In the wake of the school shootings, almost always perpetrated at the hands of young males, I am afraid that our boys are getting a bad rap. Yes, we are facing a crisis in our country. Children are being killed and the souls of their families and communities are similarly being destroyed. My heart breaks and I too feel deep despair about the crisis that we are facing as a nation. However, it is the minority not the majority of our male youth who are responsible for these atrocities. I am deeply concerned about the belief that our young males are broken. All week long in my consultation room I see wonderful teenage boys. They are struggling with anxiety issues, how to be better friends and how to get along better with their families. They struggle with the same tricky issues that the girls do. I have not seen a significant change in how boys who seek help present over the years. And, I have been working with teens for 3 decades and that certainly is a long enough time to consider the status of our boys over time.
These boys come in crying and asking how they can be better people. I am afraid that they are being portrayed as angrier and more unstable than they actually are because of members of their sex who have committed crimes. And, this, in my opinion, is dreadfully unfair. We must remember that it is the minority of male teens rather than the majority who commit horrendous crimes against humanity. Certainly, many of these teen boys who I work with grapple with issues regarding how to express anger appropriately but they are in good company. Their female peers and adults of all sexes struggle with similar issues. I do not feel that it is fair to identify our teen boys as being in crisis as a group because of the behavior of male outliers.
We do, however, need to give our boys the same attention that we give our girls.They are equally sensitive and have a whole set of complicated feelings to deal with. They are often forgotten when it comes to being taught emotional literacy. I would like to make a bit of a contribution to our boys by making some suggestions that will help parents and others who are raising/teaching them.
1. Let’s lose the “boys will be boys” attitude. When you see your boys becoming physical with each other do not attribute this to their being male. This does not serve them well. Instead, talk to them about their feelings and how they can handle them more effectively. I can assure you that they are sitting on a set of complicated feelings. Trust me here.
2. Encourage your boys to have female friends. They can learn a lot about emotions and emotional expression from their female peers. There are excellent opportunities here.
3. Teach your boys the language associated with emotional literacy. Teach them to label their feelings so that they are less confused when emotions emerge. We are all better equipped to deal with feelings when we know what it is that we are feeling, yes?
4. Learn who your boys are. Observe them. Ask them not only how they are performing but also how they are feeling. You will be giving permission for them to express feelings by gently asking how they are doing.
5. Pay attention to how your boys are spending their time. Are they holed up in a room for hours playing video games? If so, present alternatives and set limits. No one who is locked up in a room learns how to deal with life more effectively. We all need practice on the real life playing field.
6. Teach your boys the importance of empathy. They need to think about what it is like to walk in the shoes of others. This is not a social skill reserved for females. Please think about this.
7. Take stock of how you are defining masculinity in your home. Are you encouraging hyper-masculine behaviors which typically consist of keeping feelings to oneself lest others see them as weak? If so, I urge you to rethink. Not a single one of us, boys included, does well when we internalize all of our feelings. In fact, we get sick emotionally and/or physically when we attempt to bury our feelings.
8. Ask yourself what sort of a role model you are for your son. Are you modeling labeling feelings and expressing them in as effective a manner as possible? If not, consider the impact that you may be having on your son and you may want to reconsider your own behavior.
Good luck with this necessary set of tasks.