How to Raise a Confident Teenage Son
It's no surprise that being a boy in today's society may be more difficult than ever before. The fun and games young boys took part in a mere decade ago have been replaced in some instances with inner-conflicts, unrelenting teen struggle and sometimes violence. In his best-selling book, Real Boys: Rescuing our sons from the Myths of Boyhood, William Pollack glimpses behind the stoic masks of troubled boys who combat and cope with mixed messages from parents and society, conflicting expectations and increasing demands.
According to Pollack's research, boys are faring less well than ever before – many have remarkably fragile self-esteem, and the rates of both depression and suicide among teen boys are at an alarmingly high rate. Nationally recognized psychologist Lawrence Steinberg agrees.
"The better adolescents feel about themselves, the less likely they are to cave in to peer pressure," says Steinberg, expert on psychological development and family relations during adolescence and author of several books on the teenage years.
Let Boys Express Emotions
What's behind these trends? Pollack's book details the generations-old theory that is passed on to boys, who are told to be rough and tough, not shed tears or show emotion. While we've heard similar negative responses to those stereotypical statements for several decades, Pollack takes his theories to new levels and makes an impressive assault on the popular myths surrounding the conventional definition of masculinity.
He debunks stereotypical masculinity by telling parents not to discourage their boys from crying, getting emotional or expressing that emotions are for "sissies." But today's parents may still not be telling boys those things.
"True, but you are not the only influence on your teen's interpretation of sex roles," says Steinberg. "TV sitcoms, ads and rock videos still promote stereotypes. Furthermore, the core of the male stereotype – success in his career – is postponed until much later in life, something the teen boy won't see for a decade or more," reminds Steinberg. He suggests this could delay a needed boost to young men's self-esteem.
New Strategy for Boys: Action Talk
Adolescent girls often come to their parents with problems. Many boys typically brew about a problem silently. Grades may take a turn for the worse, attitudes become more negative and violence may result. But Pollack offers parents some new and constructive advice for drawing out boys' dilemmas and helping them toward a happier and non-violent path. He calls it "action talk."
During action talk, a boy's hands are engaged in an activity. Action talk is equivalent to parents sitting down and completing a task or undertaking a project with their teen boy. Fishing, drawing, woodworking – any hands-on task that interests the boy will work. The point is that while the adolescent's hands are engaged in a project, it is easier for him to open up and answer questions – questions that can lead to parent's understanding of what's going on in their boy's life. Through action talk, boys are more "free" to open up about feelings or what's troubling them.
"Young adolescents – especially boys – do not have much experience talking about feelings," says Steinberg. He says they may feel down but not know why, or be unable to verbalize their feelings, making action talk a good way to getting boys to open up and learn to verbalize.
Be Available, But Give Boys Space
According to Pollack's book, boys often give verbal clues that they're ready to talk about their feelings. Their way of talking to parents about the failure on a school test or another dilemma is sometimes to bring up completely unrelated subjects for conversation – often ones that are seemingly nonsensical.
"Like adults, adolescents need to sound off, " says Steinberg. "They want understanding."
Finally, Pollack recommends parents give space to their adolescent sons. Sometimes this is a necessary part of helping them to help themselves.
"Closing the door to their room allows teens to relax," says Steinberg. "They can indulge in heroic fantasies, or surround themselves with old familiar possessions of childhood without letting others know they are not as grown-up as they pretend to be."