By Jacqueline Kovacs
When I was pregnant with my son, Riley, he would kick so hard in utero that it would wake me up at night. As a toddler, he quickly moved from those first tentative steps to running — often wriggling his little hand out of mine or his dad’s and trying to bolt off whenever he could. Once he learned to speak, he was just as busy — he always had lots to say about food he liked, stories he loved, friends he enjoyed playing with.
Fast-forward a decade or so and my once exhaustingly active boy has to be coaxed, cajoled and finally ordered out of bed on weekend afternoons. He comes home from high school and naps. He’s active on school teams, but doesn’t dash outside to ride his bike or play road hockey. And conversation? Ugh. Most of my questions are met with either grunts or “Fine,” “Yeah,” “Good” or other one-syllable answers.
What the heck happened to the little boy who used to fight with his sisters for his turn to sit and talk with me? The teen years happened, says Win Harwood, a parent education consultant based in Windsor, Ont. “Their brains are changing,” says Harwood. “There is very rapid development from the teen years through to about age 22, and it really affects them and their behaviour.” That sleep thing, for instance? “Their sleep patterns are totally disrupted,” confirms Harwood. “They sleep longer in the morning and stay up later. They’re just wired that way.”
That same wiring also leads them towards more risk-taking behaviour, Harwood warns. “It raises their levels of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the brain,” she says. “Plus, their ability to assess risk is simply not there.”
That combination leads to bad decisions, such as street racing or substance abuse. Harwood points out that accidents are the No. 1 cause of death in teens; suicide is second. “They don’t understand the risks,” she says, “and they want to get along with their peers.”
But while peers are important, parents are still paramount, Harwood argues. “Parents really need to stay connected,” she says. “You need to build a healthy relationship.” Agreed, but how do you stay connected to someone who answers you in grunts and avoids daylight like a vampire? Turn off the spotlight. “If we want boys to talk, we need to do something with them,” says Harwood.
It’s true that my son tends to open up when we are driving somewhere and I’m not sitting in front of him, looking at him and asking questions. He opens up with his dad when they’re watching hockey together.
Conversation is easier, says Harwood, when they don’t feel like they’re being interrogated. Ironically, an activity that takes the focus off talking actually encourages conversation.
Want your kid to clam up? Just lose your temper.
Yes, it’s incredibly hard to keep your cool in the face of another broken curfew or over-usage of your phone plan, or their unbelievably messy rooms. But by keeping it together and speaking calmly about your expectations, you will get your message across and strengthen your relationship. “You’re looking to build a relationship based on dignity, respect and love,” she says.
Coach, don’t control:
“They don’t want to be controlled and will fight that,” says Harwood. “The old discipline model rewarding compliant behaviour and punishing noncompliant behaviour is as outdated as the typewriter.”
As our teens grow up, we have to give them more and more independence — as they merit it — and our role as parents shifts to a role of coaching them towards adulthood. Let them know the limits: Just because your son has a later curfew or now knows how to drive doesn’t mean he now has a free pass on household rules. Teens want and need limits, even if their behaviour suggests otherwise, says Harwood. “You still need to nurture them,” she says. “A teenage boy still has a small boy inside of them that needs affection and nurturing.”
Affection can be tricky when, on the surface, your teen boy seems to be pushing you away by staying holed up in his room or endlessly drawn to some video game. But it dawned on me one day that I hadn’t hugged my boy in a couple of days. When I went to hug him, he didn’t brush me off. In fact, he shared a story from his day and talked about his next track-and-field meet. Later in the day, while my husband and I were watching the news, Riley came to sit with me, eventually putting his head in my lap — an old ritual we had from when he was littler and wanted me to massage his head. So I did. My husband and I exchanged “awww!” looks but said nothing.
“Connection trumps everything,” says Harwood. “We have to initiate contact and spend individual time with our teen boys.” I couldn’t agree more.
To read more of INBETWEEN, click here.