The biggest complaint Richard Platt hears from boys: “My mom doesn’t understand me.”
What he hears from moms: “I can’t control him! I can’t talk to him! What do I do with him?”
(Full disclosure as a mom: I didn’t transcribe the above from my own real-life teen-son experience. Though I could have!)
The disconnect between mothers and their adolescent sons is rooted in a lot of common misconceptions parents have, says Platt, a family therapist and parenting coach in Mill Valley, CA, who specializes in boys ages 13 to 20. They’re not so much trying to pull away and separate from us as they are trying to figure out who they are as their own person.
“What we see as ‘teenage rebellion’ is actually abnormal,” Platt told me. “We call it normal because there’s so much of it in our culture. Kids rebel because they’re pissed. They’re desperate for their parents to understand them rather than just react to their behaviors.”
So what should we know about our tween and teen sons? Platt has some ideas about mother-son communication that really work:
First, quit with all the questions. Wait for the green light.
Typical mom talk: “How was your day? How was the test? What’s new with Jason? Do you want to run to the store with me? How do you feel about the game today?” In other words, we care! We want info.
And in return we get…grunts.
Surprise: Teen boys are actually more sensitive than girls, says Platt. He sees the roots of this in the evolution of humans as hunters, who needed to be hyper-sensitive to everything around them. “Young men get overwhelmed easily—and when they do, they shut down. Getting more focused—on the TV, a video game—is their way to cut out sensory input,” he says. When we overwhelm boys with too much emotional information, they shut us out, Platt adds.
A better way: Look before you speak.
Imagine that your son has a light on his forehead that shows three modes, Platt told me: red, green, or off. Red is resistant. Green is receptive. Only when the green light is on will you be able to communicate with your son, because he’s calm, not distracted, and open to conversation. If his imaginary light is red, you won’t get anywhere. If there’s no light on, it means he’s focused on something else (often a screen), but you might be able to get the green by sidling next to him and engaging him.
“To get the green light, it helps to be side-by-side: in the car, late at night in front of the fridge, walking,” Platt says. “Face-to-face is confrontational; side-by-side works better.”
Skip punishments and rewards. Instead, set firm boundaries.
Managing boys’ behavior with punishments and rewards doesn’t work, because it misses what makes them tick, Platt says. “By ages 9 or 10 and up, kids start to think for themselves according to their own ideas of right and wrong.” That’s when it’s time to move away from “zookeeper parenting”—reacting to bad behaviors to keep them in line—and move into parenting that understands what motivates older boys:
“Kids do what we want them to do if they like and respect us.”
Those feelings are separate from love, he points out. They can love us and can still disobey us. But if they respect and like us, and want our attention, they’re more apt to do what we want them to do, and not want to disappoint us.
“Kids say, ‘I’m not a rat. You can’t reward and punish me. If you punish me, I’ll get back at you. If you reward me, I’ll only care about the reward,’” Platt says. Behaviors like lying, sneaking, and waiting us out are survival instincts at which adolescent boys are masters, he says.
To set firm boundaries, Platt adds, you can say: “Look: I love you and I want you to be safe, so here’s the deal.” Then make a clear statement about what you expect.
But don’t be naïve: Expect your son to violate the boundaries you set.
Every day, Platt hears parents say, “I thought I could trust him. I thought he wouldn’t drink/smoke pot/have sex!” His response: “ARE YOU INSANE? It’s a biological imperative, thanks to millions of years of evolution, to want to alter consciousness. You should ASSUME he’s going to do those things.”
Yup, even kids who like and respect their parents will blow it.
Instead of freaking out (or throwing the book at him), “lower your expectations and raise your standards,” Platt says. “Expect your son to try things, and to blow it—but don’t allow it.” That doesn’t mean ignore it. It means sitting down and talking about what went wrong and why—and figuring out a better way together.
Forget sending your son to his room. Instead, keep him close.
The most important thing you can do for your son is to get closer, Platt says. That’s a challenge, he acknowledges, because when he (inevitably) does stuff that makes you furious, a common impulse is to just put him on lockdown and take things away from him.
Sending him to his room, though, creates separation—“the worst thing possible,” Platt says. It sets up a battle of anger, defiance, and retaliation, and it’s a battle you’ll lose. Worse, your son loses too. Here’s his view: You’ve punished me with the thing that’s most important to me, being close to you. So now I don’t care about anything! I won’t do anything you want! “They will wait you out. They’re wired to live on bread and water. They will lay waste to the village,” Platt says.
Better: Reel in your emotions—even as your instinct is to yell or cry. Think about how you reacted when your son misbehaved as a toddler or stormed into a tantrum. You kept calm and kept close by. So do the same now: Increase the love, and increase the boundaries. Review what just happened: “Look, we’re not meeting our goals here. I love you, but this isn’t healthy/smart/what you agreed to when I gave you the car keys.”
It’s like those toddler days, when you’d say, “Hey, that’s not how we do things. I love you a lot. I’m going to hang here with you until things cool down.”
Since power trips just become power struggles, use your influence like this instead.
Be a leader, not a dictator. Another underestimated key to connecting with teen boys is helping them find and develop their “genius”—their individual gifts and talents. When they feel engaged and motivated, they’re happier, more cooperative, and more stable.
“Happy people don’t need to rebel against anything,” Platt says.
That’s the real quest of adolescence, then: not to separate from parents but to “individuate,” to figure out who they are and how they want to leave a mark, he adds. Each of us is more open to working toward solutions when we’re not preoccupied seeing everything as a problem.
“Every young man has genius,” Platt says. “Not like Einstein or Picasso necessarily, but every person is designed to be creative, with his own individual gifts and passions.”
Schools aren’t encouraging this individual soul-searching as much as they once did, which puts a bigger onus on parents to do it, he says. Somebody has to, because when kids lack a strong sense of their personal passion, they tend to fill that void with easy, less-great alternatives (video games, drugs, social media).
To help your son find his genius, Platt suggests:
1) Give him the time and space to be creative. Platt acknowledges this can be a challenge in today’s culture. Don’t rush to fill his every waking hour with stuff to do; some of the greatest geniuses can handle the biggest amounts of nothing happening, he says.
2) Minimize easier, addictive distractions (phones, video games) as much as you can. This is where his advice is something we don’t always want to hear: Kids are so socially driven, he told me, that if you allow your teen son unfettered access to social media, you will lose him. He’ll have little reason to interact with you or pursue deeper meanings.
His cure: Set boundaries. Draw the line at all phones turned off and put out of sight during family time, for example. “If you’re not willing to do that,” he says, “good luck. I’m not saying it’s easy. But I am saying it’s vital.”
3) Know that you can’t coerce creativity. “You can’t say, ‘You should…(play your violin, study Latin),’” Platt told me. It has to come from your son. But you can foster it by putting your kid around things and experiences he has a talent for. If you’re not sure what that is, Platt suggests, try exposing your child to long stretches of pure boredom. It’s amazing, he says, how being bored leads to glimmers of inspiration.
Now pull back (a little) and watch your son grow up into a terrific, likable young man.
Moms don’t always like to hear this, Platt says, but a preteen or teen isn’t a boy any more. Your son still needs you to be a calm guide and steady source of unconditional love—but maybe not to hover every minute with advice, lectures, and reactions.
Around puberty is a great time to start giving him space, talking to him in more mature ways, and letting him find his way, he says. “If you start at 11, you’ll both be better off than if you start at 15, or 18.”
“I often tell moms of adolescent boys, ‘Go to yoga, go out with friends, get a boyfriend or a job—things that say, ‘Hey, I’m living my life, and you’re living yours,’” Platt says. “It’s a good time to cut the umbilical cord, so you can be proud of each other and get closer in a new way. You’re never going to lose your connection to your son, even as he grows up. You just have to go to a deeper connection with him.”
And isn’t that what we want, ultimately? A flourishing, happy, respectful guy who’s his own man—someone we like, respect, and feel awfully proud of.