Understanding Your Son's Emotions
Dr. Mary Polce-Lynch, developmental psychologist and licensed counselor, compares boys' emotions to a staircase – one that goes down.
"Boys and girls start out the same when it comes to expressing their emotions, but after about fifth grade, boys start to express theirs less, and by twelfth grade they can be very insular," Dr. Polce-Lynch says. "I think it's probably a socialization process, but we should give voice to those who believe it's biological and that it's just the way boys' brains are organized. The reasons why are still open to debate."
While Dr. Polce-Lynch recognizes that all boys and girls aren't exactly alike, in general it seems as if girls are much more open to sharing every detail of their romantic feelings – from the first stirrings of puppy love to the more serious dating details. What boys are feeling, on the other hand, can be a mystery. But, according to experts, their feelings are just as strong, and they are just as much in need of a sympathetic outlet to express them. Parents just need to know how to be an available and receptive audience.
That Funny Feeling
There's no set age when boys start liking girls in a more romantic way, says Dr. Kevin Kennedy, child and adolescent psychotherapist and director of the educational assessment center at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. Dr. Kennedy notes that the entry into adolescence varies a great deal, with girls entering puberty as early as 8 to 11 and boys at ages 9 to 12 or 13. However, true romantic interest in girls probably doesn't begin until middle adolescence, which is around ages 14 to 16.
And it's not all about sex, either; it's about general appeal, which encompasses both physical and emotional attraction, that indefinable "something" that is the root of all male/female desirability at any age.
"Because our society tends to worry so much about the sexual aspects of teen relationships, parents may allow their fears about sexual behavior to keep them from talking to their sons about girls," Dr. Kennedy says. "Many parents fear that if they prompt this discussion they may be pushing sexual behavior, and so they pull back."
Michael Brundage, a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Southern California, says teen attractions build slowly, beginning with a gradual change from girls being just part of the landscape, to becoming more interesting. "At about the time puberty begins to set in, boys start to kind of like the special attention they get from girls," he says. "One thing in particular I've noticed is that hugging has become very common. It may start with boys tolerating those hugs from girls and progress to them really liking the attention and affection. Who hugs you may even become a sort of status symbol."
A Natural Progression
Just because your son is starting to get interested in girls doesn't mean he's mature enough to enter into a serious relationship. Nor should he necessarily be encouraged in any kind of relationship exclusivity before about age 16, Dr. Kennedy says. He adds that there's a natural progression of social/dating activity that is fairly predicable and can be broken down as follows (all ages are approximate):
- Before age 13: Group socializing with same-sex peers
- Ages 13 to 15: Mixed socializing with large groups of boys and girls, such as in a school dance situation
- Ages 15 to 16: Mixed socializing with smaller groups of boys and girls, such as going to the movies or bowling
- Ages 16 and up: More tendencies toward one-on-one dating and exclusivity in dating
Dr. Kennedy notes that not all children follow this progression, but many do. What he warns parents against specifically is confusing puberty with maturity. Just because a child is showing pubertal changes doesn't mean he's ready for activities that are better suited to an older teen. As moderator of the MedHealth Child Behavior Forum, he gets a lot of questions about early pubertal changes, and what he tells parents is that the physical changes signal the end of puberty, but the child may still be in a younger emotional age. In other words, don't confuse puberty, which is physical, with adolescence, which is a process of maturing both physically and emotionally.
"Parents should be fairly reluctant to permit [one-on-one] dating activity before about age 16," Dr. Kennedy says. "This is a time when children are having impulse control problems, and they're not ready for it. Parents need to understand these natural progressions and to set limits within them. If you have a youngster who is 13 and has done no boy/girl group socializing and wants to go directly from socializing with boys to dating one girl exclusively, that's just not appropriate and the parent needs to deal with the situation accordingly."
Of course, setting limits, understanding attraction and, in general, dealing with your son's budding interest in girls is much easier if the lines of communication are open from the very beginning. Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway is the mother of a 15-year-old boy and has always tried to encourage her son to express his emotions.
"From the moment he could talk we always made talking about feelings important," she says. "You have to understand your child and know when to give them their space, but also give them permission to share what's truly going on for them."
This means not judging or trying to control how they feel, which, Rev. Brockway says, may keep them from coming to you in the future.
Dr. Polce-Lynch says this can be as simple as slipping in the question, "How do you feel about that?" rather than, "What do you think about that?" Most important of all, don't be afraid to talk about your own feelings and set the example. She suggests that parents should establish early on, for all their children, these 3 simple rules:
- You have feelings.
- They are important.
- They are welcome here.
As your sons get older, it's important to focus on helping them say what they want to say rather than on giving them your parental opinion, Dr. Kennedy says. Say, for example, a son comes to Mom (and Dr. Kennedy notes that both boys and girls are more likely to go to their mother) and says he really likes one particular girl. The parent's best approach is to keep talking along those lines, asking questions like, "What is it about her you like?" or "Where did you meet?" Talk about his face-to-face contact with the girl.
"The idea is to keep them talking," Dr. Kennedy says. "It's not our opinion they're seeking but the opportunity to communicate about something they're feeling."
This is also not the time to launch into a lecture on sex, Dr. Kennedy says. That should be a separate conversation unless there is a specific reason to inject a discussion on physical sex into the conversation. Otherwise, you may just embarrass your child and discourage him from talking to you about his emotions.
Also, institute a no teasing rule for both parents and siblings, as boys are not likely to try to talk to someone who has been harassing them, says Brundage.
"Society paints guys as being tough and not getting their feelings hurt, but they do – especially teenage boys," Brundage says. "The teen years are tough and girls get a pass on being emotional while boys don't. When something goes wrong they may not feel comfortable going to Mom or Dad if they haven't supported them in a loving and accepting way in the past."
The unique thing about the relationship between a boy and his first "real" girlfriend is that often a boy's first steady girlfriend is also his first serious emotional confidante, Dr. Polce-Lynch says. Because of that, when that relationship ends it can be devastating to a male teen.
"Unlike girls who have had lots of practice opening up and telling secrets, for boys that's their first experience with doing so, and losing that confidante can be the worst aspect of the breakup for them," Dr. Polce-Lynch says. "I often see young men after that first relationship ends. One of the first things I ask them is who they confide in, and they'll tell me it was her."
In that case, the parents' role is to ask their son how they can support him. Ask if he needs anything. Treat him as you would any human being who was hurting, Dr. Polce-Lynch says. Ignore the masculine mandate to get over it, because that's not helpful.
Brundage also points out that this is not the time to bring up any negative thoughts or feelings you may have had about the person he's broken up with. That's a discussion for later – or maybe for never.
"In saying, 'I never liked her anyway,' you're minimizing his feelings and telling him he shouldn't feel this way," Brundage says. "If you're accepting and supportive, they'll come back to you and continue to share their feelings and problems."
In the end, this will also make them better men, husbands and fathers, and they'll be more emotionally available to their girlfriends or wives, Brundage says. And, in the greater scheme of things, your son will pass that positive emotional attitude on to his own son.