Human Response

Mothers of Teen Age Sons
August 22, 2008, 4:23 am
Filed under: Family Values

This summer, I visited friends who are mothers of teenage sons. The refrains I heard were similar:

‘He’s just not showing any initiative.’
‘He needs to find something to be passionate about.’
‘If he doesn’t buckle down, he’s not going to get anywhere.’

The boys are 14, 15, 16 years old, skinny, awkward, sleepy, with that dazed look as they head out the door. If you haven’t seen them for a few months, you are struck by the physical changes in their appearance, faces are angular, shoulders and chests are broader, legs and arms are long with muscle definition. These boys are growing up. In earlier times and other cultures, they would be entering rituals to cross the threshold into manhood.

I remember this, the sense of responsibility I felt, searching for how to focus my teenage sons, how to get those long limbs moving, how to point their brains toward something worthwhile, something that would excite them, attract them, move them.

New Learning
Here’s what I’ve learned about teenage boy brains that I wish I knew 10 years ago. Boy brains, at age 14, 15, 16 do not process things like initiative or planning or consequences. Their brains are skilled at learning HOW to do things, but the very part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that processes WHY you should do something, is quiet and still, still in development.
Neuroscientists, including Dr. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging, child psychiatry branch, National Institute of Mental Health, are documenting how differently our brains develop than what we thought. Previously, we thought brains were ‘done’ at about age 12, because they stop growing in size. Now we know that development continues into our 20’s and affects the kind of thinking we are able to do.

Generally about 18 months behind girls in cortex development and maturation, teenage boys learn HOW to drive a car easily, but don’t think about WHY to obey the speed limit. They can figure out HOW to get alcohol or drugs, but don’t consider WHY that might be dangerous. The part of the brain that manages planning and judgment, the prefrontal cortex, lags behind, catching up about age 21 and finishing maturation perhaps by age 25.

For more understanding about this, read “What Makes Teens Tick,” Time, May 2004 by Claudia Wallis, Kristina Dell, with reporting by Alice Park/New York. Here’s the link:
The article summarizes brain research by Dr. Jay Giedd, Paul Thompson, Andrew Lee, Kiralee Hayashi and Arthur Toga, UCLA Lab of Neuro Imaging; Nitin Gogtay and Judy Rapoport, child psychiatry branch, National Institute of Mental Health. These neuroscientists are looking at brain activity through functional MRIs, photographing brain activity. Every parent should be learning about what these scientists are learning
Many of us vividly remember episodes of horror, learning what our teenage sons had been doing and asking (actually, shrieking) ‘What were you thinking?’ The boys’ response would be, ‘I don’t know.’ Now I understand that they literally didn’t know WHY they courted that obviously bad idea. It wasn’t obvious to them. It was something they figured out HOW to do and so they did it.

As these young men reach their twenties, their brains continue to develop and the part of the brain that can process WHY comes online. Boys who flipped coins to make decisions about where to travel, now make plans, reservations, consider costs, consequences, choices. Things look dangerous to them that would once have looked exciting. All the self management skills you are hoping for your son, will appear, just a few years later than you expected.

As the mother of a teenage son, your job is to explain the WHY until his own prefrontal cortex kicks in. Use a low calm voice. Make eye contact. Be brief. You get 60 seconds to make your point. Be patient. Pick your battles. Nagging about a messy room, a haircut, or baggy pants, should not take priority over WHY to obey the speed limit and avoid drinking and driving.

Distractions: Sex and Growth
There are a few other things causing your son’s apparent lack of attention to things you think are crucial. My husband comments that ’boys get mugged by their hormones.’ It is hard for mothers/women to get a good sense of how overwhelming sexual feelings are for teenage boys. Maybe now that I experience hot flashes, I have a better sense for the irrational hormonal response that overcomes you when you least expect it, want it or can deal with it: the physical change that you think everyone can see, the need to do something, strip off clothes, leave the room, the inability to concentrate or hear what anybody is saying to you. Maybe now I have some sense of how teenage boys feel when something female walks by.

Mothers get mixed up in this, because most of us are unaware of what we compete with. The most helpful clue I got was when someone explained to me boys believe their mothers can read their minds and believe their mothers will see their sexual thoughts, too. Just when you start talking with your son about how he needs to ‘buckle down’, some cleavage walks by or shows up on a billboard or is conjured up by a song on the radio. While you are talking, he’s dealing with 1) cleavage and 2) how to act as if nothing is happening even though his entire body is focused on cleavage, 3) all the while convinced that you know exactly what he is thinking about and 4) how embarrassing for your MOTHER know you are obsessed with sex. Your son might like to ‘buckle down,’ too, but right now he’s dealing with this other phenomenon and he’ll get back to you when he can.

These boys are tired and hungry from growing. Lack of interest in a plan may be because their bodies are hard at work, building and rebuilding bone structure, muscle, at an exhausting pace. Food is more interesting to them than sex and has the same demand on their consciousness. Their growth can cause clumsiness, an unconscious need to relearn how to move. From month to month, their arms and legs are noticeably longer, requiring different balance and coordination. Imagine constantly reorganizing how you walk, dress, open a door, go down the stairs, navigate in a crowd, seeing a changing face in the mirror each morning, with erupting skin, and caring deeply about how all that looks to the opposite sex.

To cover all this confusion and change, teenage boys develop skill in appearing aloof, disinterested, bored. The shields are up lest you see how great the struggle really is. What looks like a teenager doing nothing, is actually a warrior regrouping energies and emotions. Your challenge is to wait for the moments when the shields go down, hunger is sated, hormones are lulled, and that boy’s body is rested and awake. Cook something. Bake something.

Lasting Influence
As a mother, rest easy in knowing you are present in your son’s heart and soul. As girls and daughters, we underestimate our influence when we aren’t talking. The boy is studiously ignoring you but you are in his consciousness. Ask the grown men in your life to describe their mothers and you will be stunned at the intenseness of their feelings about a woman they have not lived with in decades. Think about what kind of presence you want to be. Do you want to be a nagging voice echoing in the distance? Do you want to be an anxious spirit threatening doom? Will you be a tedious scorecard of unfinished to do lists?

I would like my sons to think of me as their Number One Advocate. I know they  actually think of me as someone who ruled their lives imperiously, worried incessantly, and significantly embarrassed them at some key moment, insisted on vegetables at every meal and decided where we went on vacation. I’m trying very hard to change that!

Elizabeth Schar
August 20, 2008


5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Your article confirmed what I have been suspecting for weeks as I have watched my teenage son’s attention dwindle. He is 15, was diagnosed with ADHD 6 or 7 years ago, and nothing — not even his meds — seems to phase this lack of attention that has come on the past several weeks. He is currently being re-evaluated for ADHD and taking a comprehensive personality test through a psychologist. I am frustrated, but hopeful that this too shall pass.

Comment by Dee Dee Wike

Dear Elizabeth,
What a beautiful article. I had a huge fight with my 14-year-old last week and I’m still reeling from how far away from me he seemed that day – we usually have been very close. But the suggestion of being Number One Advocate I will take to heart, and I truly thank you for your wisdom.

Comment by Eve Powell

no your article has not helped me, my son is so angrywith me he hates me so much and I dont even know what i have done he just hates me and is moving out now and he is just 17 I have loved him all his life given him everything I am lost I cant do anything and if he leaves I have nothing left to live for I cant do anything but cry now so baking is out he wont talk to me wont even eat at home is out all day and night and yells at me when he is here and this came out of the blue we were so close then he snapped and there is nothing I can do, so no, your article has not helped me, I now have no reason to live, and I am not living, this is all to hard now

Comment by B

Hello, I am taking in all that you wrote and looking back on how difficult it has been to control myself when I get angry at my seventeen year old’s actions or lack of action. It is difficult for me to sit back and watch my son waste time watching TV, playing xbox, and on facebook and tiny chat or Ovoo with strange girls that do not even live nearby or that he will never see because they are in Canada or snowed in in some snowy region. This is especially hard when he has applications due for colleges, and scholarship opportunities with deadlines approaching. It is even harder when one of us has been out of work and money is tighter than ever and non existent and he will not even get a part time job knowing how many times we have informed him how difficult it is for us to pay for his expenses. We have gone into debt to put him into the best school nearby and it means nothing. The procrastination goes on and the grades have slipped because of these bad habits. I have tried everything but in the end I believe he is rebelling against my anger and me trying to control him to do the right thing. Another pet peeve of mine is knowing that he has the opportunity to graduate with highest honors in an activity that requires him to complete a project and he just will not show any initiative to complete it and the clock is ticking so fast and the deadline is quickly approaching. For him, it seems so much easier to check out and just see what happens with no proaction whatsoever. He thinks it is ok to tell people and colleges that he is doing this when he has no intentions of doing it and it is all a lie. This is so against our values. I think we have done too much for our son and now this is what we have at hand. Grades slipped from 3.46 gpa to 3.0 this last semester. HELP!

Comment by Mari

I know your pain and I think you are correct in your evaluation. Being resistant to you is the easiest and safest thing your son can do right now. Everything else is scary, including girls( that’s why distant and unavailable girls are so interesting). The concept of leaving home and high school is scary. Years later, when our son was a jr in college, he remarked that he resisted ( just as your son is doing) college applicationsand anything else that had to do with the future because he did not want high school to end. Your son likely loves the school you’ve worked so hard to send him to–so much that he does not want to leave.

Elizabeth Schar 650-862-4604 315 Homer Ave #309 Palo Alto, CA. 94301

Comment by Elizabeth

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