Boys, family communication and getting past one-word answers

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WATCH: For some parents, chatting with their sons after school is like squeezing blood from a stone. It's a string of one word grunts: "I don't know" and "can't remember." Laurel Gregory has more on what's behind it and how parents can get their boys talking – Oct 27, 2020

Whether you have a chatterbox or a strong silent type, after-school chats can be tricky for parents of boys.

We went to Maggie Dent, the author of From Boys to Men: Guiding Our Teen Boys to Grow Into Happy, Healthy Men, to find out how boys’ development affects their communication and how parents can open up the conversation.

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Laurel Gregory: What’s happening with boys between that age of 12 and 15 that maybe is causing them to pull away from parents and disconnect even if they are from a tight-knit family? What’s happening to cause that breakdown in communication, if we can even call it that?

Maggie Dent: It’s biological. We’re biologically wired to separate from our parents to prepare to become an independent adult. So if you go back to caveman days, what that would mean is 12 to 14 year olds are kind of pulling away, hanging out with their friends a bit more, and the main reason they want to form a new little mini tribe to breed from so they don’t have to breed with their parents.

That is the biological drive. So all teens do this.

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However it’s the boy pulling away from mom that’s the challenging part because secretly there’s a four year old inside there that never wants to leave the safety of a loving mother. It’s different if she’s difficult and she’s not very warm — he’s probably been separated for a long time.

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But there’s a part that just wants to lean in and then there’s a part that gets conditioned in them that that’s wrong. So, that’s where the defensiveness come up. And at the same time, of course we want to know everything, don’t we? And there is a need for them to keep more secrets because they don’t understand it themselves and they’re worried that they’ll look silly.

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So they keep defensively protecting themselves.

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It’s why a lot of moms say to me, “I think an alien stole my son. I had this gorgeous boy who could tell me anything! Now I get nothing and I’m getting a grunt.”

So then when you understand that the grunt is a brain change — brain pruning. He didn’t just decide to stop communicating. It’s a combination of all these changes and he is feeling incredibly confused and vulnerable and he doesn’t want to get that look on mom’s face again — “Oh, no, I’ve let her down again” — because he gets more forgetful, more disorganized. She starts rolling her eyes…

All he needs is exactly this fierce, unconditional love that helps him to understand the shifts in his behaviour and his moods.

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LG: What is brain pruning?

MD: This is when the brain actually starts making changes again to create a brain that’s going to be a mature brain, which doesn’t finish for boys until about 27. So anything it thinks it doesn’t need it just prunes off but accidentally prunes off a bit too much.

So it often prunes off bits around organization, forgetfulness, the articulation of words. It actually distorts the way they see themselves so this is where self-loathing — and you’ll remember that patch in your own adolescence where you suddenly thought you were the ugliest person on the planet and everyone else was fine but you were the only one, right? And that’s in that same window. It creates a cracked windscreen.

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The pull away from parents at the same time as you’re searching identity — man, it’s just this festering mess of confusion. But boys don’t talk about it with each other whereas girls do tend to talk about it.

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LG: I find parents go: “Well, he doesn’t want to talk to me. He doesn’t need me.” What’s the flaw in that thinking?

MD: The flaw in that thinking: they need us more than ever as the rails on the bridge. It’s how we do that. When we understand that they have got impaired brain development and they’re wired to be risk takers because there’s an amino acid that turns off in the brain as the inhibitor that is there before adolescence and gradually grows in the 20s.

Then you realize there’s very rarely an intention to be disrespectful, rude, have a volatile meltdown in a classroom or fart in your face. All of that can happen spontaneously. Boys are endlessly growled at from when they are little because they do the same then, don’t they? Three or four year olds.

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When they jump on their brother from the top bunk they are not deliberately going to hurt him. They want to have fun and how they do fun isn’t, “Oh, I like to have fun with you bro,” it’s “I’m going to jump on you because that looks like fun.”

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Because physicality is their emotional language… we misunderstand it. They must have deliberately wanted to do that.

So from the get-go we speak more harshly to little boys, we growl at them more often. So by the time they are a teenage boy, all of that shame-based stuff is festering inside and then their limbic brain grows, which is the emotional brain, and that’s when intensity of emotions accelerates. So that’s the hot stuff we start seeing.

Quite often what well-meaning parents do is step into the storm thinking: “I need to fix this and stop this and sanction this.” When in actual fact we need to be able to create the space for the storm to happen and in time — often 24 or 48 hours later — then we might revisit to try to help them understand what happened.

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LG: If you can’t get an answer for “How was your day at school?” describe how you could ask about his friend.

MD: School is like a war zone for boys. Not only are we forcing them to start before many of them are developmentally ready — they have to sit still more, they’ve got to listen more, and these are skills that are still developing for little boys, we have clear evidence of that now.

Also, they have a teacher that uses too many words that just causes information overload and a glaze. If they also can’t sit still because boys need to make dopamine — which is the concentration neurochemical — through movement.

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Also, they’re got to try to be polite and they don’t even know what that means.

You’ve got a little boy who is coming out of that environment to reconnect with these loving parents — whether that’s mom or dad — and it’s like, “Oh my god, finally I’m safe.” But he’s just filled with cortisol so there a chance of him having a massive meltdown.

The last thing we ever do is ever ask them a question right then.

We [could say]: “I missed you. Here’s a sandwich or here’s some food. Could we walk over to the playground for a while before we jump into the car?”

Or we have to be deliberately a bit silly because we can help him navigate from the awful side of that flooding of stress into something easier. And then once we are home, they often regroup. Sometimes they can take quite a while.

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Sometimes I even encourage parents to let them watch TV — not a handheld device — but TV that’s good quality because in that time they are just coming down… So we’ve got to navigate that and then you’ll tend to find they are ready for a bit more talking.

But some boys it’s still not until bath time and then they start talking. But when we want to find out how school is really going, we’ll ask: “How’s Johnny going? Is he OK because I was wondering if he could sit still. You know how he always runs?” That might be your son who is the runner. And he: “Yeah, that has been a bit hard.”

They can often not remember who they played with, whether they ate their lunch. But we often feel as a mom what I need to do right now is reconnect with all these moments we missed in their life, but that can make a boy feel really stressed…There is this statistically significant number of them that when you ask questions of them and they can’t remember, instead of that being a loving interaction that becomes one that makes them feel less than.

For more parenting tips from Maggie Dent visit