Getting information out of a teen boy can be difficult, if not impossible. The stereotypes of teen boy communication at this age—monosyllabic answers to every question, a complete lack of eye contact, and the inevitable eye roll when you ask them about their life—are often true. And then there’s the struggle to get them away from their phone, video game, or other device long enough to have a heart-to-heart talk.
Here are five ways for parents and other caregivers and mentors to push through those barriers and learn how to talk to boys about their mental health.
Do More Listening Than Talking
Most boys are not as verbally prolific as their female counterparts. Many male teens are conditioned not to show as much emotion or even give as many cues through body language or facial expressions. This requires parents and care providers to be that much more attentive to the cues teen boys do give, and the few words that they do say. As parents and caregivers, you need to talk less and listen more.
The most productive feedback about a teen boy’s mental health comes from watching and listening. Look for changes in sleep, mood, level of irritability, and eating habits. Pushing for verbal communication isn’t always necessary or helpful. When a boy is emotionally volatile, he can perceive questions as prying or judgmental, and may become defensive and even less likely to open up. Active listening will help earn his trust, and, over time, he will be more likely to open up.
Make It Okay to Be Vulnerable
When parents and other adults are vulnerable and talk about their feelings openly, while respecting appropriate boundaries, teens are more likely to respond in kind. In particular, if another male figure—whether a father, older brother, or mentor—is willing to communicate about emotions and struggles associated with male mental health, teen boys will feel encouraged and safe to express their emotions.
Establishing honest communication requires acceptance, compassion, and a nonjudgmental attitude. One of the most common errors adults make is communicating to boys that their emotions are unacceptable or shameful. Dismissive messages such as “Grow up,” “Be a man,” or “Deal with it” send a message that being vulnerable is wrong or that it is not okay to feel what they’re feeling. These types of messages, whether explicit or implicit, keep boys from sharing what they’re feeling or letting parents know they need help. That may be one of the reasons why a recently releases study of private mental healthcare claims for teens during April and May 2020 found that females accounted for more than two-thirds of mental health claims.
Teen Boys Need Mental Health Education
How male mental health is perceived and discussed at home directly impacts how a teen boy relates to this topic and how willing he will be to discuss it. For example, if a friend or family member is diagnosed with or receiving treatment for any type of mental health condition, be open, and discuss it.
New stories about celebrities struggling with mental health or addiction, movies or TV on these subjects, and peers’ social media posts can all serve as doorways to talking about teen mental health. Watch for opportunities to encourage mental health education through school or other activities. Parents who are open and educated about mental health will encourage a similar mindset in their son.
Respect Their Emotional and Personal Space
As a parent or caregiver, a good rule of thumb for any type of personal or emotional question is to ask twice, but not too many times. The first time lets him know that you are interested; the second time demonstrates that you care. But more than that makes you seem invasive or nosy if he is not ready to open up. Showing concern and yet respecting personal space allows him to build trust—and those trusting bonds between parents and adolescents are proven to decrease the risk of anxiety and depression.
There may be times when it is appropriate to check an electronic device, journal, bedroom, or another personal item. When there are serious concerns about substance abuse, self-harm, or other issues for a teen boy or one of his friends, checking a teen’s devices may be appropriate. But this is a violation of personal privacy and may create lasting damage to his trust in you or your relationship with him. Whenever possible, focus on creating trust and getting him to share, rather than looking for answers by betraying his trust.
Be Open to Conversations as They Arise
Sometimes, the most honest and heartfelt communication happens when it’s not planned—while driving, working together, exercising together, or playing together. All of the listening, respectfulness, and trust-building may come to fruition at the most unexpected moments, so it is important to be ready to listen.
Moreover, when a teen boy is verbally communicating, don’t interrupt. Eventually, you will have the opportunity to offer feedback and advice, but if you don’t let him finish talking, he may stop talking altogether. Even if what you’re hearing is scary or upsetting, stay calm and, when he’s ready to hear from you, assure him you will weather the storm together.
In summary, listen to and observe teen boys, and then create opportunities to learn more about male mental health together. Patience, acceptance, and unconditional love will build the foundation on which a teen boy feels safe to share his inner self.