8 Things Every Teenage Son Needs Their Dad To Say
This week, I spoke to a hall full of dads seated next to their teenage sons. Here’s what I said…
“This theme of dad-teen son relationships is really important to me personally because:
- My dad died when I was 16, and I cherish the memory of those last few years with him. The fact that he knew he was terminally ill meant that he was very intentional as a father in his final years. I am for ever grateful for his efforts.
- I have 4 boys who will one day be teens, and I’ve been trying to learn from those who have gone before me. I want to do my best to set them up for life.
- This is one of the most complex and challenging times for both the teenage son and the dad to process. The son is ‘individuating’ – trying to find his identity outside of his parents, hungering for independence even while he still needs close relationship with his mom and dad.
- I worked with teenagers for 15 years of my adult life, and have seen first-hand how pivotal dads are in teenagers’ lives.
- I have had tons of conversations with adult men who speak of the far-reaching emotional impact their fathers have had on them, based on the way they fathered them in their teen years, for good or bad.
The best way I know to help both dads father their sons, and sons be fathered by their dads in this time is to speak of 8 Things Every Teenage Son Needs Their Dad To Say:
1. “Son, you’ve got what it takes.”
A core question in every son’s heart is ‘Dad, do you think that I have what it takes?’
Deep down, every boy wants to know if he has what it takes to face life’s challenges and roles. It’s a question that a dad was made to answer – and to answer affirmatively, first and foremost – before girlfriends and friends and achievements or failures crowd in. The role of the father is to answer with a resounding ‘yes’!
‘You have what it takes, my son!’
There is a longer form of this: ‘My son, I am so proud to be your dad. You have what it takes to be a man in this world. I can feel it in my heart of hearts, that you’re going to be a great man. You’ll be a great gift to this world. You have a strength and some gifts that you will bring to this world. And I know it’s far off, but one day you will be a great husband and dad.’
When father’s don’t answer this question – when they are overcritical, silent, passive or absent – then the son is forced to fill in the blank with a…
‘I don’t know … I doubt it … you will have to find out for yourself … probably not.’
This son is left with an invisible void in his life that he will try to fill up with conquests or accomplishments. But no matter how much success he may pour into that hole, it will never fill up.
Tragically, some fathers do answer their son’s question negatively: ‘No you don’t have what it takes. You’re a wussy. You’re a loser. I wish you were more like your brother. You’re such a disappointment.’ I know of a teenage son who took his life after his father, with his son’s report in hand, said the killing words: ‘You’re such a disappointment.’
2. “Son, I’m struggling.”
One of the toxic dimensions of society is that we tell our men that real ones don’t cry. They don’t show weakness.
‘You’ve got to be strong. You can’t share your feelings. Girls do that. And you don’t want to be a girl.’
No wonder the suicide rate in teen boys is 5 times higher than in girls of the same age.
The best solution? For fathers to model vulnerability to their sons. So doing, they show them that manhood need not involve separating from those with whom we share, or want to share, our deepest secrets.
It is empirically attested that people who feel close enough to someone they can unburden their struggles with, radically increases their mental and physical health, capacity for achievement, life satisfaction and even how long they will live. This is as true for teen dudes as for everyone else.
Us dads feel some pressure to model strength to our sons. But I want to challenge all dads to tell their sons when they’re hurting.
‘My son, I want you to know that I am going through a very difficult time. I am struggling with feelings of anger, and sadness, and fear. I will get through it, but I am hurting. One reason I tell you this is so that you can know that life for a man in this world is sometimes very difficult. There’s no need to pretend it’s not.’
We best set up our kids to thrive in life, not by having it all together, but by being honest when we don’t.
3. “Son, what’s really happening in your life?”
The pressures at home and school tend to tell our kids to ‘man up’, be independent, and keep their problems to themselves.
Yet almost every teen boy I have spoken to about this longs to share their deepest secrets and fears with others, including their dads. They rightly suspect this will make them feel less alone.
Despite this longing, society’s script seems to prevail. One young 17-year-old described how his relationships with friends and parents were slowly fading throughout high school, “like a DJ who uses his cross fader to start fading some sound out slowly.” Connectedness was giving way to alienation.
Though they might not always show it, teen sons would love to say to their dads, ‘Spend more time with me. Ask me about my friendships, and the girl who I like, and my life. Allow me to express my vulnerabilities.’
It’s a myth that girls are emotional, and guys are rational. We’re both rational, and we’re both emotional. We all have feelings we need to learn to express to people who we trust.
Here’s 3 tips for the dads:
1) Be around more. Many dads think that they need to be around a lot when their kids are small, but now that their son seems to need them less, they need to be around less. The opposite is true. The truth is that your son needs to talk to you more, but he will be less likely to. He will wait for the right time to talk. And if you’re not around when he is ready to talk, oh pity.
2) Ask them how they are really. Most times they will answer the question superficially. But every now and then, they will go deeper. Research shows that the more often you ask the question, the higher your chances are of getting the deep answers. So keep throwing out the bait. They will bite eventually.
3) Work on your listening skills. I was speaking to a school counsellor this week who tells me the most common grief she encounters in teen boys is that they don’t feel their father hears them. They then tend to lock themselves in their room, and either retreat inwardly, or maybe reach out for ‘help’ on social media – and who knows what ‘help’ they get there.
4. “Son, I’m interested in your interests.”
Smaller sons tend to be interested in what their dad is interested in. This is because they identify with their father so strongly. This way, dads get to bond with their child with some ease.
But individuation usually leads many teens to purposely pursue their own interests, ones their father does not have.
At this point the father may lament that, without a mutual interest, it’s harder to bond with their sons. But dads, don’t you get it – it’s now your turn to do what your boy used to do for you. You need to lean into his interests.
This includes music styles. You afflicted him all those years with the music you thought was awesome when you were his age and older. It’s time to get into current trends – and listen to your tunes on earphones.
My father was an avid bodybuilder. As a 10-year-old, I used to push weights with him, with no physical effect unfortunately, but with the bonus of bonding with my pops.
When my brother and I became teens, we tossed the weights and took to skateboarding. My dad handled it perfectly. Nope, he didn’t take to skating. But he did help us build a half-pipe in our backyard. And he drove us around to skate spots, where he patiently filmed us.
5. “Son, here’s some dudes I’d encourage you to lean into.”
Steve Biddulph starts his book, ‘Raising Boys’ with this useful insight:
- Boys, ages 0-6 tend to most identify with their moms.
- Older boys, ages 6-12 tend to most identify with their dads.
- Teens, ages 13 plus tend to most identify with older dudes outside their father.
So it makes sense for us dads to especially exploit years 6-12. You can do no wrong. Your son will idolize you. Spend tons of time with them. They are putty in your hands.
But especially in the tween years, we also need to recruit some suitable men – our brothers, our friends, our fathers – to be that team of men in our son’s life. We could enlist them like this:
‘I want to ask you the biggest favour. As you might know, teen boys look beyond their dads for role models. I’d love for you to be one of my son’s. Would you invest in your friendship with him? Ask him questions about his life. Introduce him to cool stuff. Do stuff with him. I want you to be part of that crew of men who are his older friends and role models, introducing him positively into the world of men.’
One idea is to create a rite-of-passage. Western culture alone has failed to give our sons some kind of of rite-of-passage into the world of men. No wonder they are trying so hard to prove their masculinity.
For example, my neighbour just came back from a coming-of-age weekend away with his nephew. All the uncles and the dad’s best friends spent the weekend together with the boy. They messed around as guys do. They gave him a physical challenge. They sat in a circle and gave him advice about life as a man. They told him they believed in him.
For that boy at least, the question, ‘Do I have what it takes?’ was solidly answered. And when he reaches for help, or for inspiration, he knows just the men to turn to.
6. “Son, real men give more than they take.”
Teens are afflicted by several soul-destroying stereotypes of masculinity. And it’s the job of the dad to say outright what a real man is and isn’t.
Stereotype 1: The stud, who has unusual charisma and attractiveness to girls, whom he ‘works’ his way through. They mean nothing to him. They bow to his desires.
“Son, real men don’t use girls. They care for them. Any street dog can shag his way through life, but it takes a real dude to satisfy and be satisfied by one woman for life. That’s the problem with porn. Sure us dudes are wired to love the sight of a naked girl. But regular porn use conditions our minds to objectify them, not care for them. Porn addiction hardly sets us up for success and satisfaction in marriage one day.’
Stereotype 2: The bully, who makes others feel small with either his show of strength, or the popularity he can leverage against them, or his quick-mouth.
‘Son, the real man doesn’t walk over other men. He stands shoulder to shoulder with men, and rises up with them, sometimes carrying them, and sometimes being carried by them. Real men don’t exploit the weakness of others. Rather they stand in to protect the bullied.’
Stereotype 3: The show off, who confuses bravado and the applause of other impressed dudes with masculinity.
‘Son, the real man is a man of courage. Not the courage of bravado. Rather, the courage to do the right thing, even when it costs you.’
In all of these, the pseudo-man takes.
The real man? He gives. He cares for women. He lifts up his brothers. He protects those who are easy-targets for bullies. He stands for what’s right.
Of course, us dads need to do more than tell our sons what a real man is. We need to show our sons. More is caught by our example than can be taught with our words. Our sons watch how we treat their mom, how we speak of those not in the room.
Listen, I know this is a lot to take in and act upon. I’m not trying to cripple dads with a sense of inadequacy. I know very few dads who feel they have set the best example for their sons.
Yet, when we have failed to give them the example they deserve, our words can still help:
“Son, I want to say sorry for not living up to what a real man should be in that instance (name it). I ask you to not follow my example there. I am a work in progress, and I want you to know that I am committed – it might take a while – to being a better man.”
Teen sons, can I ask you to show some mercy for your fallen father?
In our teens, we all tend to over-criticize our parents. It’s a typical way of ‘individuating’, where you try get away from being under their shade. But perhaps we need to analyse our levels of disappointment. Boys tend to over-inflate their father’s perfection in the younger years. It’s not surprising then, that when we finally open our eyes to our father’s frailties and flaws and failings, we’re going to be disappointed. But can’t you see that you set him too high in your mind in the first place? The great fall didn’t happen in reality. It happened in your mind. So cut him a little slack.
I know it’s hard to hear, but your dad needs your unconditional love as much as you need his. Forgive him. Be inspired by his good qualities, and learn from his failures.
7. “Son, that’s not acceptable!”
There are two parts of the brain which shape human behaviour. Picture them as an accelerator and a brake.
- The accelerator is that part of the brain that exploits opportunities, pursues excitement and takes risk.
- The brake (the prefrontal cortex) is responsible for regulating emotions, making complex decisions and understanding consequences.
When a boy reaches puberty, the accelerator pedal suddenly gets big. (Nope, not that pedal!) But the brake’s growth seriously delays – in fact it only is complete by the time a male is 24.
I think of my buddy who, when he was 16, loaded his younger siblings into their dad’s now stolen car, and drove down the road at 200 kmph! Luckily, they lived to tell the tale.
No wonder teens still need parents, and along with them, boundaries, consequences and feedback.
My personal advice to teenage dudes is to pursue excitement in healthy ways – which means any way other than violence, loose sex, porn, drugs and alcohol. Get your brain’s dopamine rush in sports or some hobby.
Looking back at my teen years, my newly-found faith in God gave me some personal restraint, but I think surfing played as important a role. I remember leaving parties early and sober because I wanted an early night for the surf the next morning. I always got on it earlier than my hungover friends.
Also, choose your friends well. The choice of your friends – and it is a choice! – determines the quality and direction of your life. Choose dudes who live excitingly and yet wisely too.
Dads, with your son’s brain wiring him to want to take risks and go way too fast, it’s so important you sometimes act as the brake and confidently, lovingly, say the words, ‘That’s not acceptable!’
‘No, you may not talk to your mom, my wife, like that!’
‘No, you can’t go to that party. You get as much freedom as you can handle, and last term you showed us you aren’t ready for that kind of freedom.’
They need boundaries. They need consequences. They need an external set of brakes!
They also need pep-talks where you tell them to work on their behaviour and attitudes. Here’s my advice for such a conversation:
- Give him advance notice of what you want to speak about. This will catch him less off-guard, and will help him pre-process thoughts he might have on the topic.
- Think dialogue. Ditch the lecture. Have a short list of important points, and allow him to respond to each of those points in the form of a two-way convo.
- Control your emotions. Emotionally venting your frustration or anger or hurt, with screaming or verbal put-downs will not produce the results you want.
- Move while you talk. Staring down your kid while you speak to him is going to super-intensify the whole situation. Better to go for a walk together while you talk. For us dudes, shoulder-to-shoulder convos tend to work better than face-to-face.
- Give it time to soak in. It might take a day or a week for what you said to sink in. Some time later, ask him how he has been processing it. This second talk may be even more useful to him than the first.
8. “Son, I love you and I’m there for you.”
I saved the most important one for last.
In the final analysis, your son doesn’t need a perfect father, he needs a loving, available one.
I once heard of a tribe of native Americans who had a unique practice for training young braves. On the night of a boy’s 13th birthday, the men placed him deep in a dense forest to spend the entire night.
Until then he had never been away from the security of his family and tribe.
Every time a twig snapped, he’d visualize a wild animal ready to pounce. Every time an animal howled, he imagined a wolf leaping out of the darkness. Every time the wind blew, he wondered what more sinister sound it masked.
After what would seem like an eternity of terror, the first rays of sunlight would enter the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path.
Then, to his utter astonishment, he would behold the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow, bow drawn ready to shoot anything that endangered him.
Who was this archer? It was the boy’s father. He had been there all night long.
Teen boys may face the at-times-gruelling challenge of individuating and growing up. But they need never feel like they are all alone.
A teenage son should be able to hear his father’s recent words in his mind: ‘Fear not, my dad loves me and is there for me if I need him – his arrow is drawn.’
My dad used to tell me that he loved me and would be there for me.
When he died he was not able to keep the second part of his promise.
But what I realised while preparing this message is that my dad so imprinted into me his love for me, and his faith in me, that it has been as though he has stood over me all these years.
To this day, the roots of my strength and courage stretch into that imprinted love. His arrow is drawn over my life.
My plea to every father and their teenage son
Sons and fathers, you need each other more than you can know. Don’t miss the opportunity the teen years bring to the both of you to become a better son, a better dad, and – as a result – a better man.
My suggestion? Dads and sons, why don’t you both give this post a read. Then take a drive or walk together. You might want to ask each other these questions:
Dad: ‘Son, after reading that, what do you feel you most need from me?’
Son: ‘Dad, how can I help you to be the dad I need in this season of my life?’
Alternatively, dads you can read this on your own, then put some of it into practice. You might just find yourself saying all the words your son has been wishing you’d say.
Also published on Medium.