29 Oct 2020

Raising teenage boys

From Nine To Noon, 11:28 am on 29 October 2020

Many parents are bewildered when puberty turns their sweet, expressive sons monosyllabic, says Australia parenting expert Maggie Dent, who is also the mother of four boys.

The key to staying connected with boys entering their teens is to understand the challenges brought about by the physical changes, brain changes and hormonal surges overtaking their bodies, she tells Kathryn Ryan.

A group of teenagers and kids cooling off at Petone Wharf on 15 January.

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The brain's prefrontal cortex – which governs behaviour and decision making – grows only by tiny increments through adolescence and isn't fully developed until the late 20s, Dent says.

"[As a result, teenage boys] are not very good at planning for the future, they're not very good at empathy, or thinking how their actions impact others, they're not very good at organisation. All of these things [develop very gradually].

When we realise no tween or teen boy really wants to get into trouble – and is sometimes even surprised at his own behaviour – we can open up more compassion for them, she says.

Unlike girls, boys tend to use external events or experiences to measure their own self-worth.

"The biological drive in adolescence is not only for more autonomy and independence, it's a search for identity and a sense of belonging with our own age group."

As boys use physicality to show connection, lecturing them for something they did to try and connect and make people laugh can be really confusing for them, Dent says.

"If they can make their mates laugh, that really anchors them into belonging and it also feeds their self-worth."

For most boys, schools are war zones and they will need some breathing space at the end of the day.

"[At school] they've got to be on guard the whole time, not only in the social context but trying to remember the right thing, trying not to fart in class, a lot of them have a poo that's due 'cause they won't do it at school. They pick up on lots of things and attack themselves so when they get home it takes a while to regroup."

Outside of school, boys are now often in the virtual world, which isn't helping them understand themselves or other people better.

"They see all the worst possible things about humanity on their phones. [Online pornography] messes with their head in terms of domination and being disrespectful to girls so we've got a really big job to keep them as safe as possible. Have those conversations around vulnerability is actually what we all need in terms of coming through a difficult time mentally."

Challenging a boy to explain his own behaviour with a disappointed tone or angry tone won't get you far, Dent says.

Try to connect before you communicate, without using words: "that gentle punch on the arm, that ruffle of his hair, that tickle on the back".

"A grumpy boy will join you to shoot hoops as long as you don't talk for a while, then eventually the words will come."

When a boy wants to talk to you, he might linger around after dinner, Dent says, at which time parents need to seize the opportunity to make themselves available for a chat.

"When they start they'll only give you a little bit of conversation to see if you're really listening, to see if you're really present."

Once you're talking don't insist on eye contact, she says, as it's difficult for boys and can feel confrontational.

Conversation conducted side by side works well, Dent says: "The car is a beauty."

Maggie Dent's latest book is From Boys to Men, and she is also the host of the popular ABC podcast Parental as Anything.