In Conversation, They're Little Big Men : Family: Teen-age boys may act like they couldn't care less about Mom, but good communication is possible--as long as it doesn't turn into an interrogation.


They look rather like men and assume postures they think manly.

Their humor is puerile. They're distant and close-mouthed. And these teen-age boys seem to have very little use for their old moms anymore.

Some women figure there's nothing to do but retreat.

"I think that's a very common mistake. Because he's not a man, although he's becoming one," says Ann F. Caron, a Greenwich, Conn., psychologist and mother of six grown children, four of them male.

These off-putting young men do want to stay connected to their mothers, "but they don't want to be absorbed," Caron says. Figuring out the boundaries instead of bowing out is one of the best things a mother can do for an adolescent son, says Caron, author of "Strong Mothers, Strong Sons" (Henry Holt, $22.50).

While it's natural for a boy to become increasingly independent, his mother is still a major influence in his life, Caron says, and boys want close relationships with parents as much as do girls.

Even with young boys, gender-related communication patterns tend to cause problems for mothers, Caron says. Males relate to others primarily by talking about experiences or things, while females focus on emotions and relationships. A mother, wanting to know what's going on in a son's life, often takes the wrong approach.

Parents interrogate their kids out of a sense of responsibility but often get in a hopeless rut with it. Sometimes parents' talk with teen-agers is mostly issuing orders and trying to get information--"Where are you going?" "Who was there?"

Teen-age boys she interviewed "really couldn't understand their mothers wanting to know more about their lives. And it's very understandable why mothers, particularly now, want to know more."

"A mother who wants her son to be able to communicate feelings as well as facts faces an uphill but not impossible task," Caron writes. "I think she first has to acknowledge that her son has an inner core that belongs to him alone. That inner self must be respected. An adolescent boy who retreats from his mother's probing is afraid or can't articulate what he is feeling and would like to leave well enough alone," at least for the moment.

"If interrogation isn't working, you have to find another way of going about it," Caron says. "Anything that doesn't work, don't keep doing."

Many parents need help with listening skills, Caron says, so they don't frustrate kids who do begin to talk by jumping in with advice and judgments.

If a mother learns to communicate effectively with her son, she is not only more likely to get the information she wants about what's going on but can help the boy learn to discuss his inner life.

But even boys who feel comfortable talking to their mothers will not habitually confide, "and a mother must be prepared to accept this from an adolescent boy," Caron says.

She advocates using "the old-fashioned art of conversation."

"It's very helpful in drawing them out--sharing our lives a little bit with them, rather than interrogating," Caron says.

She also advises:

* Speak clearly and directly to adolescent sons. Boys often have trouble interpreting unspoken messages, she says, and women often speak in an indirect way.

* Remember that talking is not the only way to form close bonds. Enjoy being with him. Boys are generally more comfortable talking about personal issues in the context of doing something with you, rather than sitting down for a talk.

* Respect his confidence in you if he does open up. Do not repeat to others what he says.

* Don't take his silence as a personal rejection.

* Listen attentively to your son, and if you're not sure what he's saying, ask for clarification.

* Be willing to negotiate with him about rules and chores; he'll be more cooperative.

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