|Interview With Spiritual Director of Adolescents
WASHINGTON, D.C., 13 JAN. 2009 (ZENIT)
Being the parent of an
adolescent boy is legendary for its difficulty. But according to one
priest who acts as a spiritual director and confessor for high school
boys, just keeping in mind seven points can make for a better
relationship with adolescent sons.
Legionary of Christ Father Michael Sliney suggests the following
seven necessities for parents of adolescent boys:
1. Clear guidelines with reasonable consequences from a unified
front; cutting slack but also holding boys accountable for their
2. Reasonable explanations for the criteria, guidelines and decisions
made by parents.
3. Avoiding hyper-analysis of boys' emotions and states of mind:
avoiding "taking their temperature" too often.
4. Unconditional love with an emphasis on character and effort more than
outcome: Encourage boys to live up to their potential while having
reasonable expectations. To love them regardless of whether they make it
into Harvard or become a star quarterback.
5. Authenticity, faith and fidelity should be reflected in parent's
6. Qualities of a dad: Manliness, temperance, making significant time
for family, putting aside work, and being a reliable source of guidance.
7. Qualities of a mom: Emotional stability, selflessness, loving service
and extreme patience.
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Sliney takes a deeper look at
the seven points.
Q: What are some of the particular characteristics of this age group
that parents and educators need to bear in mind?
Father Sliney: Well, one of the first and most important points is to
recognize that they are no longer kids. Up to age 12, they are still
kids. But from 13 onward, puberty kicks in and there is a lot more
sensitivity; they are more easily irritated and they want to be treated
like a teen, not like a kid.
At this age, teenage boys are discovering their identities and going
through a lot of turmoil. It's a very sensitive time, and we need to
pray for them and dedicate time to them, show personal interest, try to
understand what they're thinking.
Q: How can a parent find the balance between being clear, firm and
Father Sliney: Explain to your son in advance: These are the
guidelines and these are the consequences. The consequences must be
reasonable. Every parent has an atomic bomb he or she can pull out
taking away the Internet, the cell phone, or the driver's license, or
keeping their bedroom door open
but everything needs to be done in a fair way, in due proportion. You
can't surprise a kid with a negative punishment that doesn't correspond
to what he did.
Don't let the kids feel like there is no hope or that they have
totally lost your trust. Striking the balance between being firm and
cutting them some slack is important.
Also, it is better to be emotionless and rational when you reprimand
them or make a point. Don't throw salt in the wound by making a
punishment into an emotional ordeal. If you're going to ground your kid,
do it in a rational, non-emotional way. Be brief. In the end, boys
respect it more.
Q: How can parents motivate their kids to do the right thing?
Father Sliney: Don't explain it so much in terms of "right" and
"wrong," but in terms of "wise" and "wrong." Explain the reasons behind
why something is wrong or right and frame your motivations in a positive
For example, instead of telling your son, "Don't become a drug
addict," help him to see how resisting the temptation is a great way to
forge his character. When the issue of premarital sex comes up, flip it
around: Instead of saying, "It's a mortal sin" or "You might get a
disease," help him to look forward to his future wife, and to think of
what a great gift he could offer her if he waits for her.
Q: Why should parents avoid probing into their sons' emotional life?
Father Sliney: Boys don't like to be analyzed under a microscope.
Sometimes the worst possible question a parent can ask is: "How are you
doing today? How are you feeling? You look a little sad." Don't analyze
their emotions and state of mind. Girls might like to talk about their
feelings and emotions, but most boys don't. If they had a bad day, they
don't want to talk about it because it makes them feel vulnerable and
Q: Do teenage boys really feel a lot of pressure to perform up to
their parents' standards?
Father Sliney: Yes, they do feel a lot of pressure and they are very
sensitive when they feel judged by how they perform instead of by who
they are. They need the love and esteem of their parents. Parents should
put the emphasis on their kids' characters and on the effort they make,
not necessarily on the result that comes out. If a kid is honest,
generous, prayerful, trying hard in school, and is still a B student,
he's doing his best, and he should be encouraged. It's important for
parents to have reasonable expectations and to encourage each boy to
live up to his potential.
Q: How important is the good example of the parents?
Father Sliney: It is extremely important. We all hyper-analyze our
parents and observe the example they set in all areas: If they are
practicing what they preach, if they are faithful to each other, etc.
High school is a very tumultuous, unstable time for boys. If these
qualities of fidelity and authenticity are not there, and if there is
not a stable, happy marriage, it's chaos. Troubled kids generally come
from dysfunctional or broken families. Here we see the importance of a
great marriage: If that's in place, you've got a pretty good chance of a
teenager getting through in good shape. There are not too many cases of
parents who've got it together having dysfunctional kids.
Q: Can you expand on the importance of the dad's role in relation to
Father Sliney: Kids, especially in high school, need to spend time
with their dad, doing things together. This time together creates a
space for him to open up and talk if he wants to. Take him out to
breakfast or out to a game. Look for ways that he would want to do
something with you. Dads need to get personally involved with their sons
and dedicate time especially to their more difficult kids. Making little
gestures of kindness is so important. My dad used to stop in every night
before going to bed. He showed me he cared by asking how I was doing
with my homework, how things were going. It was just a quick gesture but
it was very helpful.
We're living in a very feminized culture, so dads need to teach their
sons what true masculinity is all about. Being masculine doesn't mean
being a tough football player and lifting weights. Manliness means
strong character, self-control, quiet strength, and getting through
adversity without whining. Kids need to see the example of what it means
to be a man in their dad. It's about having an internal toughness, not
complaining, and not letting others tell you what to do. You're the man
of the house, you think about things, and you have things under control.
If you're living an authentic life, it comes across. One time when I
was a kid, we got a pretty serious tornado warning while we were out in
the yard, cleaning up. My dad went to each one of us: He was calm, in
control, and he knew what needed to be done. Once we were all in the
basement, he was at peace, having a good conversation with us. He was a
calming force, full of confidence and authenticity.
And dads need to be a reliable source of guidance because high school
kids are looking for words of wisdom. Kids are looking for advice from
the one they love. Dads need to be available, but also offer. Kids
shouldn't be intimidated or afraid to approach their dad for advice.
Q: Why did you list "emotional stability" as the first characteristic
for moms of teenage boys?
Father Sliney: Well, guys are pretty choleric and easily excitable.
They don't want their mom in their face, exploding, without
self-control. It's very irritating. If a mom is too excitable, anything
she says is not going to be well-received because of the emotional
charge. In my experience working with kids, I've seen that very few have
a great relationship with their mom. There's not always a natural
connection there. The way of being is so different ... and in some
cases, moms still treat their teenage sons as if they were little kids.
Moms should deal with their sons in a calm, straightforward way. When
guys talk, they get to the point. They don't go roundabout the point or
over-emphasize it with emotions, etc. It's important for moms to watch
what comes across in their tone, in the way they address the kids.
Q: Can you expand on how moms can communicate more effectively with
Father Sliney: Most teenage boys don't like engaging in long,
philosophical conversations with their moms. It's generally better for
moms not to ask too many questions and to be satisfied with short
answers. If moms dig too deeply, kids try to avoid them, because they
feel like they're being probed. Obviously, moms can pick up if their boy
is having a bad day, but it's humiliating for him to have to admit it.
If you're prodding them, it's like forcing them to expose their
weakness. Boys don't want to show their emotions.
Moms have to understand that there won't be a lot of communication,
and they need to go about it in a very delicate way, trying to talk
about things the kids like to talk about: "Hey, you played a great game
The mom's role is to be a mentor, a guide, and a leader, but she is
not called to be a friend to her son. Moms are not going to have a
loving, intimate, communicative relationship with their high school
boys. For example, the worst thing in the world is for mom to say, "Son,
we're going shopping." Shopping for a guy is "get in, get out." A guy
wants to go throw a football around, not stand around analyzing outfits.
So Moms, you have to let them go a little bit and do things as a family.
It's more the dad's role to have one-on-one time and to build that close
Moms can really make a big impact when they give an example of
selfless love and service. Kids need to feel loved, served, appreciated,
because they are not getting that in their competitive environment.
Q: How do you help teenage boys build character and a strong
Father Sliney: Character and the spiritual life go hand in hand,
because grace builds on nature. It is not possible for a kid to be able
to resist his passions of disobedience, rebelliousness, vanity, and lust
without the help of God's grace. I always suggest confession every two
weeks or at least once a month. Definitely Sunday Mass, and if they can
go more often, I encourage it. I also encourage kids to pray a decade of
the rosary for the virtues they struggle most with.
And it's important for them to learn to live in the presence of
Christ, because the motivation of loving Christ and serving Christ is
really what is going to help kids overcome the struggles they face.
Doing things just because Mom is watching or because they'll get in
trouble is not enough, because once they go to college, those deterrents
are no longer there. They need to form convictions of faith in the
presence of God. The most important task is to help Christ become a
friend for them, to help them see that Christ is counting on them, and
to know that the sacrament of confession is there if they happen to