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6 Ways Parents Can Help End 'The Boy Crisis'
We raise boys to be islands, then wonder why men are so shut down
Boys and men are in crisis.
I know it can be hard to believe, considering that the vast majority of elected officials, powerful judges, tenured professors and presidents of universities and colleges, Fortune 500 CEOs, lobbyists, millionaires and billionaires, surgeons, and more are men — white men who grew up in immense privilege.
How are these the people in crisis?
Well, they’re not. Not in the way we may immediately think about, at least.
Those guys are white Boomers and elder Gen-X guys, and most of them came from families with financial privilege. Their generations also grew up in an educational system that favored them.
[Author’s note, added after publication: For further clarification, please read the short note I added here, which elaborates on what I mean by the specific men in power in our society not being in trouble — because, of course, anyone can be at risk of suicide, addiction or any other mental health issue, and men from all demographics are struggling with these issues.]
But younger Millennial and Gen-Z boys are different. Here’s a very quick (and incomplete) list of reasons why:
They came of age during a shift in educational policies, including No Child Left Behind, which left them sitting for longer periods of time with fewer breaks, reduced access to recess or PE classes, and reduced staffing in schools and forced teachers to adhere to limited curricula — changes which appeared to harm boys the most
They grew up with the Internet and smart phones, which means they were exposed to more adult material earlier and their parents were more distracted when not at work
Two global recessions created an economy where their parents had to work more hours for less money while the traditionally secure and lucrative jobs that male heads of household held, like unionized manufacturing and middle-management jobs, all but disappeared entirely
Health insurance became more expensive and less comprehensive, with higher deductibles and less access to affordable mental health care**
The “Girl Power” and “Future Is Female” campaigns, while necessary, wonderful and empowering for girls, often left boys wondering where they fit in society
Online campaigns* featuring phrases like “all men suck” and "all men are r*pists” took hold as justifiably angry women and girls vented their frustration with the systems of power that kept dangerous men from facing consequences. Lacking nuance, boys saw this commentary online and couldn’t help but feel shame and/or anger at being judged simply because of their sex or gender
Boys’ and men’s disillusionment and isolation made them targets of exploitative propaganda encouraging them to find identity in negative and unhealthy sources like pick up artistry, online trolling, anti-woman hate, and racist and other bigoted anti-democracy organizing — all of which further isolated these young men from their IRL loved ones (including girls and women they might like to form real relationships with) and often left them ashamed and empty once the promise of empowerment showed to be a sales gimmick
Generational legacies of enforced stoicism kept boys locked in what’s often called “the man box” as the world changed around them
With all of this in mind, I hope you’ll open your mind to the reality that many of our boys and men are struggling, and read my deeper dive into the emotional lives of boys below.
(You can also skip straight to the list for action items)
When our kids are babies, we hold them incredibly close, feeding them against our chests, gazing into their eyes and mirroring their sounds and expressions. When they say “gooooo” and we say “goooooo” back to them, we tell them, I see you and you are good. You are safe, you are loved. This is an essential part of helping a baby feel secure.
As they grow older, we give them hugs and cuddles at the end of their little preschool days. We hold them tight when they get hurt, reassuring them that they will feel better soon. They sit on our laps to read books and we snuggle them close at bedtime, nuzzling into their necks and giving kisses on the cheek.
We do all of this for babies and toddlers, regardless of their gender.
But something happens as kids grow up. They create autonomy and push out into the world. This, too, happens regardless of gender, and we understand that it is normal and healthy. One day you wake up with a tween or teen who is different than that tiny kid you cradled, and you realize that you haven’t hugged that child in days — maybe even weeks.
If you have a son, it’s likely you assumed that he wouldn’t want to be cuddled by his parents. He’s awkward and may be adjusting to new hormones and body changes, and maybe he wants to be alone or listening to his headphones all the time. Unless he’s visibly angry or dressed like Marilyn Manson, we don’t think much about our older sons’ emotional lives.
While teenage girls may be prickly and private, we never assume they have shallow emotional lives or that they don’t still need love and affection. In most families, girls still get lots of hugs from their parents as they grow up, and many even hold hands or accept a snuggle in tender moments, like watching a movie while sharing a blanket.
The same image doesn’t come to mind for a teenage boy and his dad — or even his mom. A son sitting next to his dad on the couch and sharing a blanket to watch a movie may even seem unnatural to some.
But why? Why do we think boys and girls suddenly develop these vastly different needs as they grow older?
You don’t have to be a family that longs for “the good old days when men were men and women were women” (what did that ever even mean?) to find yourself believing that most men are islands, stoic and thick-skinned. This stereotype is deeply entwined with homophobia and works its way into our minds in ways we rarely acknowledge.
I deliver this message free of judgement. I’m that mom who bought my boys dollies and an Easy-Bake Oven and snuggled them endlessly as little ones. I cultivated gentleness while teaching them “feelings words” when they were small. But I’m also the mom who stopped doing those things as they grew older — without really questioning why. It happened slowly, without me even noticing.
What I didn’t immediately realize was that they were still relying on me, as their parent, to reach out to them for hugs and cuddles and to create a specific type of safety where they could talk openly and freely.
I didn’t think much about this until my friend’s teen daughter started struggling with boys — boyfriends and guy friends alike — becoming overly reliant upon her for emotional support. They didn’t want to be alone, they needed to talk. I heard from more moms that this was happening, that girls were on the phone all night long trying to be emotional support for desperate boys.
Even in progressive communities that openly embrace LGBTQIA+ students and queer parents, there is a subtext of what’s “gay” for a boy: talking deeply about feelings, touching each other non-romantically in an earnest way, etc.
Given all of these factors, who is a straight boy to turn to when he’s lonely? Who will he ask for physical affection when he needs it? A girlfriend, a peer who is a girl, or a hookup, most likely. The problem is, a peer is just that — a fellow kid. Girls aren’t prepared for that type of labor.
This process is not just unfair to girls, it’s devastating for boys.
Some boys won’t have the opportunity to rely on a girl in an intimate sense. For those who do, there’s an ever-present fear that the relationship could end at any moment and they would be left alone with nobody to talk to.
With this in mind, is it any surprise that so many teenage boys are attempting and even completing suicide?
The rates of suicide by young men and teen boys have skyrocketed, as founder of the non-partisan American Institute for Boys and Men and author of Of Boys and Men: Why the American Male is Struggling, Why it Matters and What to Do About It, Richard Reeves, said in a recent posting on his Substack,:
“There is too little awareness of the fact that being male is the biggest risk factor for suicide, and consequently too little action being taken to tackle the problem.”
Reeves then shares an infographic that I strongly suggest every parent take time studying. All teens appear to be in trouble, and efforts to prevent suicide should be broadly distributed, regardless of gender. But looking at this graphic makes it clear that boys and young men are in serious danger.
Without realizing it, we ask boys to be emotionally “strong” well before they are able to do so on their own, turning them into islands way too early in their development. Then we place enormous pressure upon them to perform academically, romantically, and physically — all while living up to the nearly-impossible standards required in order to remain safely in “the man box”.
We don’t do it to harm them. In fact, we may think it’s an act of love preparing them for a world where society demands that they live as emotionless hunks of rocks in the middle of turbulent seas. This is the tradition that was handed down to us.
But now we know that boys don’t thrive as islands, and we know that men are struggling. We need to do better.
We know that nobody can do life alone. Men cannot simply switch off their emotions or process trauma or attachment wounds through “punching something” or climbing higher on the corporate ladder, no matter what we’ve been taught for generations.
These things may help them numb the pain, but as we see from these suicide rates — not to mention the gender disparity in deaths due to addiction or accidental overdose, which are sometimes deaths due to persistent hopelessness and loneliness or untreated trauma — unprocessed pain and unmet emotional needs are just as toxic to men as they are to women. Preventing addiction and death by overdose may also require different interventions for boys than for girls, as may preventing deaths by suicide.
So, what can we do right now as parents of growing boys and young men?
The answer is long and extremely multi-faceted, which is whyand I are writing our book, Talk To Your Boys: 27 crucial conversations to have with boys today & how to start having them. For now, I’ll share a few things I’ve tried to consciously integrate into my day-to-day interactions with my boys and their friends — not just to help them feel loved, but also adored as well as seen, heard and appreciated.
Six ways to better support teen boys’ and young men’s emotional well-being
1. Smile and look him in the eye when you see him
This is simple, but easily overlooked.
Life is busy — our lives, their lives. But when you’re picking him up from school or when you or him walk in the door at the end of the day, make a point to make eye contact and smile when you first see him.
This is so easy with little kids. A preschooler lights up when they see Mom or Dad, they may even run to you. An older kid is carrying a lot more, so they may appear closed off at the end of an activity or after a long day. That’s OK, they don’t have to be open for you to initiate this.
Just look him in the eye, smile and say something kind. Even just “Hi!”
If it feels authentic to you, try “I’m so happy to see you!” or “Hey, that shirt looks great!” When you first start doing it, it may feel awkward, but after a few days you’ll be sad that you didn’t always do this.
It’s weird, but most boys walk through life with their guards up. They have to, society doesn’t want boys to be soft and open and sweet. So they appear cold and cut-off, even if they wish they weren’t.
Opening yourself up with a smile and eye contact is the simplest way to make him feel valued.
2. Hug him
I’m a huge proponent of asking for and giving verbal consent for touch and affection, and that doesn’t change with teenagers. If your family dynamic involves lots of easy hugs and cuddles, consent may be less specific and purposeful, but it’s always good to do a little check-in.
For me, opening my arms to my boys is how I ask if they want a hug. Sometimes they don’t, so they give me a little pat as they walk by my open arms. As someone who easily gets “touched out”, I don’t take offense. Other times, they fold into my arms and exhale, and it’s clear they needed the invitation.
If you haven’t been a family of huggers, it might be worth just saying, “Hey, I know you’re a big guy now, but I’d love to give you hugs any time you want one. You can just hug me or you can tell me you need a hug and I’ll be there.”
A pat on the arm, a shoulder squeeze, an arm around the shoulder are also great ways to give them affection if they don’t seem to enjoy hugs. Every kid is different, and that’s OK. But remember, humans need affection and connection and an attachment figure. It’s healthy and normal for them to crave that — even for boys, and even with their dads.
3. Let him talk
Remember being a teen and getting lectures from your parents? It sucked then and it sucks now. We need to talk less and listen more.
This is a hard one for for me as an admitted know-it-all and chatterbox, but I’m trying!
Sometimes love looks like silence. Of course, asking questions and reflecting back what you’re hearing is a good thing — as is questioning something that seems unhealthy or false — but giving a kid a chance to get his flow going when he starts talking often gives him a chance to sort through what he’s saying and find where he needs to go in the conversation.
By listening with less interruptions, you’re also showing him that you’re there for him, for his thoughts and feelings, and not just your own. This is key for building trust.
4. Be open-minded & leave politics out of it when possible
Think about how you discuss political and social topics with your kids. If you’re like me, you have a firm sense of what “side” of any issue is right and wrong and you feel your kids should believe the exact same thing.
The problem is, your child is not you and it is developmentally normal (and even healthy) for him to try on different perspectives and opinions to see what feels right. When we reply with something harsh like, “That’s disgusting, where did you learn that??” it may feel to him like you’re saying, “you’re so stupid” or “you have terrible judgment” or “you can’t think for yourself” or “you’re just another toxic male” and that pushes him away.
Imagine a scenario where a man you generally like and respect says something politically opposite of what you believe. Would you immediately get angry and shout him down? Or would you try to help him see your side? Most likely, you’d say something like, “I disagree with that, but I hear you. This is my opinion, for what it’s worth…” so you could have a civil discussion.
Your child deserves at least that level of respect from you. That doesn’t mean you stay silent or leave his misunderstandings or incorrect assessments unchecked. It means inviting him in to how you think and how you came to your conclusions rather than pushing him away.
If you respect his right to an opinion, he will be much more likely to respect and hear yours.
5. Say a kind, authentic thing every day
I don’t know why this is hard, but lots of parents find this challenging, especially with boys. Maybe we know how much girls’ self-esteem matters to their outcome, but don’t think boys have this same struggle.
Regardless, I’m trying to take a moment every day to look at my kids with a goal of finding an authentic, warm compliment. I promise, even if he’s being aggro or sulky, there’s something good you can say, but you may need to step away from your own biases.
For instance, maybe he’s deeply committed to a particular video game. You can praise his commitment and hard work, even if you hate video games. You may think gaming is a waste of time, but it’s not about you, and his commitment to a goal (and possibly even a team) is an admirable quality.
Love his big brown eyes? Say it. Think he looks handsome or cool in that shirt? Say it. Think he’s being especially sweet with his little sibling? Tell him. Love hearing his laugh when he’s talking to his friends? Tell him that!
There’s a strange vulnerability that goes along with dishing out compliments — almost a fear that if he reacts with an eye-roll or curt word it will hurt more than if you’d never given the compliment. But you’re the adult, you’re his attachment figure, you need to step out onto the limb and offer kindness. If you haven’t done it much, he might not trust the authenticity of your words, but he will probably grow to trust you as you do it more, and it will be meaningful to him.
6. Create a space for him to be imperfect
Ultimately, all of these things are about showing love for him as an individual and creating a safe space for him to be heartbroken, weak, needy, insecure or any other “weak” or “unmanly” thing when he’s with you.
For some reason, we’ve spent generations thinking this is a “girl thing”, when in reality it’s just a human thing. We all need it, and as parents, it’s our job to create and deliver it to them.
No matter how old he is, it’s worth starting now. He may be taller than you, he may drive a car, he may even be able to grow a beard, but he’s still your child. If he’s living under your roof, count yourself lucky to have recognized this need while you still have him close enough to treasure and protect.
As a mom of a child who is a grown adult, trust me when I say that one day you’ll blink and he’ll be out in this world on his own.
*the most extreme examples of anti-man online content often came from trolls on sites like 4Chan in order to make men dislike women and/or disinformation agents hired by foreign governments to create discord and unrest among Americans using social media.
**lack of access to mental health care also affects women and girls, but they often have emotional support from family and friends, whereas boys and men are expected to be stoic and unemotional. While nobody should have to go without medical care they need (including mental health care, which is medical care) this lack of access may affect boys and men more than their female counterparts