Have you ever sat down to have a conversation with your teenage son, and after minutes of slouching body posture, endless fidgeting, blank stares, and grunting responses, found yourself frustrated, enraged and eventually screaming? Teens are notoriously uncommunicative with their parents, and men have never championed verbal communication. It is therefore not surprising that trying to talk with a teenage boy can be challenging to say the least. There is, however, both art and science involved in successful communication. Below is a list of communication techniques to try the next time you need to connect and communicate with your teenage son.
1. Give him advance notice. Tell him ahead of time about the timing and topic you want to discuss with him. While you shouldn’t expect him to show up to the conversation with a check list of counter-points, this will give him the necessary time to pre-process the impending conversation and gather any thoughts that he might have.
2. Feed him. Make sure he’s had something to eat before you start talking. We have all experienced or observed the correlation between hunger and irritability. Although your son might not be grouchy just yet, making sure that his blood sugar level is stable will keep him focused and engaged throughout your conversation.
3. Ditch the lecture. Condense your conversation into a short list of important points, and allow him to respond to those points. Having concrete points mitigates possible miscommunication while keeping him tuned into the conversation. Also, allowing him to respond to each point will provide you insight into his processing and ensure that you’re engaging in a dialog—not a monolog.
4. Control your emotions. Although you may be frustrated and angry, yelling, screaming, and verbal put-downs are not going to produce the results you want. These may be interpreted as an attack, which will provoke a “fight or flight” response—especially with a volatile teenage boy.
5. Walk while you talk. Boys are generally spatial processors, and therefore think best when they are active and moving. Forcing your son to sit down and sit still while you berate him with a long lecture is a recipe for disaster—or at least distraction. Try taking your talk outside, walking around the block, shooting hoops or playing catch while you discuss the issue at hand. This will keep your son alert and engaged.
6. Communicate indirectly. Creating a comfortable environment for an important conversation includes the simple nuances of body language and eye contact. Many kids, and especially teenage boys, will be more open to talk with less direct eye contact. Staring down into your son’s eyes while having an important conversation might be interpreted as aggressive or unnerving, and your son might shut down as a result. Walking side-by-side or driving in a car will naturally lessen the amount of direct eye contact.
7. Use physical examples. If you need to address your son’s perpetually messy room, don't just talk about the fact that he never puts his clothes in the hamper. Walk around the room and use physical examples. Have him pick up items strewn around and determine if they are clean or dirty. Providing physical and ideally tangible examples will help your son process and remember your conversation.
8. Be aware of your son’s innate competitiveness. In many situations it is important to confirm that you are on his side and that you trust him. He may become more open to feedback and coaching if he feels like you are on the same team. In other situations, you might want to tap into his competitive side if you feel he will respond well to a challenge you’ve presented.
9. Finally, allow time for follow-up. Many boys can take hours, days, and even weeks to process the substance of an important conversation. If you do not receive the engagement or answers that you were hoping for during the first conversation, give your son time and space to reflect on the conversation before you bring it up again. You might be surprised how your conversation evolves over time, and what insights your son will bring to the table.
Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best selling author of 28 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment. He is also co-hosting the first-ever Helping Boys Thrive Summit in Edmonds, WA on May 24th. This article features excerpts from Dr. Jantz's book Raising Boys by Design.