Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

The challenge of mothering an adolescent son.

Mothering an adolescent son can require bridging painful separations.

To continue this series about mothering and fathering adolescents, consider some thoughts about mothers and teenage sons.

When he was a small child, the son found spending time with his mother, going places with his mother, talking with his mother, being hugged by his mother were all pleasurable things to do. The closeness between them felt right -- a continuation of the founding attachment to the nurturing parent who bore and gave him birth.

But this enjoyment of special closeness with his mom starts to change with the separation, differentiation, and opposition of adolescence that drive him toward more independence, and particularly with the onset of puberty when he begins the work of defining himself as a young man. Part of this definition requires becoming different from a woman, particularly the primary woman in his life, his mother. He has no such gender distinction to make with his dad.

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Growing up requires giving up for both mother and son. Each must let something precious go, but the mother usually feels the sacrifice more because at least her adolescent son has the excitement and satisfaction of growing older to look forward to, while she may mourn the years of easy attachment that have been lost. She will never have her son as little boy again.

As for the son, he felt more relaxed with his mother in childhood than he does during adolescence, a much more complicated time. Now the powerful female presence of his mother can feel too close for comfort, threatening to compromise and overwhelm the fragile sense of manhood that starts emerging with puberty. Now the time to assert gender difference from his mom has arrived.

For example, it's hard to feel like a young man when bossed around by this woman who is his mom. "Don't tell me what to do!" he protests, feeling momentarily diminished by having her "order" him around. He accepted her female authority as a little boy, but feels more obliged to resist it as a young man. He can resent having a "controlling" mother as much as he can resent have a "criticizing" dad.

To be manly he needs to be different from her, and this difference is commonly expressed three ways.

He creates more social distance from her, having less contact and communication to show more independence from her than before. Now he may want to spend more time in male company, with his male friends, even with his dad.

He creates more contrast to her, developing growing interests that show he has less in common with her than before. Now he may take up more aggressive activities and entertainment that his mother would not pursue.

He creates more opposition to her, arguing to show he is more willing to take on her authority. Now he may criticize her decisions and questions her capacity to understand who and how he is becoming.

In all three cases, he needs to create room from this primal female force to let his manliness develop. In this sense, the childhood closeness to her that he loved now as an adolescent can feel unmanly. Understanding this need to pull away, his mother doesn't take this as a personal rejection, or as a statement that their relationship has ceased to matter. Rather, she respects his need, and at the same time keeps up her initiative to stay in active relationship with him, continually inviting him into communication so he knows she is not pulling away from him. And some times, he will accept.

Just because he may become less open to physical affection and be less communicative doesn't mean that he has lost any love for his mother or any need for his mother, only comfort in the company of his mother. It can be an awkward time for the adolescent son - to stay close enough to his female parent to feel well connected, but distant enough from her to develop his growing maleness.

For example, he may think that to be a man, he can't be a "momma's boy," can't be dominated by his mother, can't be too similar to his mother, can't confide as much in his mother, can't spend as much time with his mother. The threat he feels is not her doing, but his own.

Fortunately, there are usually moments, welcome to them both, when feeling more secure of him self or missing the old companionship, the adolescent son will lapse into former openness with his mother before returning to the challenge of developing his sense of manhood in response to her womanhood again.

So for many mothers and adolescent sons, the teenage years are a more complicated time for them to get along. Now fighting more with his mom can come to the rescue. For example, a teenage son, sad at distancing from his mother and missing her, may start an argument. In this case conflict can feel like a manly and aggressive way for the young man to be his mother.

Conflict allows him to challenge her and feel connected with her at the same time This dance of closeness and distance brings them together while keeping them opposed and apart over a difference between them, where he asserts himself and stands his ground.

The rule for the mother on these occasions is "no nervous smiles or laughs, no cutting off or cutting down, allowed." She needs to treat these challenges seriously and with respect because going up against her can be very hard for a young man to do. Of course, having stated her position in the disagreement, she does not have to keep arguing back, only to attend his arguments and objections so that he is given a full hearing, establishing her standing as a committed listener to whatever he has to say.

How he manages conflict with her, however, does require her supervision. Not only must she model behavior in disagreement she wants him to learn, she must monitor his communication both for her sake and for his, taking issue when emotional intensity drives it out of safe and civil bounds.

"When you call me mean names because I won't agree to what you want, we have two problems. First, you are wounding me with words, and that is not acceptable. In this family we don't use language to do each other harm. For the sake of our relationship, you must find a respectful way to be express frustration with me. And second, for the sake of your future, hurting me now may hurt you then. If I let you mistreat me and you come to feel that is okay, you are likely to do the same when in conflict with another woman you care about later on, someone who may end the relationship rather than put up with being injured."

When a teenage son is not comfortable just talking with his mother, when conflict has become a tiresome approach to communication, or when distance feels lonely, some mothers (wisely I think) opt for other ways to connect that do not necessitate a lot of conversation. They choose more ‘doing with' than ‘talking with' approaches to maintaining the relationship. They understand that companionship is as viable a way for connecting as confiding is, two good ways to be together. "Let's take a break," she suggests, "and do something fun."

Sometimes a mother will look at how her adolescent son is growing and feel offended or at least concerned by the "manly" behaviors and beliefs he is learning from male peers - like tough-talking and sexist attitudes. Boys tough-talk with each other to learn the push and shove of aggressive speech by which they regulate matters of power in relationship to each other. When these behaviors are brought home, a mother may have something to say. While respecting his need to hold his own with peers, she may restrict that use of language within the family.

If her son, like many boys, grew up mostly in the company of male peers, entering adolescence without having had meaningful friendships with girls, he may have learned some developmental sexism along the way. He may have learned from other guys what young women stereotypically are like and what they supposedly like that are not really so. Hearing some of these derogatory or exploitive attitudes expressed, his mother, speaking as the primary woman in his life, may choose to question what is said and offer an alternative perspective that encourages a healthier approach to relating with young women. Of course, the father can do the same.

This guidance is important because the time for socializing and dating the other sex will soon arrive. Not only is his mother the primary role model for being a woman and how a woman should be treated, she is also a primary female informant about understanding and respecting women in general.

Finally, there is this twist that goes back to a parental role distinction made at the outset of this series. There I suggested how the mother often tends to be the relational parent focused more on what needs to be communicated, and the father often tends to be the performance parent focused more on what needs to be accomplished.

To the degree that this distinction holds, although the teenage son may complain about his mother talking too much or "always wanting to talk," in fact it is often she who is the parent to approach when there is a significant concern to discuss. So in counseling, a young man may say: "My mom is easier to talk to about a problem because she's willing to listen. My dad mostly wants to do something about it right away."

Often the father may emphasize his son's performance skills and a mother may empathize her son's relational skills so that the young man learns to give weight to both sets of capacities as he grows. This difference in emphasis can lead to each parent to respond painfully differently when their adolescent son achieves poorly or acts wrongly. Focusing too much on performance, a father can be at risk of paternal shame, blaming the son for making the dad look bad; while implicating herself too much in the relationship, a mother can be at risk of maternal guilt, blaming herself for what the son has chosen to do.     

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENT" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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