Let’s see if this rings true: your dependably snuggly 10-year-old son turns to you at school drop off and declares “no more kisses goodbye in the morning!” then casually walks off to meet up with his friends. Or maybe this scenario sounds familiar: You pick your 14-year-old son up from school, he climbs in the car and slouches down in his seat with his hood up over his head, and when you ask him how his day was and he mutters “fine” before looking down at his phone. Then you ask if he has much homework and he goes from zero to 60 in one second shouting at you, “God, I don’t know. Can you just lay off me?!!!”
Rarely do people talk about the moodiness of tween and teen boys — adolescent girls usually get that dubious honor — but the truth is that all kids going through puberty, regardless of gender, experience mood swings thanks to the hormonal fluctuations in their bodies. The uneven ebb and flow of the testosterone in boys might present as physical aggressiveness, surprising anger, or simply utter silence.
Parents are surprised when their nine or 10-year-old son goes quiet or grows angry a lot of the time, the way they imagine a 16-year-old might. But this is a direct effect of testosterone, which circulates in boys’ bodies for a year or two before any other outward signs of maturation appear. So even though they still look a lot like little boys, their hormone-fueled behavior might seem totally foreign. On top of the roller coaster of new emotions, they feel confused and worried about why they are feeling the way they do.
Parents can feel powerless in the face of their boys’ moodiness if their sphinx-like presence at home presents an unsolvable riddle. So much of the time adolescent boys seem unreachable in their quiet, blockading themselves behind the closed doors of their bedrooms. But as Cara emphasizes in her book Decoding Boys, you can't just let your sons retreat to their bedrooms and emerge several years later. You need to find ways to stay connected to your intermittently moody, angry, or silent boy, for his sake and for yours. Your son needs you, even if he’s telling you he just wants you to go away.
Since reaching pubescent kids effectively depends upon the subtle ways you approach them — think of them like skittish horses — here are three of our favorite ways to create connections with tween and teen boys in particular. These strategies are not guaranteed to work every time, but they will help crack open a closed bedroom door, helping to make some progress in overcoming their hormone-induced moodiness.
Take an interest in their interests
While gaming, rap music and fantasy football may not be your jam, these may be central parts of your son’s life. As Dr. Wendy Mogel said on an episode of our podcast: “Be enchanted with their enchantment,” because while they may not share our interests, they definitely have their own passions.
Being curious and judgment-free about what makes your son laugh or gets him up in the morning helps create low-stakes moments of connection with him. Showing interest in his interests may sound something like: How did your fantasy team do this week? Have you gotten a new skin in Fortnite yet? Any new Tyler the Creator songs dropping soon?
Get elbow to elbow
Meghan Leahy, author of Parenting Outside the Lines, talks about getting next to our kids, literally elbow to elbow, without doing or saying much. It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to be with moody boys is simply hanging out near them, keeping them company without an agenda or even a word.
It might mean sitting on the couch watching Family Guy together or lying on his bed reading a book while he does his homework. Even if it bores the hell out of you, sitting on the couch while your kid watches sports might be the most relaxed and engaged you’re going to find him during the puberty years.
Use small ways to connect
While you may be tempted to have deep, soulful exchanges with your son, that approach can backfire. Look for small moments of connection rather than deep, time-consuming exchanges. You might text him short messages during the day to let him know you’re thinking of him.
You might send him funny TikToks or memes that create an ongoing dialogue about nothing serious. You might take him with you to pick up pizza and have him choose some songs for the drive. Using humor, music, and other unobtrusive ways to connect with a moody boy can lessen the pressure for things to go well and remediate the sense of rejection when they don’t.
While parenting during this tumultuous yet oddly silent time may be mystifying, it’s so important to remember that they can’t entirely help their moodiness, whether it be anger or silence. Puberty is a confusing and awkward time for kids and your job is to love them, try to stay connected to them and make sure they know you’re here for them. It isn’t always easy — in fact, it’s often messy — but it’s a marathon not a sprint, so you’ve got lots of time to keep trying.
Cara Natterson, MD and Vanessa Kroll Bennett are co-hosts of The Puberty Podcast. Cara is a pediatrician and author of the bestselling puberty books The Care and Keeping of You Series and Guy Stuff. She is also the founder of OOMLA, a company designed to make puberty comfortable. Vanessa is the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company focused on building kids’ self-esteem through sports, puberty education and parent workshops. She writes regularly in her Uncertain Parenting Newsletter about the messy process of raising tweens and teens. You can follow them on Instagram @thepubertypodcast.