Reaching boys

Some changes can make a huge difference
Image by Nicki Varkevisser CC BY 2.0 Cropped

Boys have a unique language

Learn how to speak 'boy'

Teenagers are behaviorally oriented. Adults are verbally oriented. That is the main reason most adults are unable to effectively convey love to their teenager.

Having a warm feeling of love in your heart for your teenager is wonderful - but it's not enough!

Saying "I love you" to a teenager is great, and it should be done - but it's not enough!

Your teenager sees your love for him by what you say and do, but what you do carries more weight. Your teenager is far more affected by your actions than by your words.

Actions that convey love

1. Focused attention

Focused attention is not something that is simply nice to give your teenager if time permits. It is a crucial need each teenager has. Without enough focused attention, a teenager experiences increased anxiety, because he feels everything else is more important than he is to you.

Focused attention makes your teenager feel that he is the most important person in the world to you.... The best way to give focused attention is to set aside time to spend with him alone. It doesn't have to be great amounts of time necessarily, just the fact that you make the effort to spend the time regularly, alone with him.

2. Eye contact

Loving, consistent eye contact with your teenager is crucial not only for good communicational contact, but also in filling his emotional needs. Without realizing it you use eye contact to express many feelings - sadness, anger, hate, pity, rage and love. In some homes there is amazingly little eye contact between parents and teenagers. What exists is usually negative, such as reprimands or being given instructions. The more you are able to make eye contact with your teenager as a means of expressing love, the more your teenager will be emotionally nourished with love.

3. Physical contact

Appropriate and consistent physical contact is a vital way to give your teenager that feeling and conviction that you truly care about him. This is especially true when your teenager is non communicative, sullen, moody or resistant. During these times, eye contact may be difficult or impossible, but physical contact can almost always be used effectively. Seldom does an adolescent respond negatively to a light, brief touch on the shoulder, back or arm. You will get to know your teenager well enough to know how much physical contact he can accept at a particular time.

Children love to have their backs scratched. This has an amazing effect on their psychological defenses and also helps tremendously in keeping them emotionally fulfilled.

4. Wrestling

If you want to get along well with boys you have to learn to wrestle.

Boys love to wrestle. They love to match their strength against an adult's strength to see how they are shaping up (the Bible states 'the glory of young men is their strength'). Play wrestling teaches boys self control - physically, emotionally, mentally and even sexually (meaning they won't initially be overwhelmed when a girl touches them since they are used to being touched by others). There are many boys who are never touched by anyone. Sometimes a boy will engage me in wrestling and he will very quickly simply hold my hand while continuing with an outward show of the wrestling match - so lonely are the many boys who are touch deprived.

There is a saying among youth workers that if you want to quickly reach a teenage boy, then rough him up a bit. For parents and guardians this is easy - all you have to do is initiate the interaction and match your strength to theirs. Let him win sometimes.

For youth leaders it is not quite so easy. A bit of good natured pushing and shoving I find works OK ('accidentally' bumping into them as you walk past them). Games involving physical contact of the group mostly work OK too. The exposure of pedophile activity has created various levels of suspicion surrounding all who work with youth. You need to establish the level of acceptable physical interaction and the safeguards needed from the organization that you operate under.

How poignant that, out of feelings of love and protectiveness, a father held back from showing any physical affection, and left his son longing and yearning for it.

Won't this make him gay?

Some may think this close male contact with the boy could set up a path to gay relationships in the future. The opposite appears to be the truth. From research I have read and from personal observations, this sort of attention from an older male satisfies the teenage boy's unasked question 'Am I acceptable as a male?'. Once this question is satisfied then he would move on to the next stage in his mental development, usually an increased interest in girls.

When this question goes unanswered, it can stay deep within the boy and become sexualized and manifest as gay fantasies - looking for that male bonding that never happened as a boy. The mental development never moves on properly from that 'stall' point. Admittedly, being gay is a complex issue, but I have seen boys move from being convinced of their gay sexuality to enjoying a heterosexual marriage later in life. One of the key factors was being able to reach them at a critical time with the unspoken message 'You're OK as a male - I welcome you as a male into the world of men'. On other occasions the message had to be 'screamed' out in the form of a rite-of-passage into male adulthood. (see the page Manhood)

Some fathers think that being too affectionate with their sons will turn them into homosexuals. Actually the exact opposite is true - young boys who are liberally affirmed by their fathers will be less likely to seek affirmation in the arms of other men when they're older.

Practical application

As a youth leader I deliberately make sure I greet each young friend whenever our paths cross. I go up to the guy (focused attention), shake their hand with our unique two stage hand shake (physical attention) and don't let go of their hand until they look me in the eye (eye contact). They quickly learn the routine and mostly come up to me now wanting to shake my hand and at the same time looking for the eye contact. This is enough for them to know that 'Tyler cares that I'm here'. This small amount of regular one-on-one interaction is mostly enough to give them peace that their relationship with me is secure and fine.

If there is a group I am greeting, they each wait their turn. They know me well enough that I won't leave them out. They don't have to resort to doing dumb things to try and get my attention. Boys will do whatever it takes to get an adult's attention and it is a bonus to train them to fulfill that need with positive interactions like this.

Image CC0 Public Domain

Guys are great with non-verbal communication. I find when volunteering overseas where verbal communication is not possible, bonds are still formed with the boys. Mostly this happens with an 'arm wrestle' style hand shake. The interaction time and subtle pressure of the hands speak volumes to each other. The same could work for your boy.

I have found growling softly beside an individual boy to work well too! A non communicative boy will nearly always respond if I get near him and then without warning start growling softly like a dog looking for a fight. My experience is that they will respond the same way back to you. Once this interaction is established they will often growl softly later as they walk past you and obviously I respond in the same way. It's a bridge - what else can I say?

Once you have reached them relationally by what you do, then it is much easier to reach them verbally.

Use his real name

I always use the boy's given Christian name - even if every one else calls him by a 'nickname'. I always work hard on remembering their name too, even to the point of writing it down. The second time you meet a boy will either make or break your relationship with him by whether you have remembered his name. Names associate the true identity of the person, since when all else is gone, the name is still there. To use the given name seems to imply your acceptance of the person. Sometimes you are the only person in the world who uses the boy's real name - that has to make you stand out in his mind and make him feel special to you.


Boys have an inbuilt need to know where the boundaries are. Without this sure knowledge they are insecure and will keep testing you to find where the real boundaries are located in their world. For boys to be contented each needs to know:

  1. Who is in charge?
  2. What are the rules?
  3. What are the consequences for disobeying the rules?

You as a parent or youth leader will initially be tested and then periodically retested to establish or confirm the boundaries. The silent questions being asked are generally:

  • Does this adult love me enough to stop me doing injury to myself?
  • Does this adult love me enough to honor his own boundaries so I won't be injured?

A typical situation which occurs often when in the car is to have the teenager tell me to break the speed limit or lay rubber. If I follow his suggestion then I proclaim that my boundaries are not strong and anyone can talk me into stepping past them. 'This man may not be safe to be with - I need to test him some more' is the teenager's subconscious response.

While the boy may say to his friends (and parents) how great it was that we were doing 160 km/h, you may find an increasing reluctance for him to get back in the car with you. You have really proclaimed that you don't care enough about his safety and security to obey the speed limit. Testing you this way can also help the guy respond courageously when others are urging him to do stupid things driving a car. Teenagers seem to have a fear of death and carnage on the road and so testing your boundaries in this area is quite common.

Talking to boys

Very few teenage boys can sit down and have a face to face meaningful conversation with an adult. You mostly need to distract them to have a real conversation. I use television, bike riding, ball games, car trips. Anything to distract his attention from himself. Gradually little bits of important information begin to seep out, each being a test to see if you can handle the bigger stuff being thrown around in his mind.

If you are an adult male you are halfway there already since all teenage boys are looking for an older male's acceptance. They want to interact with someone in your position.

Support him personally

Support his dreams for the future. Don't use your teenager to help you achieve your personal dreams. If a teenager has a dream of being a soccer star then support him by watching him play regularly and helping with soccer skills. Circumstances may or may not open the door to a soccer future but you won't be blamed for the closed door because of the support you gave.

Enjoy shared interests. Help him mend the flat tire on his bike. Build him up as a person so he has enough confidence to tackle the world head on. His dreams will lead him on from there when you are not around.

When he becomes obnoxious, remember that love is a choice, not necessarily a feeling. It is then that you keep loving selflessly, with nothing in return. (in the Bible there is a description of what real love is all about - see 1 Corinthians chapter 13). Continue to let him know either directly or indirectly 'You're OK' - mostly without using those words.

Boys' emotional needs

How do you keep their emotional tank full? By speaking 'boy' language. By conveying love through actions to your teenager.

Your teenager has an emotional 'tank', figuratively speaking. He has certain emotional needs and whether these emotional needs are met (through love, understanding, discipline etc) helps determine how he feels and behaves. The fuller the 'tank' the more positive the feelings and the better the behavior.

Only if the emotional 'tank' is full can a teenager be expected to be his best and do his best.

It is your responsibility as a parent to do all you can to keep the emotional 'tank' full. Every teenager strives for independence using the energy from the emotional 'tank'. When the 'tank' has run dry, the teenager returns to the parent/adult for a refill so they can continue to strive for independence. Teenagers desperately need full emotional 'tanks' in order to feel the security and self confidence they must have to cope with peer pressure and other demands of adolescent society. Without this confidence, teenagers tend to succumb to peer pressure and experience difficulty in upholding wholesome ethical values.

If the parent or responsible adult is not doing the emotional refilling, then the teen will turn to others including his peers for emotional nurture. The teenager will then be susceptible to peer pressure, to influences of religious cults and to unscrupulous persons who use young people.

Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.

C. S. Lewis [1]

Make it official

I work for a government organization, and a lot is said in the workplace with peoples' ideas and thoughts about the work process. Some of it is relevant to a certain extent, however, let something be put in writing and it carries weight and authority.

You can do the same with your teenager - put your thoughts towards him into writing and see what a dramatic, enduring event you have created. Your letter of blessing to him will last well beyond your appointment with the grave. Your spoken words fade and become drowned by life. Your written words reinforce your original thoughts as though you were there in the room reading them out aloud again. This can be a great add-on to a rite-of-passage celebration.

See these sample letters to give you some ideas.

I heard a story of a father who wrote a letter to his unborn child just before being sent off for active war duty. The father was killed in battle, and years later, the letter was discovered and given to the son. The letter carries a weight in the young man's life which can only be imagined. It left an enduring bond between these two men who have never met.

The Five Love Languages

Purchase 'Five Love Languages of Teenagers'

Gary Chapman in his best selling book 'The Five Love Languages of Teenagers' notes five distinct love languages that all people communicate with to some degree. The languages are:

1. Affirming words
Telling the other person they are OK and appreciating the things they do
2. Physical touch
Appropriate to convey affection and emotional closeness
3. Quality time
'Wasting' time with the person
4. Acts of service
Doing things to serve the other person
5. Gifts
Giving a gift - not just at Christmas and birthdays

Everybody responds to love expressed mainly in one or two of these areas. If you are a gift giver and your son responds to words of affirmation as his primary love language, then your attempt to convey love doesn't reach his heart when you present a gift. And if you never give him those affirming words, he will build up a picture that you don't love him.

You have to speak the right language in your relationships - if you do, a little effort gives great results. I recommend to get the book and sharpen your skills.


The following addresses cannot be hyperlinked (page will lose secure status) - copy and paste addresses.