Growing Boys Strong
American masculinity is changing. As new cultural and social changes take root, the ways of the past are no longer acceptable in our modern world. Men and boys are now contending with traditional expectations of manliness while exploring new frontiers of sensitivity, connection, and emotional intelligence. Popular forces and media still push ideals of toughness, aggression, and toxic masculinity, but many of us know that these old ways should remain in the past.
The worst part is that this confusion is killing our sons, brothers, and fathers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. However, suicide rates are four times higher in men than women and male suicide accounts for 79% of all suicides in the U.S. each year. In a complex world devoid of quick and easy answers, our boys are falling prey to the forces of trauma, anxiety, and depression.
Since emotions and feelings are so often discouraged in boys, many men don’t have the requisite mental coping skills to deal with life when things get difficult. They contend with emotions and thoughts that they may or may not fully understand. Things can turn deadly when men become landlocked in repeated disappointment and failure, and their only internalized coping skills are outdated societal expectations of manliness like “be a man,” “hit something,” or “have a stiff upper lip.” Boys are rarely socialized to recognize, process, and understand what they think and feel.
Many parents are confused about how to raise boys in modern society as well. Even many progressive parents still put their boys into one of a handful of predesigned “types.” They still operate with outdated definitions of masculinity and what being a man really means. As a result, they often miss warning signs or misinterpret serious issues like clinical depression as just normal teenage moodiness. Since warnings are ignored or written off, these psychological issues have free reign to shape your child’s mind during one of their most formative times of life and take root for years or decades to come.
It is also difficult for this generation of boys to find true role models. Since many fathers are absent due to career demands, divorce or separation, or even struggling with their own emotional lives, many sons are left to figure out their developing emotions on their own. They may look to social media, or popular entertainment to help form their ideas of masculinity, but what they often find are hedonistic celebrities, unethical politicians, and scores of other emotional irresponsible adults. Worst of all, the media often glorifies examples of male drug and substance abuse, suicides, and violence.
As a result of these issues, most boys and men lack positive coping skills when they face adversity, loss, or failure. Without proper coaching, they often fall into one of three different maladaptive emotional regulation systems:
1.) Constriction and Internalization – their minds focus on internal rumination, self-loathing, and self-blaming that often leads to shyness, anxiety, and isolation. They often turn to activity-based but isolating pursuits like video games, social media, and other forms of technology. They don’t view other people as reliable sources of support and comfort, and face-to-face interactions can often make them feel anxious or overwhelmed. If they have friends, it is usually a very small group or maybe even just one friend. They keep their lives organized around predictable routines, safe environments, and narrow opportunities.
When presented with a problem, they frequently shift into emotional shutdown in an effort to avoid engaging with their emotions. Over time, these feelings may compound and intensify if they are not addressed. If they go completely unaddressed, this emotional build up may lead to explosive episodes often caused by minor or insignificant triggering events. Their unhappiness and discomfort simmers underneath the façade of withdrawal and moodiness. When they are finally triggered by something they should be able to handle with ease, they lack the skills to tolerate the flood of emotions and become completely saturated in the overwhelming feelings. They are unable to recover without a full reset.
2.) Intermittent Explosive and Externalization – men with this coping style are regularly emotionally intense, exquisitely sensitive, and overly critical of themselves and others. The image of an explosion is apt because once they get going, there’s no stopping them. They are unable to self-soothe, calm down, or regain proper perspective when they are in the midst of an episode. Routine frustrations or disappointments become more significant than they should. They experience extreme emotional flooding when triggered, and punish themselves or others with highly sabotaging or even destructive behaviors. They are often emotionally and verbally abusive, and they may resort to violence and physical aggression rather quickly as well. They often lack insight into their explosive pattern and lack of emotional coping skills as well.
These boys are obsessed with receiving praise and approval from the world as a substitute for their lack of self-esteem. They dedicate themselves to achievement, praise, and recognition. Everything they do from competitive sports, academic performance, and social climbing becomes the primary way they define themselves. However, they are out of answers once the cheers and praise stop. Cultivating intense friendships and relationships is common, but tolerating the inevitable ups and downs of any relationship becomes difficult for them. Romantic relationships are even more difficult. They often want to fuse with their partner, and they become over invested in the success and welfare of even a brand new coupling. They tie their self-esteem to the success or failure of the relationship, and they can become intensely emotionally injured when a relationship ends. This coping style struggles when they don’t win regularly and face a wave of life’s challenges. This often results in quickly giving up, feelings of vulnerability, and deep depression.
3.) Vacillating Coping Style – This is the most challenging style to cope with as a young man. These boys employ one style of coping in one situation and a completely different approach during the next crisis. Since they don’t have a predictable coping mechanism to fall back on, they intensely react to any adversity with no plan or strategy for how to resolve their negative feelings. They may seem lost and confused about what they are feeling, how to deal with their emotions, and what to do next to resolve the crisis.
These boys are extremely vulnerable to stressors that they should be able to handle with relative ease. Unlike the previous coping styles, these boys are likely to quickly and severely regress emotionally and mentally without any way to recover their self-regulation. Lacking an internal arsenal of defined and practice coping skills, they are at risk for rapid emotional dysregulation that seemingly comes out of nowhere. The aftermath of these crises reinforces their belief that they are defective, weak, and broken. They suffer endlessly in this cycle.
At Gearing Up, we are committed to teaching your son the essential skills of emotional and behavioral self-regulation. Many mental health practitioners miss these issues in young men under the guise of “normal” teenage behavior and they often misdiagnose and undertreat solvable issues that turn into lifelong burdens. The modern world requires boys to be smarter and more emotionally aware and present than ever before. The bar has been raised not only for their own internal emotional lives, but emotional intelligence will determine your son’s success or failure in future social interactions, romantic relationships, and career opportunities.