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Where is my son? The turbulent teens.

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An exhausted mom sits at the table, head in her hands. Blinking back the tears she thinks how much things have changed. 

” I used to feel like I was the most important person in his world.

He came to me with his problems and couldn’t wait to share his successes with me.

The boy who used to make me feel like superwoman, now slams the door when I ask how his day at school went.

He is shutting me out of his life. Nothing I seem to do is right. I am losing my son.

How did we get here?”

Your Adolescent Son

The Teen Years

That phase between childhood and adulthood, roughly from the ages of 9 or 10 to 18 or 19, can be as confusing and conflicting (for both parents and kids) as the ‘terrible twos and trying threes’ were. The difference, though, is that now your child is more in the drivers’ seat.

This unique stage of human development is full of extremes – with rapid physical, cognitive and psychosocial growth. In the midst, boys will experience puberty. Maybe if we understand a little of what is going on in an adolescent boy’s brain, our perspective on this stage will change.

The Adolescent Brain

Adolescent brains work differently from adults because they are guided more by their emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thinking, rational frontal cortex. This impacts their impulsivity, their misinterpreting of social cues and emotions, and can shed a light on dangerous or risky behaviour. This is not the stage that they think before they act or consider what might happen when they choose to do something. The greatest changes in the brain during this time influences those areas that are connected with impulse control, emotions, judgment, decision making, planning and organization.

So when you ask your 14 year old son what he was thinking when he decided to ride his mountain bike off a cliff, remember this: he probably was not thinking with a logical, rational mind and wasn’t capable of thinking about possible consequences for his decision. Not meaning he shouldn’t be held accountable during this stage, but when parents understand the why, it helps us to be a bit more empathetic and understanding.

Or when your 16 year old sends you an emergency text saying his next class starts in 30 minutes and he forgot the usb with his project on it at home and if he doesn’t pass it in, he gets a zero. He begs you to bring it to him. You have read the parenting books that say you should teach him a lesson on responsibility and not solve his problem for him. But you know how hard he worked on the project. Now you know that his brain is not really accommodating those organizational skills that he needs to keep everything together.

And then there is that time when you go into your son’s room to find him in tears. He brushes them away quickly and is embarrassed for you to see him crying. When you probe for a reason, he says he doesn’t know why he feels this way. He is telling the truth. He doesn’t know.

The Adolescent Body

How many summers, as a teacher, did I say goodbye to the grade 5 boys only to have them return two months later almost unrecognisable! Arms and legs seemed to have grown disproportionately to the rest of the body, making for some pretty clumsy boys entering school. Their voices would be a few octaves lower, some of the time, and when it reverted to the higher version, scarlet cheeks often resulted. It seemed to take time for everything to fall into place.

Most boys bodies change as a result of going through puberty between the years of 9 and 14. Sexual maturation occurs through stages: enlargement of the scrotum and testes; then the penis grows; pubic hair begin around the genitals and eventually becomes darker and coarser and spreads to the thighs and sometimes the stomach. As the penis enlarges, teen boys have erections, often involuntarily, that sometimes, especially at  night (wet dreams or nocturnal emission), result in ejaculation. Later, boys will start to have hair on their face, underarms, and legs. With surging hormones, teens often have an increase in oily skin and sweating (meaning hygiene may need to be addressed).

(Îf you are a mom reading this and feeling slightly uncomfortable and thinking ‘too much information’, think of it from your son’s view. He may be confused about what his body is doing but too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone. We are pretty good about sharing with our girls about menstruation and physical changes that are connected, but imagine if we didn’t prepare them. So much confusion, worry, and maybe embarrassment. The more clear information we can share, the better it is. If it is hard to do it yourself, find great books and leave them in your child’s room. Or get videos that share your values and explain this period. There is a lot of information available, so make sure your son is getting the best quality. Otherwise, his strongest influence will come from the internet and locker room conversations.)

And then we have testosterone. By the end of puberty, boys produce up to 20 times as much testosterone as girls. It is secreted in their bodies in five to seven surges each day. Testosterone is the hormone responsible for greater muscle mass in males, higher sex drive, and higher levels of aggression than females. During this time there is about a 30-fold increase in testosterone production in boys. This is connected with those mood swings, increased aggression, stronger interest in risk taking behaviour, and depression.

The Adolescent Soul

Adolescence is commonly divided roughly into three stages: Early (females 11-13 & males 12-14), Middle (females 13-16 & males 14-17) and Late (females 16-19 & males 17-19)Adolescence.

Your young boy during the early stage of adolescence is dealing with all that surrounds puberty and often will experience mood swings with great highs and great lows (this continues throughout adolescence). This can be a time of confusion sprinkled with some fear and anxiety. He has a feeling like he is losing control of things – his body, his mind, his emotions. Often some form of experimentation with the body can occur for some – hair color, tatoos, style of clothing, etc. He is becoming more focused on his friendships and finding his unique space in society. Your son still is tightly bound by family values, but he is beginning to question those. This is definitely a time to continue with clear limits and boundaries!

In his middle stage, your son is going to be even more concerned with peers, and what is deemed to be ‘cool’. It can be a time where friendships change rapidly or groups are joined and then quit. He is starting to develop and test his own values, meaning he is going to have to reject some of yours. This can be a time of stress and conflict in many families. His interest in dating peaks and often boys at this age start to be sexually active. His total focus seems to obsess over this ‘love of his life’. Sometimes this can lead to a classic rebellion and conflict within the family. Many parents feel like they ‘can’t do anything right’.

In the Late stage of adolescence, your son is beginning to see himself as an adult. His reliance on peers to define him reduces and he stands on his own. His moral compass is more developed and defined in his actions and behaviour. His relationships become more stable and realistic. Although peers still play a role, your son will be more interested in one-to-one relationships. At this point, he will have separated completely from parents psychologically and will be an independent young adult. 

The Adolescent Male’s Inner Emotional World

The demands on your son to conform to what society dictates he feels and how he behaves gets even stronger. More and more masks are necessary in order to fit in. Anything outside of acceptable ways of being are ridiculed and shame, so these boys will do whatever it takes to not feel those emotions.

He begins to envision what it means to be a man – and what his future life is going to look like. He looks around and sees so many adult men unhappy, simply putting in the time necessary to do a job and make money to support the family. He reads the news and sees the violent and degrading things males have done to make the headlines. He listens to the words of the popular songs that refer to the toxic male. He sees in movies men that are either really aggressive or men that act like puppets. Do we really not understand why a boy would not want to grow up to be a man? 

And remember, that our boys’ brains are not fully formed until mid to late twenties.  So at the time they are supposed to be settling into society as an adult male, they are still operating with less than full capacity! Our expectations may be where the problem lies for so many of our boys who really do get lost in their late teens, early twenties.

Find more about male depression here: The Silent Crisis: Male Suicide

What about Pornography during these formative years? 

The ease of access that is available with the internet creates a brand new area for parents to be concerned about. Parents need to have an awareness of what is going on in this online world, and provide safe boundaries based on your son’s age and stage of maturity. Find ways to keep informed on the latest trends and problems so that you can communicate and support your son in the world he lives in. Gone is the time when the Playboy magazines could be kept away from young eyes by keeping it on the top shelf of the store. Today, often very innocently and unintentionally, your son, while online, may come upon images of pornography that no child should see. His brain is not equipped to process those things and he can easily become traumatized. His understanding of healthy sexual relationships becomes flawed. As uncomfortable as it may be, you need to have these conversations with your boy before he becomes a teenager. Start young and add on more information as is needed.

What Parents Need to Keep In Mind in these Formative Years? 

Sleep patterns change for teens. Whereas you may have always had an early bird, seemingly all of a sudden you cannot rouse your teen son in the morning. Days start off with a grumpy, sleep deprived boy. And then, when you check in to say goodnight, he is bright eyed and bushy tailed with no indication sleep is likely to happen any time soon. Sleep affects everything, so it is good to understand what is going on, and try and make any adjustments you can.

Teens actually need more sleep than when they were younger. Most information says around 9 hours (between 8 and 10 hours depending on your child’s regular sleep needs). With the change in their circadian rhythms, most teens find they can’t sleep before 11 pm. With early school starts, many teenagers are consistently sleep deprived. One way to help counter this is on days when possible, or when they first get home from school, suggest they nap for 30 minutes. Napping will help support their development in this stage – body and brain. Another strategy, that might cause resistance, is not having screens in the bedroom. Keep that room purely for sleep and relaxation. Advocate to your school for a later start time for middle and high school students. Parents have a lot of power!

The beginning of this stage is a perfect time to think about incorporating a ‘Rites of Passage’. Historically in many societies, males around the age of ten would be taken out of villages and surrounded by their male elders. There would be some kind of initiation experience, after which, when successful, the boy would return to the group and be celebrated as a man, with all the responsibilities and privileges. The men continued to mentor and guide the young man over the years. They provided guidance and support, while holding the young man accountable. Today we don’t have that in most of our cultures, and often boys never know when they are expected to move away from boyhood and boyish behaviour. Girls know immediately that once their first menstruation cycle occurs, they are young women. They are part of a clan of females, and are expected to put their babyish ways behind them from that point on. There is no such reference for boys. Perhaps that is also a component in some societal problems males have. Perhaps they keep trying to find ways to prove that they are now a man.

Keep in mind the importance of peer relationships and try to have your home a place where they can congregate and feel welcomed. Keeping yourself connected to his friends reinforces and strengthens your connection to  your son.

Lastly, remember how life was for you as a teenager. Reflecting can help you gain more compassion for your child. He will get through it, and the more knowledgeable you are about specific challenges he will face, the better supported he will feel. Just as he struggled to be independent at two years old, with tantrums to mark times of frustration, so too is this a time where your boy is pushing to be independent and truly understand what that means. Never forget that little boy inside – he is still there. Throughout it all, remember that the most important thing is to keep your connection to him. No matter what he does, or says, remember he is struggling and show him that he is loved, even when at times he is not liked. Be your son’s greatest advocate. Your continued support will definitely make a difference. Provide family opportunities to spend time with cousins and uncles as well so that his circle of males is complete.

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