Haley Vannatta with sons Caden (16) and Luke (14)

The Unique Dynamic: Building a Lasting Mother-Son Bond

May 2021

by sheri mitchell | photos by lovely hitchcock

“Boy- 1. The wildest of all animals. 

2. A noise with dirt on it. 

3. Most precious to their mothers.” 

“She loved a boy very much--even more than she loved herself,” wrote Shel Silverstein.   

Oh, the joy of having a son to raise. Oh, the pain of having a son to raise! A son will overwhelm you with his noise and chaos one minute, and warm your heart with his crooked grin and a dandelion presented to you from sticky fingers the next. Boys have the power to simultaneously grip your heart with fear and fill your heart with pride due to their latest outrageous adventure or death-defying feat. Sons will run hard and fast away from you at various moments in their lives and then circle back just as quickly if they sense you, their mom, need some help. And no matter what, no matter how crazy their antics or obnoxious their behavior, you love them with every fiber of your being. They made their way into your heart from the moment you knew they existed, and nothing on this earth has the power to remove them from that place. 

Having a son and having a relationship with a son are often two very different things. One just happens. The other is intentionally built. Mothers and sons can differ quite a bit in their likes and dislikes, so finding ways in which to connect offers challenges of its own. And the relationship between a mother and a son can vary greatly from the relationship between a mother and a daughter.  

The Hallmarks of a Healthy Mother/Son Relationship 

Lorinne Burke, MMFT, LCPC, NCCE, NCPC, is a local counselor at Northwest Counseling. "Healthy," says Burke, "doesn't mean conflict-free. Moms often want peace when their boys are at the developmental stage and want to butt heads and test boundaries." In those moments, healthy adults can control their own emotions, staying regulated when dealing with a teen boy determined to push all the buttons. "It's all in how you respond," Burke explains:  

Can you listen, reflect back, use empathy, and resist the urge to use sarcasm? If you find yourself calling your child names, using his same tones of voice, and taking him personally, then you need to take a breather and come back at this when you feel more balanced. Boys will cycle through the need to be in charge of you and tell you what to do. And they really do act differently towards moms! Healthy is my ability to calmly tell my son that he will face consequences and his ability to mumble under his breath as he does what I asked. Healthy is also the hugs, shared TV show we watch, times he sends me memes he thinks are funny, and shared activities. Your son needs to know you like spending time with him and value him. 

Full schedules can easily create a disconnect, but for Haley Vannatta, who works as a commercial real estate agent at NAI Business Properties and has three sons, Luke (14), Caden (16), and Tyler (18), "Whenever my sons have expressed a desire to spend time with me or talk, I take them up on that offer, even if I am busy or tired. My sons know they are loved, valued, and celebrated for who they are. Connecting with them doing activities they love has been and will always be important to me, and they know it." 

Haley Vannatta and son Ty (18)

Sowing the seeds of open communication when your children are young can reap beautiful benefits as your children leave the nest. Diana Jones, Music Secretary at Senior High and mother to three adult children, Katie, David, and Danny, shares that keeping the communication lines open has been vital to their relationship. She recalls nights where she'd be ready for bed, and one child or another would poke their head in the door and ask to talk. "I always made time for that." Diana also learned the value of giving her children the space to be themselves while continuing to express love to them, "Even when things have gotten difficult." So now, as adults, even with Danny living across the country, they text or talk almost every day.  

Diana Jones with son David

Relational Needs of Sons vs. Daughters 

Moms might feel like they are ahead of the game in relating to their daughters because once upon a time, they were young girls themselves. Whereas with their sons, it can, at times, feel like venturing into unknown territory. Burke offers valuable insights into some key differences between sons and daughters.  

  • Sons are less likely to fight on your terms.  
  • Daughters will hit you with more emotional weapons.  
  • Sons have more issues with either fighting for control or telling mom she can't give them any consequences. Our culture often equates maleness/masculinity with being totally independent, and NO ONE can tell a real man what to do! Having a GIRL, even if it happens to be your mom, tell you what to do; it is tough for boys to figure out.  

So, how can a mom adapt?  

Avoid the power struggles, says Burke, "As a mom, I am just here to point out the consequences my son is about to hit head-on. I emphasize for him how his choices determine what good or bad happens to him. Boys will try to make Mom emotionally responsible, 'I'm sad, and you're not helping!' It's really important to push back on that. 'You are sad, and you want to blame me, but that won't help you.'"  

Diana shares that this lesson really hit home during her boys' middle school years when they began to pull away. Though it was painful for her, her husband reminded her that as their sons were becoming young men, it was natural for them to create some distance from mom. With reassurance, though, that they would eventually find their way back to her, wanting to recultivate that closer relationship. Dad's relational understanding was spot on, and now mother and sons do indeed share a tight relationship.  

Connecting with Sons 

Developing the mother-son bond that you’ve dreamed of is something that can be nurtured at every stage. While she doesn’t identify one stage as being more critical than another, Burke explains that they build on each other, “The kind of connection you can make with a small child by reading, cuddling, and playing at their level becomes the basis for shared activities when they are in elementary and helping them with homework in Junior High.” Those early interactions might come more naturally than those of the teen years, but it’s all about establishing habits that allow you to spend time together, says Burke.  

For Tina Benson, a St. V’s NICU nurse and her three sons – Rocky (13), Haddon (9), and Henry (6) - it’s the everyday moments that are the most special. Both mother and sons say it’s their nightly bedtime routine when they all pile onto mom’s bed and snuggle in to read a devotion, pray together, and just talk and laugh together that means the most.  

Tina Benson with sons Rocky (13), Haddon (9), and Henry (6)

Burke notes that the “teen years can be the hardest because they are so into their peers' opinion and they are so desperate to be independent.” So, some of those habits you can put into play are:  

  • Religious observances or holidays 
  • Nightly dinners 
  • Sports you coach 
  • Hunting, camping, skiing, snowmobiling, boating, anything that your son becomes so used to when he's younger that he still shows up for out of habit and communal expectation as a teen.  

Ultimately, says Burke, "You need time together, and it's so hard to start from scratch once they're Middle School or older."  

As Haley's sons entered high school, she created opportunities for time together by offering to take her son and a friend to lunch every so often. She says, "They usually accepted because it meant I was paying. I spent time listening and just showing genuine interest in their friendships." The harvest of those planted seeds? "Just today, my 16-year-old texted me and asked if I wanted to go to lunch. I ALWAYS make time for those things - even if my calendar is full at work." Doing this is just one way Haley is working to ensure her sons feel seen, known, valued, and loved by her.  

Meanwhile, Diana's youngest son has not lived in Montana since he was 18. No matter which state he happens to be in, Diana makes an effort to visit him a couple of times a year. She adds that celebrating every little thing with her children has been a wonderful way for them to connect. The time, effort, and love that Diana has sown has not gone unnoticed by her sons. Both men say that they would call their mom their best friend, as she has walked with them through the trials of life, loved them regardless, and always been available to talk, pray, cry, and laugh with.  

Building Common Ground 

Boys and their mamas might have vastly different interests, so finding common ground could take a bit more effort. Burke explains that as a boy mom, she's had to learn to ask Minecraft questions and listen to endless stories about Monster Hunter. As the adult, she elaborates, it's our responsibility to show interest and then teach our sons how to do the same. "Around 4th or 5th grade, most boys are mature enough to understand the basics of conversation, but they still have to be taught."  

The Art of Conversation 

Long drives are great for this! Put away the electronics and teach conversation basics.  

  • I talk, and then you talk.  
  • Don't interrupt; take turns asking questions.  
  • Don't say more than five sentences before giving the other person a chance.  
  • Whining makes everyone feel like they’ve had nails on a chalkboard, etc. 

Kids are not going to learn this by osmosis anymore. They are not hanging out with adults and don't spend a great deal of time talking face to face (or even on the phone - it's all texting and snaps and DMs). Teach them the skills as young as you can, and you'll have the basis for good conversations later, says Burke.  

Being a boy mom is learning to appreciate the things your boys like, Tina shares. Embracing things like Pokémon Go has helped facilitate daily connections with her sons. It's all about being present with her presence and finding opportunities to be involved at her sons' schools for Tina. Getting to know their classmates and being present at their special events has the dual benefit of helping the school and connecting with her boys. Haley adds "Since the beginning, I had to learn to enjoy boy things and participate in activities that weren't always a first love for me." Backpacking being one that she's learned to enjoy. A few years ago, the family bought a boat that wasn't in the budget, but Haley says it has "paid dividends in quality time with our kids and their friends. Connecting with them doing activities they love has been, and will always be, important to me." Video games, however, are a step too far; a gamer she is not. However, it's something they enjoy with each other and with their dad.  

Diana, too, has worked to find areas of intersection that she and her sons can enjoy together, like singing and attending concerts or watching all the movies nominated for Best Picture before watching the Oscars together. For her, it's all about finding ways to be together and being intentional in making time for each of them.   

Author Cheri Fuller posits, “A mother’s love doesn’t make her son more dependent and timid; it actually makes him stronger and more independent. Maternal love is perhaps the most powerful, positive influence on a son's development and life" (What a Son Needs From His Mom). May your love and connection with your sons grow stronger this year, and may they grow to be strong, independent, caring men because they were loved by you, their mom.  

Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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