We know from recent Ditch the Label research that young males are less likely to tell somebody or seek support when they need it; societal constructs of masculinity have long denied many boys and men around the world freedom of visceral expression.
They are taught from a young age to suppress their emotions, to ‘man up’, to ‘stop being a girl’- and many young men conform, for fear of being labelled ‘gay’ or ‘feminine’ – adjectives that have come to be synonymous with weakness.
Unfortunately, thanks to this firmly rooted ‘stoic’ culture, it can be extremely difficult to know how to broach sensitive subjects with your teenage son, encouraging him to be open about his experiences or emotions without provoking a negative reaction or embarrassing him might seem an impossible task.
With this in mind, we have compiled ten tips to help you communicate with your teenage boy.
1. Pick the right moment and environment.
Choosing the right moment and environment in which to talk to your teen boy is vital. Resist the urge to ‘sit’ him down in a formal manner for a ‘discussion’, or pounce on him as soon as he is home from school (when he might be feeling tired or irritable).
We advise approaching him in a casual, more spontaneous way – for example, while you are watching TV together after dinner, or maybe while you are driving. He is more likely to open up if he doesn’t feel under pressure, or that you are making a ‘big deal’ out of it. Research also shows that avoiding eye contact when talking about serious situations with your son could actually increase his emotional openness and receptivity.
Capitalise on the moments where you are both feeling relaxed and at ease and approach the subject as you would any other conversation.
2. Don’t lecture him.
Make sure he feels comfortable talking to you about his experiences and reassure him that he can confide in you without fear of being reprimanded. If he does open up to you and you respond by chastising him, it is likely he won’t feel comfortable being honest with you in the future. This will also actively discourage him from seeking much-needed support. Have a conversation with him, rather than talking at him.
Try to be as proactive as possible and bring potentially sensitive issues into everyday conversation – regularly ask how they are getting on in their favourite game, for example.
3. Don’t patronise him.
It is important that you don’t patronise your son when talking to him; make sure that he feels like the power is in his hands and that you will be there to guide and support them every step of the way. A good way of doing this is to ask him how you can help him, or what steps he wants to take next.
It is also important to never assume anything about your son. For example, instead of asking if he’s got a girlfriend, ask if he’s dating anybody – don’t gender it, this makes it easier for your son to talk to you about his sexuality, for example.
4. Listen to what he has to say.
Before you try and advise him, make sure you have listened to all he has to say, without passing judgement or butting in with anecdotes. Hear him out, carefully consider what he has told you and suggest that together you find a productive and positive way in which you can resolve the situation and move forward.
5. Try to understand his point of view.
Even if you don’t agree with what he is saying, try and stay neutral on the subject and do not devalue his opinion. If you go against what he is saying or criticise his actions, you are likely to be met with the phrase ‘You don’t understand!’.
Demonstrate that you are eager to see his point of view and listen to what he has to say – he is more likely to respond to you in the same respectful manner when it is your turn to speak. You could try saying something like ‘I understand why you might think/have done that, but do you think *insert suggestion* could be a good route to take?’
6. Keep calm.
Make sure you are able to control your emotions when talking to your son as responding with aggression or tears is likely to provoke an equally explosive reaction and might cause him unnecessary worry or concern.
It is much easier to resolve a problem if you talk about it calmly rather than raising your voice. Shouting is likely to make him feel defensive and his reaction might be to shout back or to storm off, putting an end to the conversation.
7. Make it clear you want to help.
Remind him regularly that you are there to help and support him and that your love is unconditional. He might not show it, but these reminders won’t go unnoticed or unheard.
8. Don’t take it personally.
When people are angry, frustrated or upset sometimes they say things they don’t mean. Try not to take your teenager’s bad mood personally or what he says in the heat of the moment to heart. Sometimes when we are stressed we lose clarity of vision and say things we don’t actually mean just to hurt the other person – words we wish we could take back. Keep that in mind if he says something hurtful and doesn’t react to his comments. Instead, suggest that you continue the conversation when he has calmed down and is ready to talk.
9. Accept when he doesn’t want to talk to you.
If he is certain he does not want to engage in conversation with you, don’t nag at him as you will just push him further away. Accept that now might just not be the right time to tackle the problem. Reassure him that you are there for him when he is ready to talk and that your door is always open.
It might be worth seeking external support too – it could be your teen might feel more comfortable opening up to somebody they do not know. You can contact a therapist, counsellor or someone at Ditch the Label.
10. Use positive reinforcements.
It is important that you create a home-culture that is open, inclusive, non-judgemental and where regular dialogue is actively encouraged and expression of emotion praised. If you see your son crying don’t disempower him and tell him to ‘man up’ or criticise him for being sensitive. Instead, reassure him that his reaction is completely natural, normal and extremely healthy.
The more at ease he is with being able to openly express his feelings, the less alien it will be for you to talk to him about his emotions and experiences.