My eldest son is 13 and becoming a confident, happy teenager. There is, though, one side of life that I can see him struggling with – girls.
Suddenly all the girls he knows – in many cases, he has been at school with them since the age of five – have morphed overnight into scary, sexualised teenagers and he seems lost in terms of how to be around them.
On one occasion we were out together and he ran and hid when two girls from his school came into view a few hundred yards ahead. I spoke to him about it but he was so flustered that he couldn’t even articulate why.
He has stopped talking to or socialising with some girls who have been firm friends of his for many years and I know (through his younger brother) that he is the subject of teasing about the way he flinches from some of these girls.
I remember only too well from my early teenage years how the girls around me suddenly seemed to have become a whole new species – and the scariest creatures on the planet.
We have been quite open about sex and relationships with him, so he is in possession of the physical facts but I would like to be able to ease his passage into this new world in a way that will help him to realise that girls are in the same boat as he is, not some alien species.
Or will I be muddying the waters and it’s something best left for him to discover by himself?
What a sensitive dad you are. I think that, although some of us remember what it’s like to be a teenager, it’s from the safety of adulthood.
It’s not uncommon for children to go from playing easily with members of the opposite sex to suddenly seeing the opposite sex as alien and scary. This is, of course, a shame, but it usually happens in early adolescence and things even out later on.
Philippa Boulter (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), a psychotherapist who works with children and adolescents, says that this is a “very ordinary [thing to happen] with this age group. He is on that continuum of normal, hitting his own sexuality. Girls mature more quickly and so initially seem scary to boys who take a while to catch up.
“There are also masses of hormonal changes going on at this age: their self-esteem is lower, they are more sensitive and there is a huge upsurge of sexual feelings.”
Boulter said it’s very likely everyone in his group feels the same – although they may be manifesting it differently.
The girls he usually hangs out with, have they grown up very fast in the past few months? They may seem unrecognisable to him.
It’s great that you have been very open about sex and relationships, but often (although some parents can dread it) the mechanics is the easy part to describe – what isn’t easy is the emotional/psychological side.
Teenagers also watch films in which other teenagers have unrealistic dialogue that is quick and winning. Real life isn’t like that, for any of us. Teenagers can feel very lacking. You ask what you can do and I think you already know that the best course of action is heavy on support, but light on intervention.
“It can be very hard for parents,” says Boulter, “to watch what was their baby entering a phase that is increasingly out of reach to the parents.”
Boulter suggests letting your son know that you’re there if he needs you, but not to intervene, “If he’s still really struggling in a year with his interaction with girls, you might need to look for some help for him, but until then you need to be there but let him find his own way.”
Empathy – rather than too much problem solving – is often what children want from their parents
Boulter did have a really good suggestion: “Do you have any photographs of yourself at that age? If so you could go through them with him. You can talk about what it was like for you at that age – that might help, without you making it directly about him.”
Remember that although you may remember what it was like, it is part of a teenager’s role to think that their parents don’t understand them. Also empathy – rather than too much problem solving – is often what children want from parents. So if your son does come to you, try to do reflective listening, where you listen attentively and reflect back what is said, rather than jumping in with solutions. A great phrase if you get stuck, however, is “How can I help?”, which leaves it entirely up to them.
(Another tip, on how not to do it, is to spend a bit of time, if they are still alive, with your own parents. Look out for all the things that they say that annoy you when you raise a problem and make sure you don’t take the same approach with your son.)
I wouldn’t force anything, such as introducing him to loads of girls, but do normalise any interaction with them and remind him that girls also go through a similar phase.
However confident these young women seem outwardly, it’s rare to find a teenager of either sex who doesn’t suffer from self-doubt.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 11 December 2015.