– by Kimmy Peterson, MFT –
The life of a parent includes helping your child navigate transitions; from a once tiny snuggly baby boy, to an on the go toddler, an exploring grade schooler, an awkward preteen, and now, a young adult learning to become independent. These transitions have each been made with minor fails, a few emotional wounds, and thankfully some victories. This newest transition into a young adult might be one of the toughest, not only for your own mental sanity, but for your son also.
You are now questioning, “What’s going on in our son’s brain?” At one point you could easily determine your sons needs, thoughts, and feelings. Overnight this has become much more difficult. Your son often doesn’t respond to your questions, or if so, responds in only one or two words. He has become less engaged and would rather not be spending time with his family. How do parents maintain a connection to their son as they grow into young adulthood?
To help understand we can look at a study on the young adult brain and its functioning conducted by researchers at MIT. Their findings showed that, when teens enter young adulthood, their thinking capacities, relationship skills, and ability to regulate emotions are unlikely to be at a developmental level where they can cope easily with the demands of a diverse, global, technological, rapidly-changing world. If all goes well at this developmental stage, biology and environment will bring a surge of growth paralleling those experienced in childhood and adolescence.
Your son has much more going on in his brain and is being pulled in more ways than his often blank stare lets on. He is learning to navigate this whole new world of becoming a young adult. What was once a mind filled with simple thoughts of playing with friends, playing video games, engaging in an occasional outside activity, and interacting with family, has now become a place where he is constantly figuring out all that life beyond the family has to offer. These thoughts could cover a wide range: the importance of school grades; demands of sport participation and schedules; peer and social pressures; creating new intimate relationships; extra circular activities; creating and maintaining an identity/image; the constant pressure to be connected by technology; managing the blending of family values, with finding/developing his own self. He is now processing other people’s points of views and perspectives, determining if they align with his own ideas. He is becoming more aware of his actions and how they might affect others.
There are some important things parents can do to foster this growth and development:
Allow processing Time
Allow your son time to process his thoughts before you require an answer. He needs processing time to internally test his options before he can respond. Refrain from the urge to jump on him for ignoring you and or not engaging. Teenage boys and men in general process their feelings and thoughts differently than women and may take longer to work through their process. Males also tend to internalize their feelings more and there may be a reluctance to share them. You can try offering more space and less judgement to get to know what he is really thinking and needing. Try asking “open ended questions” instead of yes or no questions such as, “How would you . . .” “What would be the outcome if . . .” Allow your son to get back to you in a day or two if you ask a more personal question.
Create Space for conversation
Providing time and private space without creating judgement will allow your son to feel more open to sharing. When your son does open up, or makes a request you don’t agree with, don’t shut his idea down right away. Use the opportunity as a learning experience. Create a pros and cons list with and him and allow him to share his reasoning. This gives both of you the ability to share without engaging in an argument and also teaches him how to process information and thoughts in an adult manner. Being able to model positive and healthy communication techniques will help your son be able to communicate and process his needs and feelings in the future.
Model Balanced Thinking
Help create a balance in your son’s busy schedule. Although you as a parent may feel rejected by your son, continue to provide him with ways to connect with the family. It may feel like all your son wants to do is be on his phone, computer, or with friends. Take the time to set up regular time and space to check in. Have weekly technology free family dinners. Foster healthy conversations about others and their opinions. Plan one on one time that you can spend with your son engaging in a physical activity you can both enjoy. Allow your son to be the expert and learn something new from him – new technology applications are an important topic your son can help you to stay on top of. You have provided him with family values, morals, unconditional love and support, trust that he will utilize those. Trust yourself as a parent. Allow your son to make mistakes and learn from them as he transitions into being a young adult.
Resource links: MIT Young Adult Development Project
Rae Simpson, Ph.D. Serving as co-Pl is William Kettyle, M.D. “MIT Young Adult Development Project.” Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology. 2008 http://hrweb.mit.edu/worklife/youngadult/index.html
Kimmy Peterson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Petaluma offering counseling for teen boys and teen girls to help them make the transition from childhood to adolescence. Kimmy has extensive experience working with both individual teens and with families to help build communication skills and decrease unnecessary conflict.