When my son was little, he was funny and affectionate. He had a million questions and he loved to ask them. He was shy with people he didn’t know well but was voluble and entertaining with close friends and family. There was very little I didn’t know about his day, his dreams, his friends, and his ambitions. We were buddies.
And then came middle school. First he got tall and awkward and started to smell like a teenager. I was expecting those changes. But I was not expecting his personality to change. By age 14, my formerly sweet and chatty son was giving me the silent treatment. He uttered only the briefest of answers to questions and never asked any of his own. He rarely came out of his room. And when he did, he was sullen and hostile, if he spoke at all. In short, he was doing an excellent impression of every portrayal I’d ever seen of teenage boys who amassed weapons and subsequently went on murderous rampages. He scared me. Why do teen boys stop talking? Was his total silence an indicator that he was about to snap?
As it turns out, neither my son’s behavior nor my worries about it were unusual.
Hormones got their tongue
“Going silent has been the response of freshly pubescent boys since the species developed,” Miles Groth, a professor of psychology at Wagner College and the author of the Boys to Men blog at Psychology Today told me. “It is nothing new,” he added. “[It’s not] related to our times or current events.”
At this age, he pointed out, boys are going through a lot of physical changes. “They are very self-conscious, examining the way they are being perceived by adults, peers, and members of the opposite sex, or in some cases the same sex,” says Groth. That self-consciousness makes them less likely to commit themselves by speaking.
“Middle school is the onset of adolescence for most boys, and a resulting social insecurity,” says Dr. John Duffy, author of The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient, and Connected Teens and Tweens. “The less said, the less to be ridiculed for. In this way, the silence is a self-protective defense mechanism.”
While worried parents might naturally leap to a nightmare scenario like I did, chances are good that an adolescent boy’s silence is normal. It’s just one symptom of the massive physical and mental changes caused by puberty. “Most boys grow out of this phase with minimal damage done,” says Duffy. “From a parental point of view, it can be daunting and scary, as silence can read as insulating, or even depression. Check in with your middle school son from time to time and ensure he is okay. But keep in mind that, developmentally, his silence is likely somewhere within the norm.”
Even my son’s laconic replies to my questions are typical of many boys as they become men, says Katey McPherson, Executive Director of The Gurian Institute and co-author of the book Why Teens Fail: What To Fix. “Women have more connective tissue between the right and left brain,” she observes. “We process language much more quickly than men. I think women overwhelm their boys with words.”
Instead of letting fear inform our response to this normal change in many boys’ demeanor, Groth suggest that we start instead by looking for what is going right. Does your son have hobbies? Enjoy socializing with friends? Does he show an interest in engaging with the world? If the answer is yes, it’s a good sign that his new monosyllabic style of speaking is normal.
Of course, this may be difficult information to track down if he won’t talk. But it may not be that he won’t talk so much as that he can’t get words out in his current hormonal crisis, especially when faced with Mom bombarding him with more questions in response to the few utterances he manages to eke out. “Take him out for a walk,” suggests McPherson. “Throw a ball around. Get him moving. And ask him one or two questions at a time.”
Since long frank conversations may be on hold for a while, another way to stay informed is by being involved in his life online. Parents should always be paying attention to how their kids use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social platforms because that is where teens’ lives play out. Ask him what happened on Twitter today, to show you the social app his friends are using lately, or to see something funny from Vine. You will learn about him while you are learning about his social media habits.
The darker side of silence
If your son is withdrawn from his peers, expresses hopelessness, or is using or abusing substances, those are signs that it’s time to pay attention — and seek help. “Someone who is quiet and sitting by himself is not necessarily depressed,” explains Groth. “That person might be very ruminative and serious. A depressed person feels that there is no way out. They feel trapped, that there is no solution, that nothing is going to fix this.”
Generally speaking, when girls are hurting, they are more likely to be forthcoming about sharing their feelings. But boys who are experiencing depression, because they are more likely to clam up, may fly under the radar completely. “The suicide rate for teen boys is four times as high as it is for teen girls,” says Groth. “Not talking to you is pretty standard. But if he is also not talking to his peers, anyone outside of the home, or anyone else, I would be more worried.”
My own son eventually emerged from his silence. It was a long and worrisome road strewn with signs that he was experiencing dark thoughts and depression. He threatened suicide, withdrew from friends, and hid in his room. I took his threats seriously and got him help. We went through it together. Both of us made mistakes. I made it clear, throughout, that he was loved and that he was not the first teenager to feel this way. He finally came out the other side, much the way someone recovers from a long, pernicious flu. Now 20, my son is once again chatty, voluble, funny, and willing to share his dreams and observations. Once again, we are buddies. Only now, he can drive when we go out.