The Truth About Parenting Teen Boys

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Photo by davitydave via Flickr

Are all fourteen year old boys assholes?

That’s the question a friend posed to me lately. She’s not the first to ask a version of that question, and I doubt she’ll be the last because something happens to our boys between the ages of 10 and 14. Those tween years aren’t easy; our formerly cuddly little boys become mercurial, independent, sassy and sarcastic. By age 14, the little boy you knew is all but gone. You may still see traces of him, particularly if you happen to get a glimpse of his face while he’s asleep. But during waking hours, he’s something else entirely. He’s a slightly gawky human in a body that’s simultaneously too big and too small for him, a human with limited life experience who nonetheless is sure he has all the answers — and that you, dear parent, absolutely do not. By the time your son is 14, your intelligence quotient and coolness factor will have gone down considerably, at least in his eyes. He’s likely withdrawn a bit from the family, and is far more likely to be found holed up in his bedroom than happily playing with his siblings. When it comes to communication, you may find he has two channels: silence, and sarcasm. In short: yes, 14-year-old boys can be assholes.

There’s something liberating about knowing that, about acknowledging that fact. You see, when my first son hit that age and started to have some pretty drastic mood swings, I assumed I’d done something wrong. I’d bought into the idea that the relationship between parents and teens does not have to be adversarial. I guess I assumed that if I did a good job parenting my son, he’d continue to be a pretty pleasant, mostly reasonable human being.

I was wrong. My teen did not remain pleasant or reasonable throughout his teen years. In fact, much of the time, he was downright impossible. I ended up crying in frustration more times than I care to admit.

But here’s the thing: it didn’t last! By his senior year of high school, my son was suddenly a joy to have around again. We could — and did — have pleasant conversations. Every interaction wasn’t a battle, and he seemed more at ease in his own skin, in the world. And that’s when I realized that the hell we’d experienced over the last years was just a stage. (I got further proof when Boy #2 entered his teen years. Now, #2 is 17 is starting to slide into the “pleasant to be around again” stage. Meanwhile, Boy #3 is 14…and showing flashes of assholeyness.)

Here are 6 truths about parenting teen boys:

1. It’s stressful. Life with a teen is unpredictable. Their moods fluctuate with their hormones and social lives, and because most teen boys aren’t exactly talkative, you won’t know what to expect from your teen from one moment to the next. Add to that the fact that the stakes are higher when your kids are bigger. When your boys were little, you worried about things like skinned knees. Now, you worry about things like car accidents, drinking, drugs and sexual activity.

Parenting a teen is tough work, so it’s important to take care of yourself. Prioritize rest. Set boundaries. Do things that bring you joy. And, perhaps most importantly, have a network of friends you can talk to and brainstorm with. (Wanna connect with some awesome parents of boys? Check out our private Facebook group, BuildngBoys.)

2. They’ll screw up. So will you. Your son will not make it through his teen years without doing something he’s not supposed to. He’ll get a bad grade (or fail a class or three). He’ll crash the car, get caught in a lie, come home drunk…the list of possibilities is endless. It’ll be up to you to enforce consequences, but please remember that no human is perfect. Boys, especially, learn via trial and error, and sometime they have to screw up — and experience the consequences of their mistake — to learn the “right” way to do things.

You’re bound to mess up too. You may go off on your son. Respond reflexively, rather than compassionately. Say something you regret. We all do it. The good news is that our kids are resilient. They can handle less-than-perfect responses. When you screw up, go back later and talk things over with your son. Apologize, if necessary. Don’t expect your son to respond with heartfelt emotion or a hug. (You might get that, but you might not, and it’s better to not set yourself up for disappointment!). He might only shrug, or barely acknowledge your words. That’s OK. Your actions will show him that you love him — and you’ll be teaching him, by example, how to behave when he screws up.

3. They can be downright nasty. Teenagers’ job, psychologically-speaking, is to separate from their parents and families. Perhaps that’s why teens are so mean and surly sometimes. (It’s easier to walk away from something you view as stupid and pointless.)

You do not have to tolerate disrespect. On the contrary: when your boys are disrespectful to you or others, they need to be called on their behavior.

4. They’re hungry for love and acceptance. Boys’ deepest need is to know that they’re ok. So much of the posturing and silly (and sometimes harmful) behavior you see in teenage boys is really a bid to belong. Keep that in mind as you see your guy navigate the challenges of his world.

Make sure your son know that he’s awesome just the way he is. In your parenting and conversations, be sure to separate the behavior from the person. For instance, you might not be happy with his failing grades and lack of effort, but please don’t imply, via your words or actions, that he’s not any good because his grades arena’t good. Comment on and appreciate your son’s positive characteristics and actions, and look for ways to build on his strengths. Don’t forget to hug your boys too. Even teen boys need hugs.

5. They need space to make decisions and test their skills. Think of the teenage years as a training ground. It’s a time for boys to develop the skills they’ll need to live independently — and a time for parents to gradually release the reins. As adults, your sons will be responsible for their own sleep habits, hygiene and time management. Stop micromanaging your son’s life. Gradually back off and give him a bit more control. Let him experience the consequences of his decisions and learn from them.

If you want your son to succeed in college and in life, let him struggle, and give him room to take risks.

6. The foundation you laid when they are young matters a lot. For me, one of the most difficult things about the teen years has been the lack of control. When my kids were little, I could quite literally pick them up and place them in their bedrooms when they misbehaved. I can’t do that with a 16-year-old boy who is taller and stronger than I am. Parenting a teen means coming to the realization that there is so little you can control. (Let’s face it: If a teen wants to do something, he’ll figure out a way, no matter what rules, consequences and restrictions you’ve established.)

But have faith in the years of work you’ve already poured into your boy. The time you spent teaching him manners and respect is not for naught; all of that teaching has become a part of him, and whether or not he behaves consistently and politely now, it’s still there. He’s heard your words and absorbed your teaching and example. The hours you spent playing with him, reading with him, and taking him places — that’s all still in him too. On some level, he knows you’re still in his corner. Those hours of devotion and parenting created and cemented the bond between you and your boy, and I guarantee you: that bond is strong enough to survive his teen years.


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