The secrets to communicate with your teenage son - without closed doors and headphones

Photo: Psychologist Megan de Beyer and her sons
Photo: Psychologist Megan de Beyer and her sons Photo: Supplied

'I'm not coming to the family lunch you've organised this weekend. I'm going to stay with a friend.'

Bam! Red flag.

You feel attacked. Annoyed. Challenged. Angry.

You are about to react and make some fundamental parenting errors.
Now, we all know that to a greater or lesser degree males are competitive.
So, when we take the conversation to a place where it's a direct attack on the boy in front of you, what's the outcome going to be?

He's either going to fight back, or he's going to withdraw.

It is always much better to move towards two-way dialogue. We know this in our hearts. So why is it that some of us tend to be reactive? Why do we fall into these patterns of communication when they clearly don't work?

What is that about? Is it stress? Time pressure? Hormones? Or is your short fuse just part of your personality?

If we're stuck in this pattern where we only react to people in a heightened way, it means that we might be holding on to some old but very strict beliefs about ourselves:

I'm the most important person in the room.
I don't need to listen to anybody else.
What I say is right.

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But it can also come from a place of hurt:

Why isn't anyone listening to me?
No one takes me seriously.
I'm always last in the queue.

One day, I noticed a pattern of mine and it sounded like this: 'But you are not listening to me!' I said it about 20 times before I realised that I was not only saying it to my son again and again, but also in my love relationship.

BINGO! A pattern was emerging from a wounded place of not being heard. 

Being very reactive in intense situations can mean that we are stuck in a place where we believe we are not heard or not listened to with the respect we deserve, or that we think we're not approved of, or that we're unappreciated. 

Such beliefs mean that we will react in a certain way when that emotion is triggered. It can be a hangover from a time long ago when you were hurt and you held these beliefs about yourself – the behaviour has become a habit, even though you may have healed the pain from the past.

If we find that our default response is a heightened reaction, we have to train ourselves to be able to drop out of this reactive position for any parenting to be effective.

We have to say, 'Right, time to move into more of a listening mode, to self-regulate, to calm my response to the stress, panic or anxiety that this situation is triggering.'

Laws of communicating with a teen boy: 

  • Spend more time with him.
  • Turn off the screen or put your phone or book down.
  • Avoid texting when your son is talking to you.
  • Unless other people are specifically meant to be included, hold conversations
  • in private.
  • Don't embarrass him in front of others.
  • if you are very angry, don't attempt communication until you regain your cool.
  • Don't interrupt when he is trying to tell his story.
  • Avoid correcting him unless it is absolutely necessary.
  • Try to listen and ask questions, not lecture.
  • Don't ask 'why'. Ask 'what' happened.
  • Show that you accept him, regardless of what he has or has not done.
  • Affirm his efforts to communicate.
  • Give him time and space.
  • Don't expect too much, or lower your high expectations.

Staying connected

Try to do the following:

  • Listen.
  • Mirror and share.
  • Encourage and validate.
  • Be open and empathise.
  • Spend unplugged time with him.
  • Do stuff together.
  • Avoid the following:
  • Criticising.
  • Blaming.
  • Shaming.

Avoid saying the following:

  • You can talk when I'm finished.
  • Don't talk to me like that.
  • I know what's best for you.
  • Just do what I say and that will solve the problem.
  • You shouldn't feel that way.
  • Don't say that.
  • That is just stupid.
  • Don't be dumb.

The most important thing in communicating is that you have to listen and attune to him.

At the heart of my parenting philosophy is my belief in building relationships.

I encourage you to keep trying to move to a place where, instead of rules and facts and getting things done, you are always building a relationship with your son. It may mean you forget that he left his socks on the floor when there is relationship tension.

Emphatic Communication

Who doesn't battle with empathic communication? Most of the time we are tense, so we are in fight-or-flight mode. Empathic communication requires you to slow things down and leave your agenda behind. If you have to have an agenda, the only one you should be worried about is relationship building.

If you put relationship-building first and use your natural resources as a mother to build relationships, you are keeping your son safe.

Our foremost need as human beings is the need for connection. We have a connection-orientated brain; it wants to be in a relationship – with yourself, with your son, with friends, with family … This need for connection drives us strongly as human beings, and is the most powerful force in a teenager.

At the moment, it might seem as though your son listens to his friends or siblings first. That's a sign that he wants to connect. It tends to go that way for a while – but I found, with my own sons, that it eventually reverts to wanting a good connection with family. However, the relationship has to be there from the start in order for your son to seek reconnection with family.

In the table below, I've illustrated a clear distinction between doing things for your son and being there for him. Most mothers jump to problem solving and 'doing'. This is not useful. Teaching him problem-solving, or actioning the plan alongside him, helps him internalise this essential coping skill. Yet first a boy needs help with connecting to his emotions, and needs his parents' support while he figures things out for himself.

The emotional support steps I've outlined below will help your son develop his emotional intellect. Practise B; teach your son A.

What about the 'silent treatment'? 

Mums often mention the silences that abound during the teens. Is this something to worry about? Is he unhappy? Is this normal? How do you get a conversation going? How do you find out if he's okay when all you get are grunts or one-word answers?

The first thing to bear in mind is that women and men converse in different ways. We follow a far more circuitous route to get to the point we want to make than men do.

So, when you have an important question to ask, especially one where you're nervous about what the answer might be, pause and think to yourself,

'How can I say this in a very direct way? How can I phrase this as a very direct question?' You might say:

What are you thinking?
What are you feeling?
Why don't you talk any more?

He'll look at you and try to come up with the answer. So, wait for it. You may find you're tempted to give him the answer. Don't! Don't fill the silence with, 'Is there something wrong at school? Is something bothering you?' Stick to a direct, to-the-point question, and then wait. If he can't answer you right away, just say, 'Well, think about it and let me know later.'

Full stop.

Keep showing your son the way 'in' to help his self-reflection. In this way, he listens to his own heart rather than being influenced by others' opinions.

This is an edited extract from 'How to Raise a Man' by Megan de Beyer, Hachette, RRP $32.99. 

Single mum Megan de Beyer is a specialist parenting psychologist and an expert in raising boys, as well as runs a program 'Strong Mothers - Strong Sons' at many independent boys' schools in South Africa and Australia. Find out more megandebeyer.com