How Can I Get My Teenage Son to Open Up?

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Dear AdviceMama,

My son isn't interested in sharing a lot of what he is feeling and he becomes annoyed when I try to talk to him. We seem to be managing all right, but I know things must eat him up inside every day, and it sometimes comes out in explosive anger if we have a fight. How can I get him to open up?

Mom who misses son

Dear Mom,

The best way to encourage a teen to open up is to "teach" him that it is safe to do so. Many of us react to the things our kids tell us by becoming angry or threatening, giving unwanted advice or overwhelming them with questions.

When we do this, our kids learn that, despite their desire to lean on us as a trusted confidante and guide -- which they need, it's best to keep things to themselves. Even worse, they may end up confiding in their friends about their problems, which is like the blind leading the blind.

Our teens do need us to be a sounding board for them, but we have to be careful not to scare them off with our reactions when they begin to open up to us.

Chances are, your son "tests" you from time to time by sharing a tidbit about his day, or a piece of news about something he's heard. Depending on how you react, he may tell you more -- or shut down and walk away.

It's not easy to keep your thoughts and suggestions to yourself when he opens up, but it is in your best interest to keep him talking by simply saying, "Oh," "Really?" or whatever signals him that you're listening and capable of hearing more.

I'm not saying you won't eventually weigh in with advice or input, but it's important to give your son a chance to offload some of what he has to say -- without interruption -- before you jump in. You may even prime the pump by asking him what he thinks about things, whether it's related to politics, movies or music.

The more you're able to show him you can respect what he has to say, the more your son will discover that it's safe to confide in you.

Finally, ask your son to tell you what he needs if he brings up a sensitive subject. If you let him know you're willing to weigh in with advice, or simply listen if that's what he wants, he'll be more relaxed about saying more.

Your son's explosiveness may indeed be a result of bottling up big feelings. If that is the case, then these suggestions may help you provide him with a safe way to avoid penting up his feelings by sharing them -- tentatively, at first -- with you. It also may help to connect him with a trustworthy male mentor; teenage boys often have things going on in their lives that are simply too awkward to discuss with their mother.

If his temper becomes a serious problem, though, please consider finding professional help. While occasional outbursts are normal in adolescence with hormone fluctuations combining with school and social stressors, if your son's only way of expressing emotions is to rage, it is important to provide him with additional strategies for coping with life's inevitable frustrations and disappointments.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.