Even hulking teens need hugs, and there’s nothing ‘toxic’ about a toy gun, says family expert Jean-Claude Chalmet
How, in 2019, do we raise our sons to become healthy, happy men? We may well be more sensitive to the emotional needs of boys and men than we were 20 years ago, but they are still suffering. Men are struggling with mental health: as is often cited, suicide remains the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49. In 2017, of the 5,821 suicides recorded in Britain, 75 per cent were male.
The most recent NHS figures show an increase in emotional issues among boys. This includes anxiety disorders, characterised by fear and worry; depressive disorders, characterised by sadness; loss of interest; and mania and bipolar affective disorder.
In the US, too, there is huge concern. Just recently the American Psychological Association published its first ever guidelines for therapists working with men and boys. One of the body’s conclusions, after 13 years of observation, was that males are less likely to seek help for problems than females, and that boys are more harshly disciplined. Rigid gender expectations contribute, they said. Men who feel less masculine for not adhering to narrow ideas of how men should behave, do, or be are most likely to suffer.
It’s no surprise that many parents can feel that they are not quite up to the task of raising a well-adjusted, confident young man. But the good news is that parents are powerful. Here’s what you can do.
Never stop a boy from crying, whatever his age
When parents, especially fathers, see their son crying, we’re often fighting our own prejudices. It’s tempting to sharply tell him to stop — then you don’t have to manage your own difficult emotions. I’d say, when your son of any age cries, hug him. Find out what he is struggling to express. If he feels bad about crying, say, “It’s OK. It takes a brave man to cry.” To discourage a boy from expressing his feelings is to show him you think his feelings are unimportant. So he represses them and grows into an unhappy man who can’t manage his emotions or other people’s.
Naughtiness can be a sign of anxiety
Often bad behaviour is a boy asking for attention, but not knowing how to express it. One eight-year-old I dealt with kept crumbling his lunch sandwich over the floor at school, getting him into more trouble. It turned out he was being bullied by his teacher, but didn’t know how to put it into words.
Instead of admonishing, shaming him, or accepting someone else’s story, ask him what’s wrong. Don’t necessarily accept his first answer as gospel. Naughtiness is a way of expressing a lack — be it of attention, love, or emotional support.
Be there during academic pressure
Secondary school can be a very anxious time for boys
There’s social and academic pressure, they’re abuzz with hormones, and peer approval is paramount. Parents are no longer centre of their universe — but it’s our responsibility to be their rock. Persistently engage. If they seem preoccupied, don’t tell them how to feel or what to do, but convey that anxiety is normal. If they admit they’re anxious and why, listen. Only give guidance if they ask for it.
The same applies with older teens. The underlying message should be that you care and want the best for them. If there’s insufficient emotional support, boys may internalise their anxiety — often through addiction, such as gaming. If you sense he’s not OK and talking doesn’t change anything, it’s beyond your capacity as a parent — don’t hesitate to seek professional help from a family therapist.
Parents must allow boys to express their anger
This doesn’t mean exceeding permissible boundaries. Breaking things is not OK. But it’s OK to tantrum, aged five, or even 15, be it swearing, slamming doors, or storming out of the house. (Text him: “Whatever it is, we love you, we’re here for you, we’re willing to talk.” Although with a younger boy, of course go after him.) The idea is to understand why your son is angry rather than tell him not to be.
Depending on his level of frustration, anger, or hurt, a 15-year-old might even try to fight his father. Try to see that this is a way of engaging. Often, in this situation, the son is saying: “I want you to see me as a man, your equal.” From what I’ve seen in my practice, often with boys, anger stems from the pain of being ignored by their parents.
The most common complaint from young men I hear is: “My parents aren’t interested in me, they only tell me what to do. They just want me to be carbon copies of them.” No teenage boy wants to be a carbon copy of his parent.
Being a good mother does not mean being your son’s servant
He may be your little prince, but you must teach him self-sufficiency: always be kind but don’t be his waitress. Make sure he contributes — feeds the cat, picks up his own towels, makes toast for you. Our role is to raise well-balanced, autonomous men who know the difference between right and wrong, yes and no. Teach him to contribute to society rather than to take from it all the time. Whether you go to work, his father stays at home, or vice versa, ensure each role in your household is valued equally.
The most important thing mothers can teach their sons is that nurturing is not an exclusively female trait.
Fathers: hug him, however old he is
Talk to your sons as if they’re the most extraordinary, fantastic people in the world. Children have fragile egos. Fathers don’t strengthen their boys’ self-belief by talking down to them. We make them strong by feeding them emotionally. Tell them, repeatedly: “I have always loved you, I love you, and I will always love you.” The single most important thing for children to feel and hear, especially boys from their father, is that they’re loved unconditionally. Big, hulking teenage boys, especially, need cuddling.
From 12, 13, 14, boys will push the boundaries. Don’t take every transgression personally, but do consider the possibility that he’s trying to provoke a reaction. There’s no relationship that is frictionless and parents need to admit that they too can be wrong.
Let him play with his Nerf gun in the house
Children need to run, cycle, get dirty, exhausted. These days, from the age of five, they’re ferried from tutor to swimming to birthday party — they’re mentally drained. It’s our responsibility to let boys be bored, be themselves, not to enrol them in a thousand activities or subdue them with a screen. Small boys, if they wish, should be allowed Nerf gun battles indoors. Parents mustn’t be too precious about the house. Parents should join in.
When boys are loud or boisterous or rude in public, worry less what others think. Even the most adorable, sweet, thoughtful boys will at some point display the most awful behaviour and say embarrassing things. Teach manners, yes, but don’t take it too seriously.
Teach him the difference between aggressive and assertive
Being assertive is to show that you won’t be taken advantage of. Aggression, however, is bullying and compensation for emotional or intellectual weakness, and fear. Assertiveness is a natural consequence of being loved unconditionally — of knowing we’re good enough. It’s a belief in our right to be heard, to speak, and to listen.
If you want him to be assertive, communicate clearly — don’t emotionally manipulate. If parents don’t communicate directly, that is the behaviour we teach our sons.
If you only care about winning, your son will never feel good enough
The biggest danger is to instil in our children the sense that they’re not good enough. It can lead to mental health issues, low self-esteem, depression. If parents only value winning, boys feel ashamed if they fail, struggle, face a setback. Questions such as “Why did you do that? Why didn’t you do better?” indicate that he doesn’t live up to their expectations and so doesn’t win their approval. My practice is dominated by adults who never felt good enough.
Fathers, especially, should spend regular time with their boys — you are his role model, and he learns how to be by being close, not observing you from a distance. Even if you can’t be present, FaceTime, text — let him know you are there for him in a real way.
No harm in spelling it out however: “I want you to be whatever you want to be. If it makes you happy, that’s what’s important to me.’
What to do when boys go silent or just grunt
There’s a point, particularly with teenagers, when boys grunt, or go quiet. Some- times they’re struggling with emotions, hormones, their own being. Maybe a girl or boy hasn’t responded, and they’re thinking it over. They don’t always need to share, or receive unsolicited advice. Check in, in case a problem needs to be addressed, but if they don’t want to talk, give them space.
Sometimes, they barely know what the grunting is about — it’s a way of seeking attention, yet dismissing it. Bring him a cup of tea to show you’re thinking of him, but don’t crowd him. If you’ve taught him how to communicate, don’t panic. They have to work some things out for themselves. As they mature, let them.
Hours on end playing video games is not OK
This situation doesn’t happen overnight, but when there’s little interest, connection, or communication at home. If boys don’t have unconditional love with a parent, or much contact with their male role model, they find a way of connecting elsewhere.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking boys at 14 or 15 don’t need to be around you. Respect their privacy, but expect them to be a functioning part of the family. Keep them involved. It’s tricky, because they’re seeking emotional connection with their peers, which produces the feelgood hormone dopamine. Gaming also produces dopamine. The danger is they disengage from human contact. Be there for them. Don’t leave boys to their (own) devices because you’re busy, then berate them for too much screen time. Why not keep the gaming system in a family area?
Body image? As far as you’re concerned, he’s perfect
A preoccupation with body image can become acute at secondary school, particularly since everyone is all over Instagram. If your adolescent is chubby, never be critical or you will cut him to the core. He will no doubt discover it for himself, if he’s teased. You can help by making him aware that he can make healthier lifestyle choices.
So it’s fine to say, “I think we should all eat less junk,” and stock the fridge accordingly. But to say, sniffily, “You’re still hungry? Wow”, or to nickname him “Chunky” is shaming and unacceptable. Don’t micromanage his eating, or be snappy about it. And comment positively on his physical appearance. Both parents shouldn’t miss an opportunity to cry: “That looks good on you — handsome devil!”
Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but talk to him about porn and masturbation
If you want your son to be well adjusted, you can’t afford the luxury of being too prudish to talk about sex. When I say to fathers that they must explain to sons that masturbation is normal, and pleasurable, and provide a box of tissues, they’re often embarrassed and protest: “He’ll find out by himself.” But conveying this message is all part of making your son feel good enough. (Note: he should dispose of the tissues himself — it’s no one else’s chore.) I’m not suggesting a huge speech, simply acknowledging: “It’s normal, don’t be ashamed.” If you sense your boy would be mortified, say it as a general comment, not one-to-one. This is, however, not a subject for mothers to discuss — your boys don’t want you in their head on this.
Sex and relationships must be discussed naturally, and parents should talk to boys about porn from age 11. Teach them it’s artificial, not representative of real sex. The message should be that sex isn’t about self-gratification, but communication, connection, consideration, giving pleasure to your partner. Either parent should talk about consent. But behaviour in his sex life is no different to other areas of life. It requires respect, consideration — qualities that we imbue in our boys from an early age by virtue of our own behaviour.
Warn him of the long-term damage of drugs GETTY IMAGES
Drugs: give him the reasons not to take cannabis
Age 14 or 15 is the age of temptation. It’s a turbulent time for a boy and he’ll look for things to help him to get through it, particularly if he lacks emotional support from family. Because boys still tend to be less inclined to discuss their feelings, they may seek a shortcut to feeling better — and cannabis raises dopamine levels. For some boys, it will be a phase. Others will become addicted.
How can you prevent addiction? There’s no guarantee. But I will say that when teens stop communicating, it’s because they want more engagement from their parents, but haven’t got it. It’s important for parents to discuss peer approval. One of my clients spoke of his 14-year-old gravitating towards smoking weed — he kept talking about “stoner” friends. My client bluntly warned his son that it affected memory and motivation. He trusted his father, because they had a good relationship, and his need for parental approval overtook his need for peer approval. The strength and depth of your bond is critical.
No doubt the son still tried it, but the message sank in. My client did the right thing. This is where you fight — when your son is lost, behaving unreasonably, going through a difficult time, you hang on. But if you know that cannabis use has become a regular habit to get him through the day, arrange for him to see someone who specialises in helping addiction.
Meanwhile, parents can help teenage boys by providing them with opportunities to play sport, which delivers endorphins, as well as laughter and joy with family and friends. The more pleasant their reality, the less likely they are to need external stimuli. But don’t be naive. Assume there’s a high probability he’ll be interested, and will explore or experiment. Don’t lazily think: “Boys will be boys, he’ll grow out of it.” Issue a strong warning — it doesn’t matter if it’s ham-fisted.
To outright forbid it never works. It makes it more desirable. Say: “I’d really prefer that you don’t go near it. These are the risks. But I can’t monitor you 24/7.” Be honest about why you’re passionate. Appeal to the fact that, despite their natural desire to take risks, most boys do want to make a success of themselves.
As told to Anna Maxted