Messages about how to parent your son are everywhere:

  • “Don’t coddle him.”
  • “Push him out into the world.”
  • “He’s being a crybaby.”
  • “You better let him go.”

Feeling a cultural pressure to disconnect with their sons, many mothers feel conflicted about how to stay close, or push boys to independence too early.

Psychologists Cate Dooley and Nicolina Fedele, authors of Mothers and Sons: Raising Relational Boys, note that the mother/son relationship has frequently been “misunderstood and pathologized.” And Kate Lombardi Stone, author of The Mama’s Boy Myth, explains that most mothers second-guess themselves and fear undercutting their son’s masculinity. Many moms distance themselves from their sons, Lombardi Stone writes, even at “the tender age of 5.”

But the truth is, boys are hungry for connection. And without that connection, they can easily feel ashamed, confused, and isolated in their longing for relationship.

When boys seem to push you away

Feeling ashamed and confused, boys may keep important parts of themselves hidden. Instead of reaching out for connection, they may engage in behaviors that appear designed to prevent connection:

  • silence,
  • sarcastic humor,
  • competitive banter,
  • hostile or smart remarks.

Dooley and Fedele call these behaviors “strategies of disconnection.” But even when boys retreat from us, they are longing for connection.

When I worked at an all-boys’ school, I noticed a surprising pattern: every year, the boys who had seemed the most difficult at first ended up feeling the closest to me by summer. The boys who were the most challenging—the ones that pushed every button I had—were the ones whose mothers came to me at the end of the school year to tell me how grateful their sons were to have me as a teacher. Underneath their surly and challenging behavior, they were yearning to connect.

It’s not just me: in How to Raise a Boy, psychologist Michael Reichert writes that boys have the fondest recollections of relationships with teachers when those relationships “…had gone through periods of struggle and testing. It was the teacher’s determination to reach them, persisting despite setbacks, that made the relationship so meaningful to boys.”

Boys do the same thing with their parents. They test and challenge, hoping their parents will stay close in difficult times.

Even when your son seems shut down and uncommunicative, or angry and aggressive, he still needs to be connected to you. In his article, “It Doesn’t Take a Man to Raise a Boy”, Reichert explains, “Research shows that the very brand of support boys need usually comes from their moms: … listening closely to what boys have to say and acknowledging and validating the emotional content of their struggles and challenges.”

 How to meet the challenges with connection

It can be difficult to reach a boy who seems to be doing his best to disconnect. Here are some strategies that move the needle:

Take an interest in his life

As he grows, your son is feeling those same cultural pressures to avoid being a mama’s boy or a crybaby, so he may stop approaching you to share his interests with the same enthusiasm he did as a younger child. For this reason, it’s important that you show an active interest in his life, even if what he enjoys is not “your thing.” Ask him how his favorite sports team is doing or what he loves about his favorite show.

Make time for Special Time

In Special Time, you carve out one-on-one time with your son to do an activity of his choice. This is a powerful way to build safety so a boy can show you who he is, outside of who he might feel pressured to be. It’s also a good way to stay connected and show that you care about his interests.

Decide how much time you want to spend (with an older boy, try 30 minutes). During this time, give him your full attention—not his sister, or your phone! As Reichert writes, “That in itself will be a challenge for every caregiver, because most of us function with a shortage of attention.”

Some things to avoid during Special Time include giving advice or teaching, and bringing up sore subjects. If your son needs to finish his school project, what do you think will happen to the safety and trust you are trying to build, if you ask him whether he’s finished it yet? Instead, simply listen warmly without judgement or criticism, and show him how pleased you are to be with him. Follow his lead and let him teach you about the world from his perspective.

Take time to notice what you love about him

I love this suggestion from How to Raise a Boy. Reichert suggests finding a partner—such as a spouse or a friend—who also knows your son, and take turns sharing what you love and admire about him. If you don’t have a partner, use a journal. Remember specific times and tell the whole story of what he said and did. Marvel at how wonderful he is!

Focusing on the goodness in your son, even when times are hard, can take your mind off of your worries or judgments about him. That way, when you are with him, you can be even more present and delighted.

In spite of what our culture sometimes tells us, sons need their mothers’ support. They need your good attention, free of judgement and criticism, and they need to know you’ll hang in there when things get tough.

If you try some of the tips above, let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear what works.