In this extract from her new book, From Boys to Men, well-known parenting educator Maggie Dent gives parents ideas and strategies to get the conversation going with their teenage sons. One of the reasons we recommend Maggie as a value resource is her advice is always practical and easy to implement. Good communication leads to warm relationships, cooperation, and feelings of worth. So here are some tips from Maggie for effective communication.
The less threatening the physical approach and placement of the grown-up and the safer the place where the conversation takes place, the more likely the boy will feel open enough to at least hear the words being spoken.
It is interesting that women often prefer direct eye contact to men and boys, and many boys can find eye contact threatening. Demanding that a boy maintains eye contact with you is more than likely putting him into a position of threat that will trigger his amygdala and mean he will be unable to listen to what you are saying (just in case he needs to run to survive an attack on his life). Don’t insist on or expect direct eye contact!
Placement and place
Imagine a person standing in front of you with their hands on their hips about to speak to you. I guarantee it will put you on the defensive immediately. The position of my chair in my counselling room was carefully placed to ensure I was not directly in front of any boy who came to see me. Consider having a conversation in the car, sitting beside them on a couch, or leaning together on the railing of a balcony in order to lower the level of threat in the conversation
If you need to have a reasonably serious conversation with any boy but especially any over the age of 10, may I suggest you combine it with some form of movement such as going for a walk, or shooting hoops with a basketball. Choosing a relaxed location can really help him to feel calm and safe to hear you, especially if he feels confident no-one else will hear the conversation.
I cannot stress the importance of tonality in communication with sensitive teens, particularly our boys, enough. The tone of your voice is enormously important if you choose to communicate meaningfully. So many boys have been conditioned that raised voices, sarcasm, criticism and shaming means that they have done something bad, naughty or upsetting and they are about to be punished. Please remember that they often misread your tone just as they do your physiology and this will trigger their amygdala into fight-flight mode.
Avoid using their full name with a harsh tone.
Remember the power of using names of endearment, or just less threatening ones like ‘mate’, ‘bud’ or even ‘dude’.
Times to avoid important parent conversations with tween/teen boys
When you are upset, especially angry
In the heat of the moment!
Before you know the full facts or the full story
At breakfast time as they are often still half asleep
Straight after school
While they are watching a favourite TV show
While they are busy on a device, especially when gaming or watching other people gaming on YouTube
While anyone else is nearby
When they are hungry
When they are tired
While they are eating
When they are having a growth spurt
Within hours of the significant misdemeanour
Within 24 hours of a misdemeanour that happened in public
Within 24 hours of having returned home from a sleepover or a school camp
On their birthday/special family day
Just before visitors arrive.
Top tips for good timing
Approach them when none of the above is happening.
Ask them when would be a good time for you to have a chat – most boys are very sensitive to feeling ambushed.
Remind them gently just before it is chat time, and possibly check if they want a hot drink or a snack.
Building rapport – a bridge of connection – is incredibly helpful when having conversations with tween and teen boys. A gentle punch in the arm, tussle of the hair or even a wink – these all help boys feel safer before the conversation begins. Oh, and never forget the power of the well-timed fart!
The feedback sandwich
Essentially, we are all wired to protect ourselves from nastiness or criticism by becoming non-listeners. By the time most boys reach adolescence they have had endless experiences of being growled at, criticised, shamed and made fun of so they are particularly likely to become what I call, ‘selectively deaf’ when they hear words of criticism, especially when spoken without warmth.
The feedback sandwich always begins with something positive and life-affirming about the boy to whom we are speaking. Then, we explore the concerning information we need to share – without changing our tone. Finally, we finish the conversation, no matter how long it was, with another love-affirming message about the boy.
If you need to have a conversation with your son about a failed assignment, or him overreacting to a missed goal in soccer, or him getting really angry when he was unable to get his own way or when he wasn’t allowed something, the feedback sandwich will always help.