When boys shut down and push everyone away, parents often become confused or upset. Unfortunately, this can lead parents to do or say things that only drive their son deeper into isolation. Feelings of irritation or anxiety can cause parents to pepper their son with questions, making it seem to the boy that their “need to know” is the real issue. But he knows he at least has the power to go on strike.
It’s hard for parents — or for anyone reaching for a boy, such as teachers or coaches — not to feel like a failure when their sons reject their generous, thoughtful invitations to connect. It feels like a comment on our job performance. For parents whose stress is already high or who are already struggling with self-esteem, anger and hurt are natural reactions. The boy becomes the problem — an attitude that boys quickly pick up on and attempt to shield themselves from.
To break this too-common cycle in relationships with boys and ensure that every boy finds the connections they need as developing humans, here are some suggestions.
1. Remember that boys are always doing their best to tell us what’s going on. From the design of their brains to the depths of their being, boys long to be known and loved, particularly by the ones they have taken into their hearts. They are, in the words of psychiatrist Amy Banks, “wired to connect.” Built into our human natures are neurological systems that prioritize relationships. When boys are surly, uncommunicative, blaming, or worse, they’re showing us how they’re feeling. Putting feelings to words is a skill that’s systematically suppressed in boyhood, but it’s a start that they “tell” us in attitude and action. We should listen, without judgment or any need to correct. On the other side of the throbbing hurt, our dear son will return.
2. Understand that boys’ feelings are not always pretty. There aren’t right feelings or wrong feelings, inappropriate or inconvenient ones: they are all manifestations of distress — which is by definition irrational — seeking expression. Adults must keep in mind that it’s better for the boy to show he’s experiencing difficult emotions than to hide them, even if it can be uncomfortable for everyone involved. We shouldn’t take their upset personally, because when do, the moment becomes about us. In our culture as a whole, boys are allowed less practice expressing their feelings, at the expense of their emotional development. It’s the keepers of boyhood, parents particularly, who can provide them with opportunities to communicate, by starting where they are and patiently encouraging their voice.
3. Know that you are what he needs and wants. As the ones offering attention, care, and listening — what psychologists call a child’s “holding environment” — parents have what boys need. When parents look for reassurance from their sons, the implicit message to the boy is that, once again, it’s less about knowing and loving him than taking care of his parents’ unsteady ego. Faced with the daunting and sometimes life-threatening pressures of boyhood, what boys need is a time when they can connect with someone who’s able to be bigger than their particular upsets. Big enough to take them as they are, where they are.
4. Offer him a light heart and open delight. Boyhood already seems heavy to boys. Just this week, in a casual conversation with a tenth grader, I asked how things were going. He let on that they were stressful, so as we parted ways later, I said, “Good luck with the rest of high school.” He quickly replied, “I’ll need it.” When we come to our sons fraught with worries and concerns, we’re inadvertently compounding their already heavy emotional burdens. Instead, if we can summon a playful, lighthearted confidence, reflecting back to them that they’re a source of great delight to us, it helps them put their own immediate struggles in perspective. It gets better, as those of us on the other side of adolescence know.
5. Make a distinction between a limit and domination. Cut off from more verbal ways to work through their upsets, many boys tend to act them out. When we observe a boy whose behavior is “off,” it’s a sign that his feelings have overwhelmed his mind and are driving him to do or say things that don’t represent who he really is. Misconduct is a cry to be listened to, not controlled, dominated, or punished — unless the boy has become so lost that he could hurt someone else or himself. A model for correcting misbehavior that doesn’t rely on “command and control” offers boys critical opportunities to exercise emotional regulation in the most natural context: a relationship where they are already known and loved. One such model is Listen, Limit, Listen — making sure that his behavior is truly off, it’s not merely our irritation; gently but firmly interrupting it; then listening to whatever hurt feelings well up.
By maintaining strong connections and listening when boys’ stresses overwhelm their abilities to regulate themselves, parents have the power to help their sons. From such experiences, boys discover their own power, develop their emotional voices, and deepen relationships with those who care for them.
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