3 ways to enhance your son’s ability to connect A smack on the back of the head. A punch in the gut. A tackle from the side.  What’s this, a violent fight? No, just boys showing affection for each other. If you are a mother of boys, you sometimes may be dismayed at the way your sons and their friends connect. If you are a father of boys, it’s familiar and natural. The idea that a good share of boys show affection and create connection through physical interaction sounds like a stereotype—and it just might be—but it’s a stereotype backed up by research. Of course it’s not true for all boys, but brain studies have shown that boys are wired differently than girls, influencing how they make connections. 

“Is it nature or nurture for boys to show affection with actions that from the outside can look like aggression, but are really about making contact through touch and play and posturing? I say both. Studies have shown that girls are wired to be more verbal and boys more action-oriented, and that transfers to how each develops intimacy,” says Tom Kowalski, MA, LPC, a licensed professional counselor in Fort Collins who has worked with middle school kids for over 25 years.

Published studies have found that girls have larger frontal/temporal lobes in their brain, areas associated with language. Two well-known studies determined these areas are about 20 percent larger in girls than boys. Also, as young babies, the left hemisphere of the brain develops first in girls, and then the right. The opposite is true for boys. This gives girls a jump on language, and often means girls are speaking complex sentences earlier, talking faster, using more words, and learning to read and write earlier than boys. 

Boys have their developmental advantages, too. The parietal lobe in boys’ brains is larger, giving boys the advantage of understanding spatial relationships, which includes seeing objects in 3D.  This might help boys be more successful at jobs in architecture or engineering, but it doesn’t help them when it comes to sharing their emotions and feelings with loved ones. 

“Intimacy requires talking, and that can be a huge issue for boys who are not as verbal,” Kowalski says.

Remember when your child was a toddler and when they couldn’t say what they wanted to say, they let their feelings be known in other ways, like stomping their feet? Maybe that physical release of emotion wasn’t too far off from why boys express feelings through actions, rather than words, even when they are older. 

“Boys learn to communicate through actions among each other, but closer to puberty they try that with a heterosexual love interest and the girls are like, ‘what are you doing?’” Kowalski adds.

While a head butt with a friend might get the message across of, ‘Hey, I dig you,’ between friends, as a parent of boys you’re likely wondering how you can help your sons strengthen their ability to talk about their emotions and share personal thoughts and ideas with you and others. Kowalski suggest three actions to sharpen your sons’ intimacy skills.

1. Reflect on feelings

Help your boys label their feelings from a young age. If they are frustrated, and start kicking or screaming as little ones, say, ‘you look and sound really mad,’ or, ‘you are telling me by your actions that you are frustrated. Frustrated is when you can’t do something you want to do.’  Resist trying to dig too much into why they are feeling the way they are feeling. Less talk is often more for boys. Kowalski suggests putting out the observation, then leaving it and letting them process. For example, if your elementary-aged son waited all day for a friend who didn’t show, you could say, ‘you must be disappointed that he didn’t come over,’ and leave it at that.

“Make it safe for your sons to have feelings. The best way to do this is for your boys to be around men who can express their feelings and affections verbally, like a dad, uncle, teacher or an older cousin,” Kowalski says.  

2. Think out loud

Another great way to model how to verbally share feelings and affections, and to solve life problems, is thinking out loud in front of your kids. It’s helpful on many fronts, from teaching kids how to walk through a process to helping them realize that everyone, even you, struggle at times to solve a problem or understand an emotional challenge. 

For example, you could say, ‘Grandma is sick and that makes me feel sad. I wonder what we could do to help her. Let’s see, we could go visit her in the hospital, and we could offer to take her dog for a walk every day. I think we should also go talk to Grandpa because he is probably sad and maybe scared, too.” 

This technique also comes in handy when kids are older and trying out risky behaviors. By thinking out loud about tough parenting situations, you can help your kids understand where you are coming from, and help them consider their feelings and actions. Kowalski uses the example of learning your middle school child tried smoking.

“You could say, ‘We are really worried that you tried smoking, and we are not sure what to do. Let me think, we want to respect you and we know kids try things but we are worried because smoking is really bad for you. We know it’s our job to give you space and let you be who you are, but it’s also our job to guide you and take care of you. This is a tough one. We are not sure what to do, so let’s take a break tonight and think about it, then come back together tomorrow and talk,’” Kowalski suggests.

3. Talk while doing, and don’t talk too much

Oftentimes, boys want to talk about their feelings but they are not sure where to start, so it helps when parents take the lead. To make it successful, try talking to your son while you do an activity together, like shooting hoops, throwing a Frisbee or walking the dog. 

“Doing something while talking makes it more possible for a conversation to happen. It’s consoling for boys,” Kowalski says.

Remember, don’t over talk. Because boys are wired to be less verbal, they tend to tune out if you throw too many words at them. This is especially true in middle school, because their brains are inundated with hormones, and are processing so much during that time.  

“They’ll listen to a point but if they are not the center of the conversation, they won’t listen for long. Keep it short and to the point,” Kowalski adds.

In fact, brain research has shown that between the ages of 11 and 13, the brain goes through a “pruning stage” where it drops things that it doesn’t use repeatedly. That’s why it’s especially vital during this time to set the stage for verbal skills, kindness and good character. What is repeated will remain, and what’s not will fall away.

“In the end, the best we can do is offer boys the chance to talk, let them be themselves, and love them regardless,” Kowalski concludes.