Everybody knows boys are just not talkers. Boys brains are wired differently when it comes to language and emotion. Boys are doers not thinkers. Boys are naturally better at math and visual spatial tasks.
Well. Actually, these “facts” are myths. Most differences between boys and girls appear to be more about how they are raised than how they were born. Even so, these socialized gender differences are really powerful. Boys are more rambunctious, competitive, independent and aggressive. They are less verbal, more emotionally constrained and less likely to reveal personal information including how they feel.
So, despite the fact that almost all male-female differences are learned, it is nevertheless a challenge to get teenage boys to talk about their hopes, dreams, feelings and personal thoughts.
What’s a parent to do?
Start with some general rules about improving communication with teenagers (boys or girls). There is a long list of these but the most important are:
Educate yourself. Get to know your kid. What are their interests? Who are their friends? What music (and musical artist) do they like? What are their school classes? It is easier to have a conversation with someone when you can reference things that matter to them. It allows you to ask specific, relevant questions (“Hey, what’s going on with Randy and Mary?”) rather than general, open ended questions (“What did you do in school today?”).
Stop, look and listen. Stop what you are doing when they are around. Give them your full attention. Look at them when you are talking to them (but don’t stare). Use good listening skills like not interrupting, showing non-verbal signs of interest and give responses that encourage further discussion.
In addition to these general techniques, communicating with the typical teenage boy requires some unique considerations.
Wait before you respond. Many boys seem to take longer to gather their thoughts before speaking. It can sometimes appear as though they have finished what they had to say when really they are just organizing the next part of their response. This is especially true for emotionally loaded issues. So, don’t jump in too soon. This can lead to your son talking less and less knowing that you are going to interrupt or that you will just carry the conversation and save them the trouble of actually talking.
Speak in short sentences. Boys tend to talk in shorter sentences (though they will often produce as much or more actual words). Match this style by speaking in shorter sentences. Work on saying what you have to say in 3 sentences and then stop. It requires them to be more active in the conversation as well as mirroring their own style.
Start with facts. “Did you know . . .” “Was Johnny there?” “What was the hardest part of the test?” Boys are as emotional as girls. Feelings also matter to them as much as they do to girls. However, boys (unlike girls) are more likely to freeze if you start out a conversation focusing on emotions. Begin with information and facts then work your way around to the emotional elements. “That must have been really frustrating.” “How did you feel about that?”
Have real conversations. Asking your kid a lot of questions is not having a conversation. Make sure you actually talk to them. Ask their opinion. Talk about things that are important to you. Discuss issues of the day. Speak honestly about your opinions, hopes and fears (but try not to traumatize them). Talk about something that matters to them (see Know Your Child above). If you are interrogating your kid (even if lovingly) you are not having a conversation.
Hang out with them. Shared activities are an ideal context for communication. Not that they will actually talk to you when you wander in to watch them play video games or watch the show they are looking at. (In part because they will initially think you are coming in to assign chores, tell them to quit rotting their brain on video games or discuss their poor grades.) Once they see you are just hanging out, showing an interest, they will start to relax. You can even provide guttural encouragement as a way of bonding (“Oh MAN!” “Ahhh!” “Oh!” “Nice head shot.”). They still won’t talk to you but later, when you are around them when they aren’t playing video games they will be more likely to actually respond to your attempts to communicate.
Notice changes in their mood. This one is a bit tricky. Even these days, boys get lots of messages to be tough and unemotional. Calling too much attention to their emotional state can feel threatening to them. On the other hand, recognizing and acknowledging that they seem to be feeling something strongly makes them more likely to open up about it. So, first, be sure to notice any time they are particularly happy, excited or interested. “Boy you sure are chipper.” “Looks like you’re having a good day.” These are emotions are the least threatening ones for them to admit to. Be tentative when you notice a more negative emotional mood. “Everything ok. You seem kind of distracted.” “You look a little down. Anything going on?” Later, go check on them about something completely different. Offer some reassurance or expression of affection “Hey, you know I love you. Right?” They will know why you stopped by. After a day or so you can even try “So, what was going on the other day?” Eventually, you may get them to respond while they are actually going through the experience!
Use laughter and humor. Humor is a great technique to elicit a response. Guy humor is playful and challenging but good natured. It can also be very aggressive and deeply insulting. Stick to the playful, even corny side of humor. Avoid using sarcasm and actual put downs unless you are sure they will not misinterpret it. (If you don’t have much of a sense of humor, don’t push it. Focus on one of the other techniques.)
Ignore his lack of response. Don’t give up. A teenage boy’s lack of response does not automatically mean your efforts are not paying off. If he doesn’t respond with outright hostility to your presence or your attempts to communicate, you are succeeding! It just may take a little longer than you first realized.
If you are having enjoyable, meaningful conversations with your son continue what you are doing. Don’t try to fix what ain’t broken. As you continue talking with your son, these suggestions will become less and less necessary. In the end, boys can be as emotional or practical, as avoidant or sensitive as girls; once you get through how they were taught to act.