By Jason Zuchowski, LCSW
1) Boys DO want to connect – you just might have to be the one to initiate
- Boys are often socialized to be competitive and they sometimes don’t have the tools to express feelings or ask for emotional support. If you reach out and get brushed off, don’t give up on connection. Even if they won’t talk, it’s important that they get the message that you care about them and what’s going on in their lives. Let them know that everyone feels vulnerable sometimes, and it’s OK to talk about our feelings.
2) Let HIM teach YOU
- Learn about you son’s interests. Express curiosity. Pay attention to cues so you can discern if he is open to sharing or if they find it intrusive. Always leave a door open for them to share when they’re ready. “Well, that seems really cool. I’d love to learn more.” And yes. This even applies to video games that seem incomprehensible or just boring to you. Be vulnerable and allow your son to be the expert. This would be an empowering role reversal for him.
3) Encourage emotional literacy
- Modeling communicating about your feelings creates an emotional vocabulary for your kids. It also makes talking about feelings more of a normal part of life and not anything “weird” or unusual.
4) TVs and Movies are GREAT Conversation Starters
- Superheroes are not what they used to be. Today, they are emotionally complex with rich narratives, and make for great topics for discussion. Plan some time to watch shows and movies together and find out what shows he likes. This can tee up great conversations about the feelings of characters on TV shows or in movies – an especially important place to start if he won’t talk about his own feelings.
5) Be an “And” Parent
- When disagreements inevitably arise – take a minute to think about how you can express your opinion without putting theirs down. If you can, be more of an “And” parent and less of a “But” parent; it paves the way for respectful disagreements that become conversations instead of arguments. “And” allows for multiple truths to coexist. “Buts” generally don’t. “You make a good point, but you’re wrong.” Being okay with disagreement models and teaches your son that the way to navigate the complex diversity of our world is not through rigidity.
6) Avoid an “Old West” stare down
- As boys get older they often become less comfortable engaging in important conversations that require direct eye contact. In their competitive culture, it can be seen as aggressive or unnerving and they may go on the defensive – or just shut down. Car rides are great for working around this. The next time you want to have a heart to heart talk – take it on the road and see if this rings true for your son.
7) Walk the Talk
- Boys and young men are spatial and kinesthetic processors – they learn by doing; they think best when they are active and moving. Go for a hike if you’re feeling ambitious. Take a walk around the neighborhood if you have a little less energy. This allows for talking with minimal eye contact. You can also try shooting baskets if that’s an interest of his. Talking while you are actively doing something else that doesn’t require a lot of thought allows young men to step into and out of the conversation. It allows them to negotiate vulnerability and distance within the conversation. Keeping moving will also help to keep your son alert and engaged.
8) Invite vs. Inquire
- Direct questions can be perceived as something to try to escape from, or even worse, an affront. And “Yes or No” questions will usually get you just that, a one word response. Try initiating a conversation with an observation or something that you’ve been thinking about; this serves as more of an invitation to talk and less of a demand.
9) Resist being the Judge, Jury, and Executioner
- Be aware of how you talk about the people in your son’s life. Try not to make assumptions about his friends without taking the time to learn about why these relationships are important to him. If you’re judgmental and critical in the way that you talk about others, he may fear the same treatment. This is especially important as you begin to have conversations about sex, drugs, and alcohol. By showing genuine curiosity and interest in his relationships BEFORE you express concern, you build trust and allow for more open and honest communication.
10) Rituals make for valued memories
- Create rituals for one-on-one time with your son. Try to make this time fun – with no alternate agenda. This works best when you are able to provide undivided attention once or twice a week at a consistent time that you can commit to – and NOT something to be used as leverage or taken away as punishment. As long as you make the commitment unconditional, what you do can be conditional.
11) Get moving
- Try making time to do something active with your son. This communicates that you enjoy and appreciate him without having to say anything at all. This doesn’t have to be training for the Olympics; that holds especially true if he always walks away from pole vault feeling like a failure. Let it be something playful, creative, and spontaneous – and maybe an opportunity to leave phones at home and have an “off the grid” adventure! Play – and especially vigorous play – has a key role, according to neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, in the development of “social affective neural pathways” that are essential for impulse control in the developing brain.
12) If it’s not working, don’t force it. Stop, and try a different approach
- If something that you’re doing with your son hasn’t been working for a long time – stop doing it. Ask yourself why you have this expectation and then look for another way to teach this lesson, maintain expectations, or ask questions. Invite your son in on this process and give him an opportunity to practice a valuable life skill: Solving a problem collaboratively. You may want to ditch, “How was school today?” if the answer is always just, “fine.” Try asking for one high and one low from their school day. Or try asking them why they always say “fine.”