You want to be closer to you son, to understand him and his feelings better, but no matter what try you can’t get him to talk to you. Every question you ask gets a one word answer, silence, or an irritated grunt. Here are 5 tested tips for encouraging your son to talk.
1. Drop everything when he approaches you to talk.
It might seem hard to believe, but boys, even those who act the most closed off, will occasionally approach a parent to talk. Unfortunately, these opportunities usually are missed. Most of the time boys will present their desire to talk in disguise. They might begin with a provocative remark: “I hate my sister!” or “You always punish me, but you baby my brother!” or “I got detention today. My teacher is so mean!” These are examples of invitations to talk hidden behind provocations. Our sons use them to test whether we’re really ready to listen. The strong temptation is to respond dismissively with exasperation, logical arguments, or criticism. We’re provoked to feel upset and angry: “Don’t say that about your sister!” We think our son is being irrational and respond with reason: “We treat you both equally. In fact, just this afternoon he got a time out.” We feel embarrassed about our son’s behavior and side with the other person: “What did you do this time?” Each of these responses shut down the conversation before it’s had a chance to start.
If we look past our own reactions, we see that each of these statements actually represents a boy opening up about his strong feelings. If we can stop whatever we’re doing and withhold our initial feelings, we have the chance to learn a lot. Responding to “I hate my sister!” with “oh, … what’s going on?” invites him to tell us more. Responding to “You always punish me, but you baby my brother” with “so you feel we’ve been treating you unfairly?” conveys an acceptance of and openness to his feelings. Responding to “I got detention today. My teacher is so mean!” with “that’s upsetting!” helps the child feel you won’t reject him just because he got into trouble.
When we recognize our children’s expressions of strong feeling as an invitation to grow closer, you’ll end up hearing a lot more about what you son actually thinks and feels.
2. Begin in a low-key manner.
For most boys (and for most men, for that matter) opening up and talking is stressful. Beginning a conversation with “we need to have a talk” or “why did you do … ?” will put a boy immediately on the defensive. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, suggests the following formula for initiating a conversation:
“I’ve noticed ____________ . What’s up?”
For example: “I’ve noticed that you have been having a hard time getting your homework done lately. What’s up?” This low-key question gives the boy a chance to say what he thinks. “Why haven’t you been doing your homework?” makes him feel criticized or in trouble and not open to talking.
It’s ok if your son is silent after you ask him the “what’s up” question. Look for nonverbal signs that he’s thinking. If he looks like a deer in headlights, say something like, “it looks like you’re not ready to talk about this now. That’s ok.” If it looks like he’s thinking about your question, but isn’t saying anything, you can say “I can see you are thinking hard about my question. Thank you. Do you want more time now, or do you want to talk about this later?”
3. Don’t try to make a point.
It’s tempting, when talking with our sons, to make sure that we get our point across. “School is important for your success in life.” “Sometimes we have to deal with difficult people. You have to get used to it.” As important as these and other life lessons are, they are absolute conversation stoppers. When the goal is to hear what your boy thinks and feels, keep your opinions and advice to yourself. He’ll hear them as criticisms, lectures or scolding and clam up.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, suggest that if we listen to our children’s feelings carefully enough and accept those feelings, it gives our children space to reflect. More often than not, they will reach these same conclusions about life on their own. Children are much more likely to follow their own conclusions than our advice.
4. Choose quiet, low conflict times to start a conversation.
You’ve just gotten a call from his teacher, or he’s refusing to do his homework. You can feel like there’s no time like the present to deal with the problem. The heat of the moment is actually the worst time to talk. We all (parents and kids) have better conversations when we’re calm. However, for most of us, it’s also our instinct to avoid conflicts when things are peaceful. Sometimes you just have to risk disrupting a quiet time and start a conversation. When things are calm, he’s less likely to be defensive and you are less likely to overreact. As a result, you both are much more likely to learn something in these moments. In fact, as many parents already know, bedtime can be one of the best times for a brief, low key talk.
5. Have Modest Expectations
I encourage parents to have modest expectations when it comes to conversations with their sons. Sometimes you will approach your son to talk and it will go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally, if you are lucky, he’ll tell you a little something. Be ready to end the conversation at the first sign that he’s getting irritated or has said all he’s going to say. In any case, 5 to 10 minutes is about the best you can hope for at one sitting. Instead of thinking about having one big conversation where a problem is settled once and for all, think about having many brief conversations that, taken together, add up to something bigger.
We go far when we remind ourselves that conversations are difficult for boys. Though talking ultimately will draw you closer, initially our sons experience conversations almost always as negative. Be sure to balance your efforts to get him to talk with plenty of affection, encouragement, and fun.