Mothers often get along quite well with their teenage sons except when it comes to the area of personal responsibility. Sons frequently complain that their mothers nag them too much. Mothers and sons fight about household chores, curfews, schoolwork, and personal accountability.
These conflicts can occur on a daily basis, and if not effectively dealt with, can form the core of the interaction between mothers and sons during adolescence. At the heart of this conflict is the issue of control. A boy resists what he perceives as his mother’s control. He strives for autonomy in order to feel like a man. In response, his mother escalates her attempts at gaining compliance from her son, which only causes further resistance.
Mothers increase their efforts to parent their sons because they want their sons to become mature and independent young men. A boy’s behavior at home is often indicative of just the opposite. Teenage boys appear to be lazy, rebellious, uncommunicative, unreliable, and insensitive to the needs of other family members. However, people outside of the home experience these same adolescent boys to be responsible, hard working, generous, sociable, and helpful. Mothers find this discrepancy confusing and may take their son’s behavior at home as a personal insult or failure.
Mothers must realize that their sons, like their daughters, need to separate from their mother in order to develop their own identity. Boys develop their gender identity at a very young age, often around the ages of five or six. They play boys games and emphasize in numerous ways how they are different from girls. However, young boys still need their mothers and don’t question this need if the mother is not too intrusive or over protective.
Once boys reach adolescence, the task of identity formation takes on a different dimension. The boy is in the process of becoming a man. In order to do so, a boy needs to reject his mother. She can no longer be the one who determines his behavior and he can no longer hide behind her for protection from the world. A boy needs to know that he is physically and psychologically capable of handling many aspects of his own life without the help of his mother. He needs to demonstrate this capability outside of the home to prove it to himself and to others.
Inside of the home, however, the teenage boy relaxes and his “boy” behavior returns. Even though he returns to his boy behaviors, he often continues with his defensive stance and asserts his need to be separate.
A perceptive mother recognizes that her adolescent son is a mixture of boy and man. He still needs his mother but it must be on his terms, his timetable and away from the view of his friends and often his father, and others outside of the family. If you want to have a good relationship with your teenage son learn to be respectful of his needs, learn when and how to negotiate expectations, be flexible, and look for opportunities to be close.
Teenage boys need more space than teenage girls do but they are also more likely to enjoy the occasional times of mothering. Give your son privacy, do not ask too many personal questions, and compliment him on those behaviors that demonstrate he is becoming a man.
Realize that the most active part of your parenting job is over and your son is now in a position to make most of his decisions on his own. He’ll make these decisions based on the values you have modeled for him and taught to him. His behavior outside of the home is the best predictor of the kind of man he is in the process of becoming. Instead of being a manager of your son’s life, your job now is to become a consultant.
Instead of nagging him to do things, negotiate expectations with him on an ongoing basis. Don’t impose solutions. Keep the discussion going until you reach agreement and then discuss the implications of not keeping the agreements you have made with each other. This is the way you gradually change your relationship from parent/child to adult/adult.
Take every opportunity to be with your son and to meet his friends. Drive him and his friends on their various outings but do the driving silently when his friends are along. When it’s just the two of you, there will be more time for talking. Take an interest in your son’s interests and activities. Keep up to date with the latest in music, adolescent trends and games. Allow your son to educate you about what he and his friends are involved in. Be a willing listener and student.
Remember that you are an extremely powerful person in your son’s life. How you treat him and what you think about him is critical to his self-esteem. A mother knows who her son is. She has the power to use this knowledge to reduce him to a little boy with just a look or a tone of voice. Be very careful with your words – they have tremendous power over him. Use your words to encourage him, to express your belief in him, and to tell him you are proud of him. If you want to bring out the best in your son, see the best in him and be willing to step aside as he becomes a man. est in your son, see the best in him and allow him to be a man.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.