Anne Harvey knows teenage boys. How well? She's raised three, is busily raising No 4, and has helped dozens of mums raise theirs through her parenting courses.
"It's difficult to shock me these days."
But the Nelson mother, life coach, adult educator and now author of Sons to Men: A Mother's Guide, says there was a time, back when her three eldest sons hit their teens in quick succession, when she was utterly confused by them.
On her own with three boys, a baby and a business, trying to understand her sons' behaviour left her frazzled and, when they pushed her away, devastated.
Slowly, she says, it dawned that most of the stress her sons seemed to be causing was of her own making as she struggled to come to terms with their normal, error-prone attempts to grow up.
"I really came to realise how much of the issues I was having with my sons were because of the issues I was dealing with myself. It was more my problem."
Her boys hit adulthood at the same time Ms Harvey finished a degree in adult learning, and the breathing space and hindsight gave her a chance to start up a course to guide other mothers around the traps she had once been snared in.
"I thought, wow, I've learnt so much from having these boys . . . that I want to share that with other women."
Her aim with the course, and now her book, is to "strengthen the woman within the mother".
"Mothering's just a role you take on - it's not who you are."
However, she insists it is not just another attempt to cast the blame for teenage boys' behaviour back to their mothers.
"That's what I'm trying to avoid. It could be taken that way, couldn't it? [But] it's not so much that we're causing them to take risks or do silly things. It's more that we can make it an awful lot harder for ourselves."
Gently relinquishing the mothering role makes life easier for both mums and their sons, she says.
"It's to do with our protective instinct and how strong that is. When they're edging towards adolescence and through that stage we just have to learn how to manage that instinct - [it] can cause us all sorts of grief unnecessarily."
Part of that grief comes from taking typical teen behaviour far too personally.
"We make it mean something about us, like he's deliberately trying to wound us."
Some days it might not seem like it, but "he doesn't get out of bed each morning wondering how he can piss his mother off".
She encourages mothers to use a "green hoop" strategy - imagining a green hula hoop around themselves that is a "space" between them and their son.
"The things [their son] is saying for whatever reason - they're angry, depressed, anxious - it can come out of a teenage boy's mouth in a way that's an accusation.
"We can let that come into us . . . but if we can use that space between us and see his anger, depression, whatever, coming in and landing in the hoop and not directly into you."
That space is also important when it's the mum doing the talking, she says.
"We just keep talking at him in the hope that he'll communicate with us. We have to really look at our use of verbal interaction, because he just turns off. The shutters come down, and no wonder, because we sometimes just bombard them with too many words."
She suggests mums hesitate. "When he comes home from school and gets in the car and you just start on at him: 'How are you, how was your day?' He just sits there and says nothing."
Instead, let him make the first attempt at communication.
"The boys will often come to the mum and say: 'Hey, mum, are you OK?' and they will want to engage."
When it comes to important, must- have conversations, boys will often appreciate a heads-up. "Give them time to think about something. Make an appointment with him."
Men play a huge role during boys' teenage years, but that is not an indication that mum has no place.
"We need to be careful that women don't just put their hands in the air and say: 'I can't do it, it's a man's job'."
That is an especially important message for single mums, she says.
"That doesn't mean you don't have what it takes to raise a great son."
She wants mums to enjoy and share in their sons' teenage years. "They're such a delight. They're really challenging your beliefs . . . and I think that's a good thing."
Sons to Men: A Mother's Guide (HarperCollins, $35).
- © Fairfax NZ News
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