Talking with Teen Guys: 10 Tips for Parents, Teachers, Coaches, & Mentors
Teenage guys want connection. They crave emotional intimacy. They want to be understood. They have plenty of questions. But so many lack the emotional fluency to articulate what's going on inside, and that presents challenges to those of us who parent, teach, coach, or mentor them through these turbulent years. The sheer tonnage of what goes unsaid in the course of a guy's adolescent years is, I figure, roughly equal to the mass of a neutron star.
After more than twenty years of teaching, coaching, and mentoring at all-male high schools, I've learned some things about what works and what doesn't when trying to talk to these fascinating kids about anything deep–when addressing matters of the heart, or navigating the big challenges of the age. My own three kids are not yet teenagers, so I have exactly zero experience parenting teens. That said, I've worked with thousands of guys over two decades, so I've picked up a thing or two that might helpful to fellow parents.
Here are ten tips worth considering. First, let me acknowledge that these are generalizations, and therefore not universal; however, in general, something becomes a generalization because it's generally true. Also, while I'm making these assertions about guys based on my professional experience, that doesn't mean some of what I'm saying isn't also relevant to girls. I just can't claim the experiential knowledge in the same way.
Okay. Here we go. If you want to develop meaningful connections with the adolescent guys you parent, coach, teach, or mentor...
1: PRESUME GOOD WILL
Our culture has done a pretty darn good job portraying teen guys in a negative light. Our social media landscape and its clickbait dynamics falsely normalize what are actually sensational super-outliers. We have a skewed picture of listless, apathetic video-game addicts at best and violent, hyper-sexual, toxic predators at worst. This ignores the overwhelming majority of young men who are neither intrinsically lazy nor sociopathic.
So, before you even enter into conversation, remember that the person before you is an individual, and more likely than not, basically a good kid. It is possible to get burned here? Of course. Might a kid harbor nasty intentions quite the opposite of good will? Sure. But consider the alternative–the presumption of ill-will is not going to get you too far.
2: PRESUME EMOTIONAL COMPLEXITY
There's more to teen guys than libido, sports, and video games. My favorite metaphor for the interior life of boys and men is the Grand Canyon. It's deep, complex in its striation and form, and it runs below the surface of the surrounding land. From a distance, it's just a giant tear in the desert, but get in close and you discover the variety (and beauty) of the terrain. At the deepest parts run powerful waters–sometimes calm and sometimes raging–constantly re-shaping the canyon.
So try to enter conversation aware of that complexity–knowing that much of it is far below ground level, out of sight. Sometimes things are pretty simple: a kid just needs more sleep, more exercise, or a better diet. Sometimes a guy just needs to be part of something, like a team. Maybe a relationship is simply toxic. But usually, there's more to the story than meets the eye. Make that your default presumption, rather than assuming it's just a simple issue. You might be wrong, but at least you'll be compensating for society's tendency to assume men and boys aren't emotionally complex.
3: DON'T UNDERESTIMATE PHYSICAL FACTORS
An old maxim goes, "as goes the mind, so goes the body." There's wisdom in that, but it works both ways. On the first day of school, I always tell the guys in my classes that while studying and effort are important, the true keys to success in school are sleep, diet, and exercise. In today's era of smartphone addiction, the negative impact of inadequate sleep on growing teenagers can't be overstated, and we know the cascading detrimental effects of sleep deprivation are far reaching.
Periodically ascertain whether the kid is eating well, and eating enough. The caloric needs during this age of growth are mind-blowing. A lot of boys move through their days running on empty carbs and sugary garbage, often dehydrated. A lot of boys are pretty athletic by nature, but a lot of them aren't. If you're working with a kid who isn't, encourage him to get into an exercise routine. It'll affect his mood, his fitness, and his self-image.
On this last note, don't underestimate the body image pressure under which young guys find themselves these days. Just as popular media has normalized unrealistic body expectations for women for as long as anyone can remember, it has now moved on to boys and men. Constant images of chiseled abs and impossibly cut physiques are prompting a remarkable uptick in male body image issues and corresponding problematic behaviors. The ubiquity of online porn is not helping young guys in this regard, either, for what should be obvious reasons. When you're working with teenage guys, it's helpful to bear in mind the pressure they feel to measure up to expectations, including unrealistic physical ones. It takes a toll on many.
4: INCORPORATE MOVEMENT IN YOUR CONVERSATION
There's a substantial body of research that has determined neurobiological differences between male and female brains, like this study from Stanford, or this very succinct explanation in Psychology Today. Of course, there are also loud voices that oppose this notion, but they seem driven far more by ideological agendas than by medical science. This debate aside, of course, if you've been on planet Earth for any length of time, perhaps you've noticed that men and women tend to be pretty different.
I learned, at a conference offered by the Gurian Institute, that one implication of these differences is that considerably fewer parts of the male brain are firing during verbal conversation when contrasted with the female brain; however, the male brain fires quite differently when simultaneously engaged in both conversation and a gross motor-sensory movement task, such as throwing a ball.
While I don't have the expertise to understand the neuroscience, I do know that conversations with teen guys are almost always better when movement is involved, rather than, say, facing each other across a desk.* Try talking while throwing a ball back and forth, walking, hiking, working on something, or even just driving. I've also found that in most cases, occasional eye contact is better than constant eye contact. That's easier if you're digging a hole together, sitting side by side in a car, paddling a canoe, or walking side-by-side.
*As a side note, I invite you to consider the implications of this upon how we typically run our schools, and then consider the well-documented academic performance gap between boys and girls at every level of education, from kindergarten to university. It's really something to think about.
5: RISK A LITTLE VULNERABILITY
A little bit of vulnerability goes a long way. If you offer a young guy a little insight into your own life and struggles in the form of a personal story, he will usually reciprocate. By offering a relevant anecdote from your own experience, you do two things: First, you offer him something to relate to; second, you show that you're invested enough to trust him with the story. It would be great if trust weren't so transactional, but the reality is that it has to be earned.
Obviously, you have to be careful with this one. It's important to maintain appropriate boundaries, and not every topic is appropriate in every context. You can't walk back the things you share, so the key is discretion. Keeping details out of the conversation is probably the best approach. Consider sharing only what the kid needs to know to make what you're sharing honest, relevant, and effective. The key is to show (and share) your humanity. It's entirely possible to do that while also keeping the focus where it belongs–on him, not on you.
6: EMBRACE THEIR HUMOR...APPROPRIATELY
Teenage guys are funny. Laugh with them. Understand that humor is an important vehicle for emotional expression between and among guys. Paradoxically, light-hearted insults can actually be meaningful gestures of affection and even affirmation. Crazy as it may seem, issuing in goofy jokes and underhanded remarks is a sign of trust among guys, just as wrestling and rough-housing is an affirmation of, and sign of respect for, each other's strength.
There are forces in our culture conspiring to make us fear humor under the threat of arrest by the PC police. To hear some of the crazier corporate training programs focused on workplace culture, you'd think it's wrong even to smile. This is not good for relationships in general, and especially not with teenagers. If you're an adult with any wisdom at all, you can–and should–help keep humor appropriate and in bounds, for sure. Model what's appropriate. But it's important to laugh together. If you spend any time in a functional high school, you'll hear laughter everywhere, for example. And no, it's not all because of offensive or inappropriate jokes. It's because people find joy in each other and express it in contextually-appropriate humor. This might seem like minefield territory, but it really isn't that hard to get right.
7: TALK IN TERMS OF ACTIONS FIRST, THEN FEELINGS
I learned early in my teaching career that asking a room full of teenage boys to talk about how they "feel" about what a character has done in a novel is likely to fall flat. On the other hand, finding a different approach can change everything. If instead of asking what guys feel, you ask them what they'd do if they were in the novel's situation, you're likely going to get a much more meaningful conversation going.
It isn't that the feelings aren't there–you just have to excavate them with some machinery of movement and action. Images and symbols can work well, too. I've often challenged kids to develop appropriate symbols or crests, for example, for the characters in the novels we read. This kind of artistic expression excavates intellectual and emotional gold.
If you're in a one-on-one conversation about a kid's problematic relationship with a friend, for example, it's probably better to hone in on talking about what's happening, first–the feelings will emerge from there. Of course, there are some definite connections here to #4 above.
8: GIVE TESTOSTERONE ITS DUE
Carol Hooven, a well known Harvard evolutionary biologist, is among the most recent expert voices articulating the immense and consequential power of testosterone. Given the surge in this most powerful human hormone in adolescent males–at levels ten to twenty times that in females–it is impossible to ignore in any intelligent consideration of teenage male behavior. Anyone raising or working with teenage boys should take the time to read up on and understand just how remarkably important a factor this is. To neglect doing so would be akin to remaining ignorant as to how much female pubertal development affects female adolescence.
While testosterone often gets a bad rap for its biological association with aggression and sex drive, the newest research indicates that it plays a far more consequential role in everyday male life than previously understood–perhaps especially during adolescence, when it is at peak production. According to experts like Hooven, testosterone is an intrinsic part of male development, not only in terms of what we traditionally associate it with (physical transformation and sexual drive), but also in terms of neural function and associated behavioral patterns.
9: ENGAGE THEIR POSITIVE ENERGY
Teenage guys tend to respond to a call to action, especially if it involves helping someone out. Say what you will about cliches or stereotypes about "traditional masculinity," but in my experience there is an innate desire among most boys and young men to engage their energies in useful projects, particularly those of a charitable or philanthropic nature.
I've found that guys like to build things–and this isn't limited to the obvious examples like treehouses or models. Guys like to build ideas, organizations, structures, and systems. A side benefit of this is that shared endeavors like this can help guys bond–and that's a mightily important thing, especially for the ones who lack those deep and meaningful friendships so vital to health development. Enlisting a kid in a shared project can be a very effective way to connect.
Related to this is the value of meaningful responsibilities and burdens. If you task a guy or a group of guys with a job that matters–and you make clear the possibility of failure, and that the potential failure really does hinge on their efforts–they will respond. Meaningful responsibilities make them stronger.
10: BALANCE AFFIRMATION AND CHALLENGE
Teen guys have a highly-tuned, built-in b.s. detector. They want to be challenged. It helps them get stronger. When they need to be challenged, push back on them to an appropriate degree. They won't break. Though there are obviously exceptions, by and large they aren't fragile, and well-intentioned adults treating them like they are fragile are not doing them any favors.
Conversely, they can tell when they're being lavished with unearned praise–or even just patronized–and they don't like it. Quality over quantity. Spare them any patronizing compliments that carry even a faint whiff of hollowness or contrivance, and stick to authentic praise for things that really matter, so they know you really mean it.
An important note here: Don't limit your praise just to accomplishments, by the way. Kids need to be encouraged with affirmations not so much of what they've accomplished (accomplishments convey their own rewards), but more so of who they are. It's a really healthy thing to affirm good qualities that you've seen in a young guy. He might not show it, but if you are forthright in your delivery, and you keep it on point, an affirmation like this can strike a deep chord and he'll take it to heart.
Teenage guys have a dearth of cultural encouragement. Our culture skews toward highlighting what's wrong with them when they screw up–but tends to ignore the goodness of who they are, for the most part, every day. People who can take a balanced approach to them can help them understand why they matter, and hold them to account while encouraging them along the way.
Working with teenagers is no easy task. It's my hope that some of these perspectives–even just one or two of them–can help you as they've helped me in my work with this fascinating but challenging demographic.