As a mom of two (my daughter is 24 and my son 18), I have experienced the journey of raising both a boy and a girl in a chaotic world where digital media reigns supreme and kids, whose calendars are as busy as their parents’, are being pushed to reach a rising bar of success.

Meanwhile, depression, anxiety and stress are rising in our children, and more parents are seeking help in the form of medication and therapy. While our girls are more likely to get treatment earlier for mental health, boys attempt suicide twice as often as girls.

As his mother, you are the most important person in your son’s universe. Yes, during the tween and teenager years he’ll pull away to develop his own sense of self, but you still have a tremendous influence on him at this crucial time.

Your son will see himself as you see him. What you say to him and how you say it has the ability to build him up or tear him down. You model to your son how to love or how to close the doors to love. You are his first teacher, showing him that it is safe to love. From you, he will learn that his feelings are valuable assets to his empowerment. This internalized wisdom will stay with him throughout his life, enabling him to experience intimacy, connection and honesty.

A Boy’s Life

In a nutshell, boys want to be understood. Boys want direction and reasonable consequences. Boys want to be seen, heard and loved for who they are. Boys want to learn how to care for others, because sometimes they simply can’t remember how to do this. Boys need help putting their feelings into words and feeling safe enough to express them.

The following tips are the foundation for a strong relationship with your son as he moves through the many developmental stages on his way to manhood. These tools helped me create a deep and meaningful relationship with my son. It’s not always easy, believe me. But it’s worth it.

  • Spend quality one-on-one time with your son. Yes, we have careers and a lot to juggle. Find 20 minutes a day to be just with him. No distractions, just quality time where you’re fully present. This will assure his growing self-image that you feel he is the most important person in the entire world. Give this to your son once a day and he will forever cherish the gift of true connection.
  • Listen to him. Without judgment. Sons, as they get older, stop talking to us. Ask simple questions to engage your son: “Heard any good jokes?” “I see you’re wearing red stripes today. How does that make you feel?” Keep it light. But be specific. Try to stay away from general questions. Then, with care, “I notice you’re scowling. How is your heart doing today?” A question like this will help your son stay in touch with the feelings he wants to escape from. Never try to fix his feelings. Simply acknowledge them by answering, “I hear you’re feeling (fill in the blank). I am so sorry.” Just acknowledging his feelings will provide immense relief to know he doesn’t have to shoulder his feelings alone. He won’t have to stuff his sadness and disappointment down to later become anger and rage.
  • If your son gets emotional and doesn’t want to talk, pull back. Let him know you’re there when he’s ready. Give him space as he needs it. When he’s ready, he’ll come to you because you’ve given him space. Then be fully present when he does express his feelings. This will show him that expressing feelings from his vulnerability is power. Ask him if he would like to hear some of your thoughts on the issue. (Try not to use the word “advice”; you’ll just get pushback.) If he doesn’t want your thoughts, say, “That’s OK.” Don’t take it personally. Don’t get emotional because he is keeping his privacy. Boys don’t innately know how to navigate emotions the way girls do. As a mom, part of your service to your son is to guide him through the emotional world. Your wise support lets him know it’s safe and rewarding for him to feel.
  • Let your son know he’s enough. Boys are hard on themselves, competitive, and always watching to see how they measure up. Give your son lots of praise. Growing boys need it to build a healthy sense of self. Your son will feel empowered by your energy and enthusiasm. And no matter what he does, do not shame, tease, or put him down. This will only shut down his ability to learn to be compassionate. Remember, you want your son to grow up to be conscious and aware, so we have to be conscious and aware.
  • Teach your son what a healthy boundary is. “No” means no to unacceptable behavior. Model how you set boundaries for yourself. If he is mean, tell him how much this hurts your heart. Be honest. Refrain from overreacting. Inform him in a neutral tone that, as a powerful young man, when he says or does hurtful things to another, his words and actions have a powerful effect. Say, “I hear that you’re frustrated, angry, sad … and when you say hurtful words or act out, it makes me and others want to pull away from you. I don’t think that’s what you really want. I think you really want me to pay more attention to you, and you want to be liked and included by your friends.” Showing your honesty and vulnerability this way will allow your son to get in touch with his own vulnerability. Then he will feel safe again to be in touch with his heart.
  • Don’t be the warrior with your son. You are a warrior in life. You can let your son see this strong side of you. This will give him confidence. But if you become the warrior to your son to get him to do what you want, he will see you as an adversary to defeat. He will shut down and go to war with you. A power struggle will ensue.

All of these tips—to listen without judgment, engage, be present and love unconditionally—work with anyone. At our core, this is what we all want. As moms, we tend to worry that if we don’t fix the problem right now, it will turn into something bigger. The reality is, consistent conscious parenting will help you and your son grow together, stay connected through the hard times, and enjoy one another.

Originally published in the September 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.