Ask the expert
Janey Downshire, co-author of Teenagers Translated, outlines straightforward steps to help distant teens open up
Q: My 15-year-old son rarely communicates in anything but monosyllables and I have no idea what’s going on in his life. What’s the best way of getting him to talk, and listen, to us?
A: Janey Downshire, a counsellor specialising in teenage development and co-author with Naella Grew of Teenagers Translated: A Parent’s Survival Guide (Vermilion, £12.99), says: “This is a difficult stage when the natural separation from parents can feel abrupt, especially with boys who can seem very withdrawn. Almost overnight, your son seems to transform from an affectionate boy to a grizzly, distant teenager.
“What can help is to give him more space, but don’t disengage. Separation from mum is even harder than from dad, so avoid showing hurt and resentment, as this can make communication even worse. This may be a time when dads or uncles do better at getting a bit more out of your son.
“Boys are better at talking when they’re doing something side-by-side, so try to engineer opportunities, like car journeys, cooking or walking.
“Be intuitive to his mood. If he seems more communicative, avoid launching into a ‘big’ conversation. Try raising a casual topic to get him talking — even a few minutes on an inconsequential subject gets the interaction going.
“Get him talking about things he’s good at and enjoys. Teenage boys can feel unsure of themselves and being reminded of their strengths will trigger good biochemicals (dopamine), and not only encourage them to talk but also build self-confidence.
“Part of the reason boys communicate less well is because the bridge connecting their right and left brains is less efficient than a girl’s, so they’re less able to put their feelings into words, hence the grunts and nods.
“Focus on being approachable and emotionally warm — if he feels connected and safe, he’s more likely to share things with you. Boys need to make mistakes and take risks, so avoid jumping to conclusions and being overtly critical when he mentions his friends’ antics. It’s a good way for him to test and see if he could share things with you.
“Have fun. Laughter and spontaneity trigger good chemicals and a sense of wellbeing that will transfer into better communication.”