GUY TALK: Twelve Tips for Communicating with Boys and Young Men

1) Boys DO want to connect – you just might have to be the one to initiate
Boys are often socialized to be competitive and sometimes don’t have the tools to express feelings or ask for emotional support. If you get brushed off, don’t give up on connection. Even if they won’t talk, they must get the message that you care about them and what’s going on in their lives.  Let them know that everyone feels vulnerable sometimes and that talking about our feelings is okay.  

2 )Let HIM teach YOU
Learn about your son’s interests. Express curiosity while picking up on cues if they find it intrusive. In that case, leave a door open for them to share when they’re ready. “Well, that seems really cool. I’d love to learn more.” And yes. This even applies to video games that seem incomprehensible or boring. Be vulnerable and allow your son to be the expert. This would be an empowering role reversal for him.

3) Encourage emotional literacy
Modeling communication about your feelings creates an emotional vocabulary for your kids. It also makes talk about feelings more of a normal part of life and not anything “weird” or unusual.

4) TVs and Movies are GREAT Conversation Starters
Superheroes are not what they used to be. Today, they are emotionally complex with rich narratives; they make for great discussion topics. You can plan some time to watch TV shows and movies together (find out what shows he likes that might be good fodder for discussion). This can tee up great conversations about characters’ feelings on TV or in movies – an especially important place to start if he won’t talk about his own feelings.

5) Be an “And” Parent
When disagreements inevitably arise, think about how you can express your opinion without putting theirs down. If you can be more of an “And” parent and less of a “But” parent, it paves the way for respectful disagreements that become conversations instead of arguments. “And” allows for multiple truths to coexist. “Buts” generally don’t. “You make a good point, but you’re wrong.” Being okay with disagreement models and teaches your son that the way to navigate the complex diversity of our world is not through rigidity.

6) Avoid an “Old West” Stare-Down
As boys get older, they often become less comfortable engaging in meaningful conversations requiring direct eye contact. In their competitive culture, it can be seen as aggressive or unnerving, and they may go on the defensive---or just shut down. Car rides are great for working around this. The next time you want to have a heart-to-heart talk -- take it on the road and see if this rings true for your son.

7) Walk the Talk
Boys and young men are spatial and kinesthetic processors – they learn by doing and think best when active and moving. Go for a hike if you’re feeling ambitious. Going for a walk around the neighborhood will work just as well for talking; this is also in keeping with minimizing eye contact. You can also try shooting baskets if that’s an interest of his. Talking while you are actively doing something else that doesn’t require a lot of thought allows young men to step into and out of the conversation. This allows them to negotiate vulnerability and distance within the conversation. Keeping moving will also help to keep your son alert and engaged.

8) Invite vs. Inquire
Direct questions can be perceived as something to try to escape from, or even worse, an affront. And “Yes or No” questions will usually get you just that, a one-word response. Try initiating a conversation with an observation or something you’ve been thinking about; this serves as more of an invitation to talk and less of a demand.  

9) Resist being the Judge, Jury, and Executioner
Be aware of how you talk about the people in your son’s life. Try not to make assumptions about his friends without taking the time to learn about why these relationships are important to him.  If you’re judgmental and critical in talking about others, he may fear the same treatment when talking about himself. This is especially important to set the stage for talking about sex, drugs, and alcohol. By showing genuine curiosity and interest in his relationships BEFORE you express concern, you build trust and allow for more open and honest communication.

10) Rituals make for valued memories
Create rituals for one-on-one time with your son. Try to make this time fun with no alternate agenda. This works best when you can provide undivided attention once or twice a week at a consistent time that you can commit to-- and NOT something to be used as leverage or taken away as punishment. As long as you make the commitment unconditional, what you do can be conditional.

11) Get moving
Try making time to do something active with your son. This communicates that you enjoy and appreciate him without having to say anything at all. This doesn’t have to be training for the Olympics; that holds especially true if he always walks away from pole vault feeling like a failure. Let it be something playful, creative, and spontaneous, and may be an opportunity to leave phones at home and have an “off the grid” adventure!  Play -- and especially vigorous play-- has a crucial role, according to neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, in developing “social affective neural pathways” that are essential for impulse control in the developing brain.

12 )If it’s not working, don’t force it. Stop and try a different approach
If something you’re doing with your son hasn’t worked for a long time – stop doing it. Ask yourself why you have this expectation, and then look for another way to teach this lesson, maintain expectations, or ask questions. Invite your son in on this process and give him an opportunity to practice a valuable life skill, solving a problem collaboratively. You may want to ditch “How was school today?” if the answer is always just “Fine.” Try asking for one high and one low from their school day. Or try asking them why they always say, “Fine.”

Jason Zuchowski, LCSW is a clinician who specializes in supporting boys and young men in their development. If you would like additional support to discuss how you can implement some of these ideas with your unique son and family, Jason is available for consultation as well as individual and family therapy

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