Teen boys are a universally maligned group, frequently seen as a scourge to orderly society. Yet underneath the often hard-to-chat-to, starving, forgetful, restless, accident-prone boy is a big heart yearning to be understood and valued.
Any teen can struggle with relationships as they venture into adolescence and some key biological drivers make this struggle real. There’s the need for autonomy and independence, the hunger to belong with friends and peers, and the search for identity, which all teens experience during the child to adult transformation. These coincide with brain, hormonal, physical, psychological and emotional changes. Adolescence is the perfect storm for challenging relationships with parents.
Our teen boys have some particular challenges that can drive their stress levels higher and make them more prone to emotional volatility, especially anger.
When I was a high school teacher and counsellor I witnessed irrational outbursts as a teen boy threw a desk, kicked a backpack across the room or shoved another student aggressively. While these are completely unacceptable behaviours, underneath them were often feelings of deep confusion, fear of failure, embarrassment, shame and, worst of all, intense vulnerability.
Our boys are conditioned early to feel this way. Research shows that parents treat boys and girls differently from infancy, handling boys more roughly. Also physical punishment is applied more significantly to boys in many western countries. Little boys are spoken to more harshly and often told to toughen up when they’re hurt or distressed. Indeed, it is still common for boys to experience sarcasm, shouting, ridicule and overt shaming throughout their schooling.
Buried emotions stay stored in our nervous system, and with the growth of the limbic brain in the early teens, small things can trigger big emotions to erupt often spontaneously. So many teen boys have told me they are “stupid”, feel a sense of inevitability that they will do bad things, and that they are bad. Such is the conditioning from childhood that creates belief systems and mindsets that affect adolescent boys deeply.
The early brain pruning that occurs in adolescence to make way for new growth can noticeably affect a teen’s memory capacity and organisation skills. This further adds to their frustration. Also teen boys experience surges of testosterone, which create high levels of energy that must be discharged regardless of whether that’s done in a healthy or unhealthy way.
Boys and men tend to find validation and self-worth when they succeed at something they think is worthwhile. This partially explains teen sensitivity to failing, losing or looking “like a loser” in front of their friends or others their own age. When testosterone is combined with a hunger to test oneself in a body driven by an immature brain, the result often involves poor choices and risky behaviour.
Telling a teen boy not to make a choice that he deems fun or a chance to succeed will seldom change the outcome as he is seeking autonomy and, like most teens, resists being told what to do or not do.
In my classrooms, particularly the ones with 14-year-old boys, there were endless antics that often made me think I was teaching a class of four-year-olds in larger bodies. The slapping, mock wrestling, teasing and banter almost needs to be seen to be believed. So much of this behaviour is an attempt to make their mates laugh to ensure they feel connected and appreciated. There is nothing quite as bonding in this age group as an unexpected erection or loud fart that creates a moment of mirth.
- Don’t shame them
I worked out early in my teaching career and then as a mother of four sons that there was no maliciousness to this behaviour and, while reminding them firmly but warmly of the inappropriate nature of their choices, I refused to shame them. This is a phase and it does pass.
- Let them know they’re not stupid, they’re just developing
If you’re parenting a boy in this window, it’s important to remember this lens through which he is viewing the world. We should talk to our adolescents about the hormonal, brain and physical changes which will be affecting their behaviour and how they experience life. It’s liberating for them to know they’re not stupid, they’re just developing. It can be helpful for them and us to be reminded things will get easier once they’re in their 20s.
- Don’t forget the loving names
As frustrating and challenging as this phase can be, we can break the cycle of shaming our boys through simple things like remembering the power of using terms of endearment with him and calling him loving names, and reminding him you love him ferociously no matter what.
Photograph: Pan Macmillan
- Nagging them is like shouting into a void
Over the years I learned with my sons that lecturing and nagging a teenage boy is like shouting into a void. Learning the secrets to effective boy communication by paying attention to building rapport, timing, tone of voice and avoiding direct eye contact are much more effective ways to communicate.
- Make your home a safe place for friends
My home and heart were always open to their mates. There were firm, loving boundaries, but my sons and their friends knew our home was a safe place. We don’t live in tribes any more but our teens still need to be surrounded by good folk and family who care about them and act as “lighthouses” who guide them.
- Marinate them in stories of good men
They need to be marinated in stories of good men, too, of men who’ve made mistakes and failed publicly, but who’ve recovered by taking responsibility and been accountable for their own actions. We need more than just parents to raise boys to healthy manhood.
- Love them as they are, not for what you think they should be
Every teen boy is yearning to be seen, really heard and loved as he is not as we think he should be. They are way more vulnerable than we have been conditioned to believe. We need to love and respect our sons, especially while they cannot love or respect themselves – yet.