I have had tons of conversations with adult men who speak of the far-reaching emotional impact their fathers have had on them, based on the way they fathered them in their teen years, for good or bad. So here are the first four of 8 things every teenage son needs their dad to say:
1. “Son, you’ve got what it takes.”
A core question in every son’s heart is ‘Dad, do you think that I have what it takes?’
Deep down, every boy wants to know if he has what it takes to face life’s challenges and roles. It’s a question that a dad was made to answer – and to answer affirmatively, first and foremost – before girlfriends and friends and achievements or failures crowd in. The role of the father is to answer with a resounding ‘yes’!
‘You have what it takes, my son!’
There is a longer form of this: ‘My son, I am so proud to be your dad. You have what it takes to be a man in this world. I can feel it in my heart of hearts, that you’re going to be a great man. You’ll be a great gift to this world. You have a strength and some gifts that you will bring to this world. And I know it’s far off, but one day you will be a great husband and dad.’
When father’s don’t answer this question – when they are overcritical, silent, passive or absent – then the son is forced to fill in the blank with a…
‘I don’t know … I doubt it … you will have to find out for yourself … probably not.’
This son is left with an invisible void in his life that he will try to fill up with conquests or accomplishments. But no matter how much success he may pour into that hole, it will never fill up.
2. “Son, I’m struggling.”
One of the toxic dimensions of society is that we tell our men that real ones don’t cry. They don’t show weakness.
‘You’ve got to be strong. You can’t share your feelings. Girls do that. And you don’t want to be a girl.’
No wonder the suicide rate in teen boys is 5 times higher than in girls of the same age.
The best solution? For fathers to model vulnerability to their sons. So doing, they show them that manhood need not involve separating from those with whom we share, or want to share, our deepest secrets.
It is empirically attested that people who feel close enough to someone they can unburden their struggles with, radically increases their mental and physical health, capacity for achievement, life satisfaction and even how long they will live. This is as true for teen dudes as for everyone else.
Us dads feel some pressure to model strength to our sons. But I want to challenge all dads to tell their sons when they’re hurting.
‘My son, I want you to know that I am going through a very difficult time. I am struggling with feelings of anger, and sadness, and fear. I will get through it, but I am hurting. One reason I tell you this is so that you can know that life for a man in this world is sometimes very difficult. There’s no need to pretend it’s not.’
We best set up our kids to thrive in life, not by having it all together, but by being honest when we don’t.
3. “Son, what’s really happening in your life?”
The pressures at home and school tend to tell our kids to ‘man up’, be independent, and keep their problems to themselves.
Yet almost every teen boy I have spoken to about this longs to share their deepest secrets and fears with others, including their dads. They rightly suspect this will make them feel less alone.
Despite this longing, society’s script seems to prevail. One young 17-year-old described how his relationships with friends and parents were slowly fading throughout high school, “like a DJ who uses his cross fader to start fading some sound out slowly.” Connectedness was giving way to alienation.
Though they might not always show it, teen sons would love to say to their dads, ‘Spend more time with me. Ask me about my friendships, and the girl who I like, and my life. Allow me to express my vulnerabilities.’
It’s a myth that girls are emotional, and guys are rational. We’re both rational, and we’re both emotional. We all have feelings we need to learn to express to people who we trust.
Here’s 3 tips for the dads:
Tip 1) Be around more. Many dads think that they need to be around a lot when their kids are small, but now that their son seems to need them less, they need to be around less. The opposite is true. The truth is that your son needs to talk to you more, but he will be less likely to. He will wait for the right time to talk. And if you’re not around when he is ready to talk, oh pity.
Tip 2) Ask them how they are really. Most times they will answer the question superficially. But every now and then, they will go deeper. Research shows that the more often you ask the question, the higher your chances are of getting the deep answers. So keep throwing out the bait. They will bite eventually.
Tip 3) Work on your listening skills. I was speaking to a school counsellor this week who tells me the most common grief she encounters in teen boys is that they don’t feel their father hears them. They then tend to lock themselves in their room, and either retreat inwardly, or maybe reach out for ‘help’ on social media – and who knows what ‘help’ they get there.
4. “Son, I’m interested in your interests.”
Smaller sons tend to be interested in what their dad is interested in. This is because they identify with their father so strongly. This way, dads get to bond with their child with some ease.
But individuation usually leads many teens to purposely pursue their own interests, ones their father does not have.
At this point the father may lament that, without a mutual interest, it’s harder to bond with their sons. But dads, don’t you get it – it’s now your turn to do what your boy used to do for you. You need to lean into his interests.
This includes music styles. You afflicted him all those years with the music you thought was awesome when you were his age and older. It’s time to get into current trends – and listen to your tunes on earphones.
That’s the first four. Continued next week in Part Two…
(Republished with the kind permission of Terran Williams)