5 Ways to Get Teen Boys Talking

Communicating with teen boys is tricky. Somewhere in adolescence, they may retreat from you and you lose access to their inner world. You struggle to understand their grunts in reply to simple questions, or they tell you to “Chill.” Or, in the words of one of my client’s sons,  “Take a Xanax!” When asked about schoolwork or plans, your teen son may offer some version of “I’ve got it,” even though if your opinion, he *definitely* does not.  All this can be frustrating–what do you do when your son refuses to talk? If this sounds familiar, here are 5 tactics for effectively communicating with teen boys.

Communicate with teen boys “through the fence.”


This comes from a client of mine who realized, after some trial and error, that communication went best when she respected her son’s need for space. This image of the fence is helpful: you’re not going to have emotional, long-winded talks through a fence. You probably won’t get in a serious power struggle either–you don’t want that behavior on display in your “yard.”


Through the fence, you see him more for who he really is. You can see his struggles and his strengths.


When you talk through the fence, you acknowledge their need for privacy and restraint. The fence is an image you can conjure. It too good not to share.

Ask him other questions then, “How was school?”


If you don’t want grunts and “Fine,” then you’re going to have to meet him where he’s at.


Boys have lots to say, but they need to feel like you aren’t just worried about them. They are socialized to be strong and hold it together, so they freeze up in the face of anxiety, or they fight it. 


They want to feel like their opinions matter.


Figure out the things he’s loving and then occasionally ask him to rate his top 3 players/guitarists/games/films.


If you get curious about their world, and don’t redirect the conversation back to your top 3, you’ll learn a lot about what he observes, believes and values.

Respect his emerging manliness


It can be very hard to witness the transition from boy to man. But I read something in Voice Lessons by Wendy Mogul that I can’t forget: Teen boys have bodies that are betraying them constantly. This can make any interaction awkward. Yes, even with you mom.


When communicating with teen boys, give them space and respect their privacy.


If you’re used to doting on him, offer specific praise about something he did.

Don’t use humor at his expense


One dad shared that his son lost it recently when dad was “busting on him about his big, gross feet,” a subject that had long been a family joke. All teens are self conscious–about their looks, performance, and where they rank in the pecking order. Dad didn’t mean to hurt his son, but going forward, he’ll be more mindful of his son’s sensitivity.

Let him have some control.


Here’s a scenario that came up twice last week: Boys who would rather sit for hours and do nothing than do the homework.


There’s an idea in psychology known as locus of control, which has broadened my understanding of children. It’s pretty simple to implement: look for places where your child can take control of his life and let him have it. Even if he’s messy, inefficient, or imperfect.


Here’s the simple breakdown of locus of control: Either we have an internal locus of control or an external one. He who has an internal locus of control “attribute success to his or her own efforts and abilities. A person with an external locus of control, who attributes his or her success to luck or fate, will be less likely to make the effort needed to learn.”


How this plays out with children, in simple terms, is that many of us want to be in control. This is why a traffic jam can make us feel a certain kind of crazy: It’s out of our control. When we become parents, we forget that this is an innate desire for all people. We see this desire for control as early as the toddler years, where suddenly a child declares “Me do it!”


As teens grow and differentiate from their parents, their desire for control only heightens. So if your teen son is managing his life, but it’s not optimal, it’s okay.  Let the locus of control be his. As the son of a client told his mother, who was “suggesting” how he could improve his time management,  “It seems like it’s been a while since you were a teenage boy.” Fair point. He can do his work on the way to school, as long as it’s done.


Staying connected during the teen years is challenging–you are doing trying to be relevant to a person who is constantly pushing you away. Communicating with teen boys is that much harder because of how they are socialized and how they mature. If you want your teen boy to talk to you, try talking to him through the fence, or engaging him on topics other than school. Show him that you’re interested in who he is, not just worried about how he is doing.





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