Good News for Fathers of Teen Boys

Richard Louv
January 3, 2013

Not long ago I met with a group of psychologists that gathers once a month to discuss men's issues and share their personal concerns, as men and as fathers.

I took advantage of the invitation and asked them for some tips on raising an adolescent. In particular, I wanted to know: Is the fabled struggle between fathers and teen-age sons avoidable? (At this meeting, the group focused almost exclusively on the father-son relationship; the father-daughter relationship must be equally puzzling.)

"I think an emotionally violent conflict is avoidable," said one psychologist. Others said that the conflict is necessary but can be softened -- and can even be a positive experience.

Here are some of their collective insights:

  • Adolescence is as natural as birth. Until 11 or 12, children rely primarily on their parents for their moral and intellectual guideposts, but then they begin to reach beyond their parents. Adolescence is, in fact, a kind of birth, with its own form of labor.
  • Don't expect long, mano-a-mano talks. Particularly at 12 or 13, a young person is struggling with sometimes overpowering and confusing hormonal changes; they're overloaded, flooded and usually not able to verbalize (at least not to parents) their inner turmoil. But action helps. Go fishing. Go to the gym together, said one psychologist. Build an "action relationship." (I'm thinking now of the long walks my son and I sometimes take; I find it useful to listen to him talk about his world of comics and, now, increasingly of music. These worlds are metaphors for his feelings.)
  • Be friends, as best you can. The nature of the conflict between a father and an adolescent son is determined by the quality of their friendship. An exchange of views can be full of anger, but the fury need not last, as long as some degree of friendship is there. One psychologist warned: Sometimes friendship isn't enough. Adolescents rebel. That's part of their job. "But if you can hang in there and keep the love alive, things will work out."
  • You're no longer the only man in his life. Adolescence is a time when he must reach out to other men for mentoring, learning, growth. A father can feel a mixture of pride and pain at this inevitable separation. It helps to know that you're not being permanently replaced and that your son's reaching out is part of his development.
  • Accept your son's challenge. It's your son's destiny to compete with you, to question your rules, even your feelings. As one psychologist put it with a gentle laugh, "The moment of truth comes when you realize your son has more testosterone than you do." Your response to this challenge can make or break the relationship. Reject it, and you and your son are in trouble; accept it, and you can help your son win a few.
  • Win some, lose some. Suddenly your son is hitting more hoops than you are, or scoring more points at a dinner-table political discussion. Men are conditioned by the culture to compete, so as a good father you're likely to find yourself conflicted between the impulse to win and the desire to help your son become a man. Stay engaged: Compete, but not to win at any cost. In the best father-son relationships, one psychologist said, there is "a certain playfulness, a wrestling battle." Muscles aren't built by lifting feathers; muscles are built by lifting weight. The same is true of character. When your son does win, rejoice in his growth.
  • Sometimes love isn't enough. A father and a son can both be of good heart, but the death struggle happens anyway. Sometimes the father and son love each other, but the relationship disintegrates. Have faith. Healing can come many years later. One man remembered something his father had said to him one day: "I never got the grade-point average that you do. I'm proud of you." Whatever else this father and son said to each other over several rocky years, that sentence survived.

I came away from my discussion with the psychologists feeling better about my relationship with my sons and about the future. Like every other stage of my sons' growth, their adolescence marks the end of something, but it also marks a beginning.

Richard Louv is Senior Editor of Connect for Kids and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is also author of "101 Things You Can Do for Our Children's Future" (Anchor) and "The Web of Life" (Conari).

Orignally published in February 1999, but reviewed and updated in January 2013