My Son Has an Attitude Problem

Guy with GuitarQuestion: My 17-year-old son joined a band six months ago and I’ve noticed a change in his attitude, particularly towards girls. He makes jokes about sex and ‘sluts’ at school and has called his sister a tart. I don’t if know it’s bravado, the influence of his new friends or normal teen behaviour, but nothing I or his father says makes any difference.

Answer: [by Lucy Beresford] Adolescence is a time of huge experimentation, when teenagers start to forge their own identities and separate healthily from their parents. Some do this by ‘rejecting’ the values their parents represent. No matter what you say or do, your son is on a journey away from you. Trying to rein him in completely will only make him want to cast you off even more.

Adolescence is also about finding peer acceptance. What your son says about sex and to women may be what, deep down, he believes, or it may be what he believes he must say to remain accepted by the latest gang.

In questioning whether this is normal teen behaviour, it may help you to know that adolescent brains undergo enormous developments during this time. Developmental fluctuations in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls impulse control and emotions) can result in socially unacceptable urges. So, some of your son’s attitudes and behaviours may settle back down naturally once this part of the brain has fully matured.

However, I understand your worry that what your son says sounds contemptuous of women. It’s possible his contempt masks his own sense of inferiority to women. I didn’t get a sense from your letter as to whether or not he has had a girlfriend yet, but these comments could be as much about feeling inadequate around women as about sounding tough. Also, joking is our human way to feel in control of situations that we find threatening. And adulthood, especially the sexual side of it, can seem very scary in adolescence. Maybe other band members are sexually active, which is unsettling your son, or maybe they’re all virgins and feel compelled to sound more macho.
But back to you. It’s vital that parents own their boundaries and principles. If you said, ‘I don’t like women to be denigrated,’ rather than, ‘Stop denigrating women,’ you cease coming across as controlling and, instead, emphasise your principles. A subtle difference, but one that unconsciously makes the adolescent feel less attacked. If your son feels less attacked, he has less reason to go against you.
This is a time for you to show your love and availability to your son at the very time he seems to be rejecting it, while also reiterating your views on sex and women in a non-judgmental way. On the outside, he may look like a swaggering grown-up, but inside he still has vulnerabilities and needs your support.
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