Mother: “How was your day?” Son: “Fine.”
Boys, especially adolescent boys, sometimes find it hard to put their thoughts and feelings into words. It’s not that they don’t have complex thoughts and deep feelings; it just takes longer for them to formulate them into words.
Boys can feel overwhelmed by the verbal ability of adults, especially mothers and female teachers who generally find it easier to articulate their thoughts and feelings. They shut down because they just don’t feel they can keep up.
Here are some strategies to help mothers talk to their sons:
1. Keep it simple. The fewer words you use the better. Some mothers feel the more ways I say it, the better it will get across. The opposite is true. The more ways you say it, the more overwhelming it becomes and the boy shuts down. “He doesn’t listen” might mean “He has chosen to stop listening because there are just too many words, and they have become white background noise.”
2. Give time. Ask your question and wait. Don’t rephrase it. Don’t embellish it. Don’t offer possible answers. Allow the boy time to process what you’ve asked, to formulate his answer and then express it. These three steps take time. The question you ask after school might not get answered until bedtime.
3. Give space. Boys talk better when they can move around. This might mean rolling around on the floor or tossing something up in the air over and over again. That’s OK!
4. Be quiet. Boys are comfortable with silence. Sitting quietly with a boy creates a vacuum which he can fill. Silence gives the boy a chance to initiate topics that are important to him – that you may not even have thought to ask about.
5. Practice non-verbal communication. There are other ways of communicating with boys besides talking. One of the most powerful is doing something together. Girls relate face-to-face. Boys relate shoulder-to-shoulder. Drawing. Lego. Cooking.
6. Eye contact is not necessary. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” Women find eye contact promotes connection. This is not so for boys. Boys find eye contact invasive and threatening. They prefer to look away or be doing something while they are talking. The best conversations often happen in the car because there is no eye contact.
7. Be ready for his “talking mood” moments. Boys will talk when they are ready. Be available when this happens. It can happen when you least expect. Grab onto these moments. He may not be ready to talk when you are. You be ready when he is.
8. Avoid “stress talk” moments. A stressed female wants to talk. A stressed male does not want to talk. In moments of high stress, emotion dominates over logic and the conversation is not going to be very productive. Better to say, “We’ll talk about this later when we’ve both calmed down.”
9. Verbal redirecting versus physical redirecting. When a young child is hyper-focused or overstimulated, words do not register. Parents increase the amount of talk (verbal re-directing), it doesn’t work and the parent becomes more and more frustrated. Sometimes it’s best to just take the child gently by the hand and lead him where you need to go (physical redirecting).
10. The don’t freak out rule. When our kids tell us something disturbing – something they did or saw or simply thought about, don’t freak out. You want your child to feel free to tell you anything. When we freak out, we send a message to our kids. “Don’t tell me anything that might upset me.”
Why do men and boys find it harder to express their feelings than women and girls do? The reasons are found in both nature and nurture. To help our boys express their feelings, we need to understand their unique ways of communicating.