Change is inevitable, especially during the teen years. Even the bond between fathers and sons goes through a metamorphosis of sorts as both try to figure out what growing up – and away – actually means.
For Rick Graw of Portland, Ore., change means the command and control approach will no longer work. "Communication with my son has become more of a partnering approach where he has real input about how a problem is solved," he says. "It doesn't always work. We're still trying to figure it out."
Neil Talkoff, a psychoanalyst in private practice in San Francisco, says that conflicting feelings as a child grows is natural. "All parents and their children must negotiate transitional, developmental phases, and it is only natural for parents to have conflicting feelings as they watch their children grow," he says. "In a healthy family, there is room to talk about these feelings, and hopefully the father can cope with his own feelings – often pride, envy, regret – without inappropriately holding the son responsible for causing them."
Adolescence often occurs about the time that fathers are dealing with middle age and their own loss of physical stamina. Dealing with that as their own sons are coming into their physical prime can often be difficult, but as Talkoff says, it is up to the father to make sure that doesn't spill over into their relationship with their son. "Sometimes, fathers feel guilty about feeling competitive with sons, or sad as they acknowledge their own limitations in comparison," he says. "Denial of these can lead to friction with the son, difficulty letting him move on, etc. Sons, too, can have conflicted feelings about becoming men. Scratch any assertive teen boy and you're likely to find a child who fears losing the security of parental guidance."
Talkoff says the best advice he can give fathers and sons in this difficult period is to remember it's normal to have mixed feelings, and second and most important, keep talking. All children need parental help to tolerate and deal with life changes, and parents – maybe fathers in particular – need to remember how much they wanted respect as teenagers. Let them talk, but most important, listen.
Teen Boys vs. Teen Girls
Talkoff says that while all teens are trying to find independence, self reliance and parental approval, boys are still more likely to engage in high-risk behavior than girls. Boys are dealing with the particulars of becoming men, and in our society manly stereotypes can still dictate behavior. "Boys are more likely to engage in risky sports, drinking and driving, etc.," Talkoff says. "Sometimes, fathers exhort teen boys to 'be a man' without providing clear guidelines. Boys are often left to pop culture characterizations to define manliness – action heroes and rap stars, for example. This is of course exacerbated in families where the father is absent or where the father has had difficulties defining these issues for himself."
David Lowenstein, a psychologist from Columbus, Ohio, agrees that boys tend to mature in different ways than girls. "First, they mature later in the developmental cycle, but once they start becoming independent they may go about doing this in more aggressive and assertive manners and ways," he says. "The aggressiveness is what is unique for boys."
Mothers vs. Fathers
"Many times the father is designated as the enforcer in the family and as a result gets labeled as the bad cop," says Lowenstein. "While it may be important to fathers to enforce consequences, it is also important for fathers to provide the nurturance and love in the family also. Depending on the age of the father and the child, the father's role is still important, and his skills, teaching and relationship are just as important as the role of the mother." The relationships that boys have with fathers tend to be different from the ones they have with their mothers. While mothers tend to be viewed as nurturing, fathers are seen as removed and, at times, non-supportive. "It is important for fathers to make sure that they stay involved with their children and give nurturing and supportive messages," says Lowenstein.
Mom as Mediator
Lowenstein says that unfortunately, mothers sometimes take on the referee role in families. This can further alienate the father from the family and makes it an "us against him" situation.
"Mothers would be best if they include the information and needs of the teenager with the father so that the parents are involved in the process and not just the mother," says Lowenstein. "The most important thing that anyone can do in this situation is not interfere directly or behind the father's back. If a mother feels that the father has gone too far, then the parents and only the parents should discuss the issue between themselves and then decide how to deal with it together."
Looking at the Positives
Adolescence is an amazing time, both for the adolescent and the family. Teens are wrestling with some of life's most profound questions, and parents are often reenergized by their kid's endeavors. If communication is nurtured, it can be a wonderful time for learning about a child in fresh nd surprising ways as new ideas emerge and grow. The trick is to set boundaries while allowing gradual emancipation.
The following tips from Lowenstein can help fathers maintain a close connection with their teen sons:
- Be involved. Pay attention and show interest in daily activities, such as school, sports practice, friends, after school job, etc.
- Be consistent. Decide (with your spouse) which rules are bendable and which are not and maintain consistency with the unbendable ones so your teen knows what to expect. This fosters good relationships during turbulent times.
- Be aware of what is important to your child. It may not matter who won the Superbowl. The things important to you may not be important to him.
- Be nurturing. There are ways to do this without being "touchy feely," but show affection – don't reserve hugs or pats on the back.