Get your son to open up by:
- Doing an Activity Together
- Standing Side by Side
- Asking About His Interests
- Using close Ended Questions
- Finding Points of Commonality
- Validating his Emotions
In my work as a counsellor with children and youth a common complaint I hear from parents is that their son won’t open up. Parents want to be there to support their son emotionally, but whenever they ask what’s going on they’re often met with shrugged shoulders or stony silence. This can feel like having the door slammed in your face, and frustrated parents eventually stop trying.
What is Your Goal?
When you want your son to “open up” what are you hoping this will achieve? If you are hoping that he will share about specific topics or struggles you may be disappointed. Rather, make your goal to try and connect with him. Listen to him, and to allow him to be silent if he so chooses. While it is good for your son to process what is going on verbally, placing too much emphasis on talking will only frustrate you both if that isn’t what happens. Merely being present with your son together is healing for him, and more than enough.
Boys Brains Differ From Girls
In his book How Do I Help Him: A Practitioner’s Guide to Working with Boys and Men in Therapeutic Settings, therapist Michael Gurian outlines how differences in brain functioning influence how much boys and girls are open to talking. For example there are less connections between the emotional and verbal centers of the average boy’s brain, than the average girl’s. This means that when trying to engage boys we must understand that starting conversations verbal-emotional queries like “how are you feeling” are often mis-guided. Boys are socialized not to disclose how they are feeling inside which adds another barrier to connecting through words. To help overcome these biological and social hurdles follow the below steps.
Do an Activity Together
Boys are often more interested in doing activities than merely sitting and talking. Invite your son to do an activity he enjoys together. While you are engaged in the activity look for opportunities to talk about what you are doing and ask him other questions. Even if nothing is said, being with your son and showing interest will help strengthen your relationship and increase the likelihood of him talking about himself in the future.
Orient Yourself Side by Side
When doing the activity try to orient yourself so you are beside your son. Sitting directly across from someone with eye contact can be too intimidating. It may make your son less likely to talk, especially about sensitive topics. Whether you go for a walk, bike ride, or a drive together placing yourself alongside your son both aligns you in a shared purpose of whatever you are doing. It also takes off the pressure of him wondering how you may be judging his non-verbal reactions to the conversation.
Ask about What Interests Him
If you are reading this article you probably haven’t been having too many conversations with your son. If that’s the case the easiest way to get him to open up is to ask him questions about what he likes. This is my go to technique when I’m meeting a new client in my work as a counsellor. I have learned much more about video games characters than I would have otherwise, but it has proved invaluable in building a bridge of connection that I can later use to talk about a variety of subjects.
Use Close Ended Questions
If your son has a hard time talking about things you need to make this process as easy as possible for him. When it comes to conversation open-ended questions are more difficult to answer because the range of responses are vast. By asking closed ended questions you can make it easier for you son to think of an answer and therefore more likely to respond. For example the open ended questions “How was your day” or “how are you feeling?” are almost guaranteed to get the responses “good/ok” and “I don’t know” which lead you nowhere. Here are some examples of closed ended questions you could ask to get the conversation started:
- What is your favourite video game?
- Which friends did you hang out with today?
- What did you do in ___ class today?
- What is your favourite song to listen to right now?
Once you have asked closed-ended questions you can follow up with probing questions like “why do you like that video game?” or “what do you and your friend like to do together” to stimulate more discussion.
Find Points of Commonality
Parents often have a hard time talking with their sons because they feel they have nothing in common. Their son may spend most of his time online playing video games and watching shows they have no connection with. That’s why it’s important to find shared activities to do together to build up shared experiences that can be used as points of conversation. If you look there might be other things you share that you don’t realize. Some things you may have in common include: physical appearance, personality traits, interests you had at their age, beliefs, values, religion/spirituality. Whenever you point out things that you share it will make your son feel more connected to you and more likely to open up.
Validate His Emotions
In emotion focused family therapy great emphasis is given to the expressing and communication of emotions between family members. One of the key skills in this approach is called validation. Validation is communicating to another person that what they are feeling makes sense given their situation. It makes people feel safe to open up even more because they feel heard, seen and respected.
If your son rarely expresses or talks about his emotions it’s crucial that when he does you validate what he’s experiencing. This will encourage him to do it more. You can validate his emotions by saying “It makes sense that you feel that way because _______” or “I don’t blame you for feeling that way because _______.” Validating can be hard, especially if what he’s feeling causes an emotional response in you.
It’s important that you don’t show any judgment in your words, tone of voice or body language or he will not feel safe to share these emotions again. In my experience the number one reason boys don’t open up is because they have been judged negatively in the past by others. When your son expresses his feelings take a moment to calm yourself before responding so he doesn’t feel judged.
What has worked for you in getting your son to open up? Feel free to leave questions or comments below.