9 Jul 2018

Dr Adam Cox - How to talk with boys

From Afternoons, 3:09 pm on 9 July 2018

Talking to boys is pretty easy until they hit a certain age, around adolescence, and then the wall of silence often goes up.  Chalking it up to 'boys being boys' is not good enough for clinical psychologist Dr Adam Cox.

Boys making funny faces

Photo: Austin Pacheco / Unsplash

Dr Cox is a clinical psychologist who has travelled the world talking to boys to try and understand the best ways to help them grow into successful adults.

He says teaching boys to have the kind of resilience and spirit that matches those words can be transformative.

His advice is in a book called Cracking the Boy Code: How to Understand and Talk with Boys.

We have developed, he says, an almost a cultish fascination with boys' behavioural problems.

“We have pathologised them to a great extent.”

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, he says. Boys want meaning and purpose in their life, but the way adults go about communicating with them can get in the way. How we talk to boys is just as important as what we say to them, Cox says.

“The tone of our speech is where they get a sense of whether this is a safe conversation and if we want boys to open up to us and connect to us, the number one thing we can do is minimise their sense of vulnerability.”

He recommends two strategies for making boys and young men comfortable in a conversation.

One - use a "task" tone which is neutral and accessible to boys.

“We make our speech less emotional, we take out some of the highs and lows and we talk in a more matter-of-fact way that is somewhat sequential.”

And avoid open questions which can provoke anxiety in boys, he says. Too much eye contact is also off-putting for boys.

“If we have a serious conversation we want to have with a boy or a young man we might sit them down in close proximity and the look deeply into their eyes when we ask them questions - that really puts them on the spot and makes them feel uncomfortable.

“Instead take a drive, take a walk or play a game of catch all of those things work extremely well to reduce vulnerability.”

Communicating with boys requires an understanding of tone, he says.

To achieve this use familiar words that boys can easily grasp, use phrases that are non- judgemental and keep the tone matter-of-fact.

“When you use that matter of fact task tone it sounds like you’re taking a person seriously and it sounds oddly respectful.

“When we get the tone right boys will follow us wherever we want to go.”

Boys are left hemisphere processors they don’t pick up social cues well and this can cause them problems, Cox says.

“We have a whole generation of kids who are missing all kinds of social cues because of the incredible impact of electronics that situation is not likely to reverse itself anytime soon so  we need to give boys a lot of help with activating that right hemisphere.”

Boys also crave meaning and purpose and schools and parents should be encouraging this in boys even as young as six. Get them doing chores, working with their hands and give them relatively complex chores too, he says.

We have made a big mistake thinking boys will get their whole identity from school alone, he says.

“They want to make a contribution, to do work of merit. If we want kids to spend less time playing games we have to provide some viable alternatives.”

He is a strong advocate for “hand-based” work.

“I think we have too many kids standing on the outside looking in and not participating. We have a generation of kids completely involved in electronics to an absurd degree.

“The antidote to both issues is more doing and less watching.”