The challenges start early. Before formal schooling begins, boys are more likely to be referred for behavior problems, much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, and to be dis-enrolled from preschool.
And it goes on.
Boys account for the overwhelming majority of school discipline referrals (80-90%), of high school dropouts, and they earn approximately 40 percent of college degrees (on a downward trend for years). Boys are much more likely to be still living with parents as young adults (ages 25-31), more likely to commit suicide, to be incarcerated, and to be victims of violence.
Further, more adult males report feelings of unhappiness, while clinical depression for males is more prevalent than all previous generations. At the heart of these experiences is the misunderstood and untapped capacity of the emotional life of boys.
These findings coincide with my clinical experience. For more than 20 years, I’ve witnessed as an invisible force makes itself tangible. When the door of emotional life is opened, men of many ages, stages, and roles, brim with what they’ve held inside, often surprised, embarrassed or plainly overwhelmed when that weight fills the room.
It is a historical weight, sometimes generations in the making, and when it is bare and before you, the playbook of the emotional life of boys becomes clear.
Before they understand what it means to be a boy, they are immersed in powerful models of how to act and how to be. In a recent Player’s Tribune article, a top professional basketball player offered a transparent and courageous perspective begging to be heard by a wider audience.
NBA All-Star Kevin Love offers:
“Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to “be a man.” It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook. And look, I’m probably not telling you anything new here. These values about men and toughness are so ordinary that they’re everywhere … and invisible at the same time, surrounding us like air or water.”
Invisible and everywhere, the expectations play out. The assumptions are unquestioned. But, it can be different. The discoveries of neuroscience have helped to open the dialogue to change. Differences in brain structures reveal some of the reasons why the playbook has been reinforced.
Early on, girls mature much faster than boys and certain brain structures are more developed. For example, language is lateralized in boys and their right hemispheres mature faster. They have a single-task focus because of more gray matter and fewer connections with other areas of the brain (white matter).
This plays out as a propensity for movement and comfort in the visual-spatial world, and why boys find it hard to express feelings, to talk when the intensity of the emotion is so strong and sensory. And because of different wiring, boys have difficulty managing eye contact, emotions, and words at the same time. Yet, what is the expectation?
Be still,.Look at me. Use your words…
Over time, this situation leads to the biggest myth in the playbook, one that I hear on a regular basis. Unlike girls who seem to carry on during social conflict or hurt feelings, boys “get over it.”
The myth is that boys’ feelings do not matter as much as they live in the world of action. They are doers and their emotional life, unlike girls, is secondary as boys just move on. And the case is closed tightly each episode with the simple words: “Boys get over it.”
They don’t, and worse is that while others are sure they will get over it, the emotionally charged moments are stored away and emerge later to the inner voice of, “I guess it doesn’t matter now.”
States become traits, and habits are learned. Culture tells us what boys should be, and that men need to be strong. “Big boys don’t cry.” But they do express anger very well. Yet, anger has so much in common with tears. It’s just another form of not having any control in the moment, wishing things were different, being frightened by loss or frightened by not knowing what to do.
So in those charged moments we follow the script and try to fix it or give advice or tell the boys to move on. Move on they do, but they don’t get over it. Which brings us to the connection of the script for “being strong.” Is strong keeping a stiff upper lip, denying feelings, and handling everything on your own?
“What is strong?” is the question we all should ask without buying into what others have handed out or handed down. But this takes time, thought, and courage.
Changing the Playbook
What can we do right now to support the emotional life of boys? Here are five suggestions to change the playbook at the heart:
Build emotional literacy: Simply labeling and reflecting the feelings you witness is more powerful than advice-giving. Avoid the common adult tactic of reason, logic and asking “Why?” The nuances of emotional life require active connection as boys learn the subtleties of the different positive and negative emotions they experience.
Externalize EQ: As adults, our self-talk and our inner voice provide valuable lessons in managing emotions, problem-solving, decision-making, and simple emoting. By making our internal lives visible we can model that life has ups and downs and that there is an emotional process connected to values. In disappointment, we can model the vulnerability of emotional life and its integration of meaning with our thinking life.
Create and honor rituals: Make space for the richness of relating on a deeper level. Boys prefer activity and side-by-side relating. Nothing is more powerful than the evolving relationship ritual of scheduled, dedicated time together. Time in the car is also an effective way to connect with boys. Rather than offering screens, windshield time and the hum of the wheels is a great side-by-side ritual to talk about what matters. Take the long way home.
Listen more than you ask: This advice may seem counter-intuitive as boys have the market on one word answers. But often we do not give boys time to process, to go deeper, and the adult response is to probe and cross-examine. Listening with the heart will allow for connections. It is better to have one deep conversation on something that matters to boys, then get lots of short answers to everyday routines.
Make your feelings known. Actions are important, but communicating your love and praise matters—regardless of your son’s age. In the male playbook, consider that many men have never heard their own father’s true feelings for this expression has been branded as a sign of weakness. But consider how the raw vulnerability of such sincere expressions emanates from one who is self-assured and self-defined. Nothing is stronger.
Farrell, W. & Gray, J. (2018) The Boy Crisis: Why our boys are struggling and what we can do about it. BenBella Books: Dallas, TX.
Gurian, M. (2010). The Minds of Boys: Saving our sons from falling behind in school and life. John Wiley & Sons.
Kemp, T., & Director, E. (2018). Understanding Boys in the 21st Century.
About the Author
John C. Panepinto, Psy.D, LPCS, NCC, has worked in educational, clinical, and, private settings for more than two decades. Presently, he balances roles as a consultant in early intervention for the largest school system in North Carolina, and as clinical psychologist for Carolina Developmental Pediatrics. He also maintains a private practice. Dr. Panepinto has written on parenting, development, emotional intelligence, resiliency, and performance psychology. He was the keynote speaker for the 2017 National Stay-At-Home Dad’s convention, and blogs on fatherhood. He helped to develop the processes and content for a National Character Education Award winning program in 2003. More at DrJohnPanepinto.com.