dealing with your teens when they are truly at risk:
- Deal with only one or two problems at a time
- Convert problems into concrete rules
- Have clear consequences
- Use both positive and negative consequences
- Put it in writing
- Include your teen’s experience and input in the process
- Be consistent in follow-through
Seven Things Teen Boys Want to Tell Their Dads
Josh and James Weidman—a father and son team—talked to hundreds of teenagers and created a list of seven stunning messages for dads. Here’s what your sons are trying to tell you:
- Tell me you love me
- Love me with actions, not just words
- I need your friendship
- You’ve always been my hero
- I need you to listen
- Be my coach
- Help me figure out who I am
By Brad Munson