Sounds of Silence – How to Relate to Your Emotionally Distant Son

When we hear the word “moody” most of us immediately think of girls. After all, the hormonal changes common to girls and young women that causes moodiness are well known.

But what about boys?

While moodiness and emotional distance in adolescent and young adult males isn’t unusual, it often goes undiscussed or overlooked. This can leave parents and family feeling frustrated, with unanswered questions, and at a loss for how to respond.

Is this normal?”

“Is it me?”

Should I do something or leave him alone?”

When does it become concerning?”

These are common questions often asked by confused parents of sons.

Adolescence is defined as the years between 10-19 years old. But the changes that can impact mood and behavior can bleed into the early 20s as well.

In addition to the physical changes happening during this time, many emotional and psychological changes are also occurring. Most of these are developmentally normal and essential to growing into adulthood.

Emotional distance is one of those changes that, while “normal,” can still be confusing and hard to handle. The lack of communication, disinterest in familial closeness, and detachment from parents seem to scream PROBLEM. And yes, sometimes it is.

But how do you know what’s normal and what’s not? Knowing the difference is where things get tricky.

What Does It Mean for an Adolescent Boy or Young Man to Be Emotionally Distant?

People (boys in this case) who are emotionally distant may appear cold, aloof, and unresponsive. They keep their feelings bottled up, leading to a lack of connection to people they were once close to, like parents, grandparents, and siblings.

This tendency toward distancing becomes naturally more pronounced during the adolescent years. It’s during these years that children are trying to understand how they fit into their social environment, how to relate to others, and look for ways to exercise the wobbly legs of independence.

And they’re also contending with their own changing biology, which can last well into their early 20s.

At this age, boys (and girls) often become highly self-centered and less interested in or empathetic toward the feelings of other family members most specifically.

During this time, the opinions of friends are typically more valued than those of parents.

“My parents just don’t get it” is a phrase for the ages.

And from a teenager’s perspective, it’s true.

Friends “get it” because there’s commonality in experiences and feelings, which means explanations are unnecessary. Conversely, making parents and other adults understand their feelings requires language, communication skills, and self-awareness that most adolescents haven’t fully developed and are also resistant to practice.

Result? Emotional distance – from parents in particular.

Why Is My Son Behaving This Way?

Remember that sweet little boy who wanted a hug every time he got near you and told you everything about his day? Now he’s hard-pressed to even acknowledge your presence – ouch.

Why is this happening?

There are several reasons, so it’s essential to take the time to try and understand the root causes, and which ones are concerning and which are part normal development.

Among the most common are:

The Natural Physical and Emotional Changes Associated with Becoming an Adult

Adolescence is the road from childhood to adulthood. Like girls, boys undergo significant physical and emotional changes during this time. These changes can make them feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable. As a result, they may withdraw from their parents as they work to understand themselves and who they want to be. Normal development.

The Need for Independence

Establishing identity and autonomy during adolescence is a natural developmental step and part of how a child (boy or girl) learns how to be an adult. Normal development.

Peer Pressure

The pressure to conform to societal expectations of masculinity is real for boys, although the messages are now much more contradictory. Traditional masculinity is still a big influence and often involves suppressing emotions and avoiding vulnerability. This can make it difficult for boys to communicate openly and honestly with their parents. Normal development, but also concerning.

Trauma

Unfortunately, being emotionally distant can be a coping mechanism for kids who have experienced some type of trauma or emotional pain. It allows them to protect themselves from further hurt by avoiding the risks that come with emotional vulnerability. However, this behavior can also lead to isolation and loneliness. Concerning.

Lack of Familial Communication

If you have not been actively engaging in conversations with your son, or have not been listening attentively, he may feel neglected and disconnected from you. Concerning.

Lack of Trust

If your son feels he cannot confide in you, perhaps because from his perspective his feelings have not been taken seriously or have been ridiculed, he will likely keep his emotions bottled up even more, instead of sharing them with you. Concerning.

Mental Health Issues

Depression or anxiety can also lead to emotional distance. Struggling with feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness can make expressing emotions or connecting with others on an emotional level seem impossible for adolescents. Concerning.

Additionally, the increasing use of technology has made it easier for teenagers to connect with peers online rather than in person. Unfortunately, this has led to a decrease in the willingness of adolescents to have face-to-face communication, and with it less opportunity to communicate emotions.

Signs Emotional Distance Has Gone Too Far

Emotionally distant behavior in an adolescent boy can manifest in various ways.

As I’ve already described, emotional distance in adolescence is normal. However, in some cases emotional distance can go too far, and if left unchecked will open the door to more significant problems.

Look for the following signs that the distance your son is exhibiting is becoming (or has already become) problematic:

Avoidance of eye contact.

Sudden outbursts of frustration or anger, and an inability to explain the cause.

Disinterest in socialization and friends.

Withdrawal from activities.

Erratic behavior or engaging in risky activities.

Lack of emotion or enthusiasm for anything.

Obsessive interest in something or someone.

Extreme changes in personality.

In many cases, adolescent boys will, in addition to withdrawing, turn to some type of addictive behavior (video games, porn, marijuana, or worse) to cope with their feelings.

What Can I (And Should I) Do?

This is the million-dollar question.

Recognizing when things have gone too far and what you can do to help is like knowing the difference between light white, cream, and Swiss coffee paint colors. It takes a lot of evaluation and careful consideration.

Because every person is unique and may have different ways of expressing their emotions, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for shrinking the emotional distance between you and your son.

There are, however, some solid actions you can take that will help.

Create a Safe and Non-Judgmental Environment

Knowing he can talk to you about anything without fear of being criticized, judged, or laughed at is crucial. At his age he doesn’t know what “normal” feels like for him, and so talking to you without judgment so that he can figure this out is more important than you may realize.

Show Interest in His Life

Everyone wants to feel that someone cares about them. This is particularly important in a parent/child relationship. Whether you know it or not, your son wants your approval and investment in his life and interests. So, push past his rejection or complacency and be consistent in staying connected regardless of his response.

Be Supportive

Hate video games? Not a fan of skateboarding? It doesn’t matter. If that’s his passion, it’s vital for your relationship for you to show interest and be supportive.

Honesty

Many kids are afraid to disappoint their parents by making mistakes. Sharing your past experiences and fumbles through life will help him open up to you.

Patience

Adolescence is confusing, and it may take time for him to open up and share his feelings with you. Accept that he probably never will to the level you desire, so be sure to adjust your expectations.

Seek Professional Help If Necessary

If your son’s emotional distance is causing significant distress or negatively affecting his daily life, consider seeking the help of a counselor.

As a parent, wanting to have a strong and meaningful connection with your child is natural. However, it can often be challenging to establish and maintain this bond, especially as children grow older and become more independent.

If you are struggling to connect with your adolescent son, be patient and persistent in your efforts. Relating to an emotionally distant son requires consistency, understanding, patience, and creating a safe environment for honest and vulnerable communication.

Hang in there. It is almost as hard being a parent of a teen and young adult as it is being a teen and young adult.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

If you have an emotionally distant son, what has that looked like? Have you found ways to connect with him that could help others? Could you use the support of others in a similar situation? Share your story and join the conversation.

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