Sometimes I wonder if I’ll make it through the teenage years with two boys. Calgon, take me away…
Just when you’re thanking your lucky stars that you survived the toddler years, you blink and your active baby boy has become a teenager. As I’m sure other parents would attest, the teenage years make the “terrible twos” look like, well, child’s play.
On almost a daily basis, my girlfriends email me tragic stories of teenage boys doing stupid things, like the Georgia teen who drowned just hours after his high school graduation when his friends tied him to a shopping cart and pushed into a lake as part of a game.
Part of the problem is that the developing teenage brain is hardwired for risk. According to Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University, the expansion of grey matter in the adolescent brain stimulates neural pathways that make a young person more willing to try new things.
And peer pressure only makes things worse. “The daredevil brain, it goes into hyper-mode when adolescents are in groups, and in general because testosterone causes more aggression,” explains Levine.
So how are we, as parents, supposed to navigate this period of experimentation and risk-taking? We certainly can’t lock them in their room for seven years to keep them safe from harm (although the thought has crossed my mind!).
While there’s certainly no shortage of expert advice available, I decided to do my own research. So I reached out to family and friends who have been through the drill and gathered some key pieces of advice about raising a teenage boy:
1. Be His Biggest Fan
You may not remember (because it was so long ago), but it’s hard to be a teenager. Pressure is coming at your son from all directions — his teachers, his coaches, his family. It’s up to you to be his biggest fan. Believe in him with your heart, and tell him that you love him every day, regardless of what he does or does not accomplish.
Even though your son’s conversations may be limited to words like “what” and “yeah,” it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. If he wants to talk, drop whatever you are doing and listen.
Remember that with teenage boys, brevity is the name of the game so avoid lectures and long conversations. And don’t wait for the high school years to discuss tough topics like sex, drugs and alcohol — do so well before he encounters these situations. Share with him your family’s values and expectations about alcohol and drug use, and empower him to make good choices.
3. Respect His Space
The teenage years are a constant push-pull, as your teen tries to establish his autonomy from you, yet still craves your love and protection. “Once adolescence begins, teenage boys go to their rooms, close the doors, turn on the stereo, and come out four years later,” says clinical psychologist and author Anthony E. Wolf.
Let your son know that you are always there for him, but also give him the space he needs. Don’t take it personally if your teenager doesn’t want to talk with you about every little thing going on in his life. This has nothing to do with how much he loves you. It’s just part of growing up.
4. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Every parent of a teen needs to read Richard Carlson’s bestselling book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…. And It’s All Small Stuff. It reminds us that we need to pick our battles — you may not like the clothes your son is wearing, or the way he cuts his hair, but is it really worth fighting about? If it’s not putting your child at risk, give him the freedom to make age-appropriate decisions and learn from the consequences of his choices.
5. Assign Responsibility
Parents of a teenager know just how expensive the high school years can be. He needs money for food (and more food!), gas, clothes, movies, hanging out with friends, and more. Help your child transition to adulthood by having him take partial responsibility for his financial needs. This doesn’t necessarily mean telling your teen to “get a job,” but let him know that he will have to take responsibility for paying for his gas money or social expenses. Let him take the initiative in finding work. Some popular summer jobs include camp counselor, babysitter, golf caddy, lifeguard, and tutoring.
6. Set Boundaries
Setting good boundaries is one of the best ways to reduce conflict and build trust in your relationship with your teenager. Although your son may never admit it, he needs — even wants — boundaries set for him. “Teens have enough change to deal with in their lives,” explains author and professional youth worker Chris Hudson. “Having parents clearly define the playing field provides a vital degree of certainty and stability.” Of course, parents should be willing to change the boundaries as teenagers mature and show their parents that they can handle more responsibility.
7. Meet His Friends (And Their Parents, Too)
It’s always a good idea for parents to know who their teenage son is hanging out with. Collect contact information (address, cell phone numbers, emails) for your son’s friends and try to connect with their parents as well. Regular communication between parents can go a long way toward creating a safe environment for all teens in a peer group.
8. Give Him an Exit Strategy
Set a “no consequences” policy if your son needs your help or a way to remove himself from a situation where he feels uncomfortable or at risk. You can brainstorm ways he can handle uncomfortable or potentially unsafe situations. For example, many teens will pick out a code word they can use with their parents to extricate themselves from a risky situation, without having to “lose face” with their friends.
9. Encourage Male Role Models
Studies show that teenage boys benefit from a strong relationship with a male role model, but over 40 percent of American boys are growing up without a father in the house. If your son falls into this category, remember that male role models can include other trustworthy adults, like an uncle, a coach, a pastor or rabbi. Local churches and community groups like the YMCA offer mentor programs that are run by screened adults. A positive male role model can pass on wisdom and guide your son in making good choices during the complicated teen years.
10. Look for Warning Signs
A certain amount of change may be normal during the teen years, but it’s important to watch for signs that may indicate real trouble — the kind that requires professional help. If your honor roll student suddenly starts getting Cs and Ds, or your normally outgoing kid suddenly becomes withdrawn or depressed, this could be a sign that something is wrong.
“Teenage boys are one of the groups at the greatest risk for suicide,” explains parenting expert and writer Brad Munson. “It’s important that parents keep an eye out for self-destructive behavior.” Some warning signs to be on the lookout for include extreme weight gain or loss, skipping school, signs of drug or alcohol use, falling grades, and sleep problems. If you suspect a problem, a doctor or a school counselor can help your teen get the treatment he needs.