13 year old Jimmy came home and slammed his books down on the counter. Mom asked him what was up and he marched directly to his room and slammed the door.
If you are the mom, what is your best option?
A) Tell him he needs to talk about this asap
B) Go directly into his room
C) Tell him he is acting ridiculously and to stop it.
D) Say, “I’m here if you want to talk” and wait for him to emerge.
E) Make him a sandwich.
F) Do nothing.
Which would you choose? D is most likely your best bet depending on your son. You let him go and hibernate for a while. This pulling back and secluding oneself is a tried and true mode for males to process upsetting material. It is particularly popular among teen boys. He would likely go into his room, flop down on his bed and start thinking about what is bothering him. And he would keep thinking about it. We call this “grinding.” He is literally grinding on his upset and telling his story over and over in his own head. Not too different from the more traditional female path of talking out the story except it is done in private and only in his own head. He may take 30 minutes or an hour (while you anxiously wait) and then emerge from his room in a very different mood. He may even say “What’s for dinner?”
By all means tell him what’s for dinner! Then ask him what’s up. Avoid asking him what he is feeling. One question that will help sometimes is “Are you dealing with something tough?” This question honors that whatever he is working on is probably tough.
The idea of fight or flight has been shown to be a primarily male response to stress. Jimmy’s was the “flight” path. Get away, get quiet, and grind on it.
For those of us who are more familiar with the “talking about it” approach this can seem to be not really healing. But it can be.
Here’s what you can do. The next time Jimmy is calm and in good spirits do some activity with him that he enjoys. Shoot baskets, play catch, whatever it is that he likes. During the activity, when you both are relaxed, ask him about what you can do that would be the most helpful to him when he goes to his room and slams his door. Listen carefully. He will tell you just what you need to know. You might even tell him that it is hard for you but you want to do what will be of most help to him. If he resists telling you what you can do you might want to tell him that you really want the best for him and what helps him the most and maybe you can talk later about this, or maybe email or text? The trick is to find out where he feels safe and go there to communicate.
He may not say so, but he will really appreciate your asking him this question. Most young men are used to being told they are wrong and this will seem like a breath of fresh air to him.