By Michael Guyton, MD
Many parents assume that teen boys are less complicated than girls. Girls have periods, can get pregnant, and have messy emotions and friendship drama. Boys, on the other hand, have relatively smooth sailing through adolescence.
Of course, this isn’t really true. Puberty is a confusing and often stressful (and exciting!) time for everyone. But because we have these assumptions that boys don’t need as much guidance, discussions around teen boys’ health can get jaded.
Let’s change that. In honor of Men’s Health Month, here are 7 conversations to have with your teen son.
Of course, not every teen boy has a penis. Some of these conversations may not be appropriate for trans boys, and some may be suited for trans girls. Frame these conversations in ways that are appropriate to your child’s development and unique identity. If you have a child who is trans, know that puberty can be an especially stressful time for them. Make sure you understand how to support them.
1. Their Changing Body
Puberty means a lot of change, including spontaneous erections, wet dreams, and gynecomastia (when men’s breast tissue swells). These changes can start occurring as young as 10 and as old as 14. Gynecomastia may make boys feel self-conscious, while spontaneous erections and wet dreams can be confusing and embarrassing if they don’t understand what’s going on. This is why it’s important for parents to frame these changes as natural, and emphasize that there’s no reason to be embarrassed about them. Make sure your teen understands that spontaneous erections and wet dreams may happen for a while, but will then go away.
2. Doing the Horizontal Monster Mash
Definitely avoid the above euphemism, but DON’T avoid talking about sex—in an honest and direct way. Remember that The Talk isn’t just one conversation—it’s many. In addition to the mechanics of sex and reproduction, teens need to learn about consent, safety, communication, and emotions. Make sure your teen understands that it’s normal to be interested in sex, but that that doesn’t mean they’re ready to have it. How you talk about having a healthy sexuality impacts not only how they see themselves, but how they treat others. In the right context, sex is a normal and healthy part of life. You can help them figure out what that context is.
3. The Triple S (Safe Shaving Skills)
People with testicles start shaving their face as early as 12-13 years old, and as late as 16-17 years old. The first time they shave, they shouldn’t do it alone. Make sure your teen understands the importance of using shaving cream and a brand new, clean razor. This can help them avoid ingrown hairs, which black and Latinx folk (or anyone with especially wiry hair) are particularly prone to.
It’s also completely normal if your teen wants to shave places other than their face, such as their legs, arms, or pubic area (aka manscaping). While there aren’t any health consequences to shaving, it IS important for your teen to understand that shaving these other areas is different than shaving their face. With manscaping, there’s a greater risk of getting ingrown hairs, which can lead to infections. Teens should talk to their medical provider or someone who has experience shaving these areas before they try it themselves. Wanting to shave areas other than their face does NOT mean that they are gay or less “manly.”
4. Know Your Junk
Talk to your teen about the importance of becoming familiar with what their testicles feel like. This allows them to pick up on any changes that occur. They should pay attention to lumps, bumps and pains. If they notice any changes, they should talk to a health care provider as soon as possible.
5. Emotions are a Human Thing, Not a Girl Thing
During puberty, emotions can become more intense and complicated. Experiencing happiness, sadness, anger, and everything outside and in-between is completely normal. However, it’s important your teen understands how to express their emotions in a healthy way. If teens don’t understand how to healthily express their emotions, they may have risky sex when they’re happy, get into fights when they’re angry, or use drugs when they’re sad. Help your teen frame their feelings and emotions, and talk about healthy emotional expression. For example, you can suggest a kickboxing class or drum lessons when they’re angry, or journaling when they’re sad.
Teen boys must also deal with stereotypes about acceptable “masculine” behavior. Emphasize that feeling and expressing emotion is normal and healthy.
6. Mental Health is as Important as Physical Health
Talk to your teen about the importance of mental health and the signs of depression and anxiety, which can show up as early as 11 years old. Make sure they understand that going to therapy doesn’t mean they’re “crazy,” and that they can ask you (or another trusted adult) for support without judgment.
Substance use is closely tied to mental health. Talk to your teen about the health effects of drug use, and the legal consequences if they’re ever caught with illegal substances. If your teen needs drugs for everyday activities like school work or falling asleep, they may be self-medicating.
7. You Don’t Have to be Sick to See a Doctor
Everyone needs routine preventive care. Talk to your teen about the importance of regular medical appointments and engaging with their health. This is especially important for older teens who may be getting closer to living on their own and managing their own medical care. Yearly check-ups are an important way for people to engage with ways to stay healthy, like regular STI testing, exercise, and healthy eating. Even though they may not need shots or blood work, health care providers will check their cholesterol, blood pressure, and assess risk factors for a variety of diseases and conditions.
Of course, this is far from a comprehensive list. What important conversations would you add?
Dr. Michael Guyton is currently serving his second year as an Adolescent Medicine Fellow at MSAHC after earning his M.D. from the University of South Carolina. His areas of clinical interest include preventative screening tools for adolescents in the primary care setting, mental health services for LGBT youth, and health education with particular focus on college-aged youth. Michael is also a member of the Girlology/Guyology Team, providing age-appropriate health and sexuality education for grade- and high school-aged boys.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.