It has only been in the past few years that I have started to hear from very frustrated parents about boys in their late teens who seem to be stuck or immobilised on their journey to manhood. I have previously written about the potential for teens to struggle in the months post high school, but this phenomenon is quite different.
These boys often come from loving homes and have not experienced any obvious personal trauma or had a problematic journey through school and yet they are stuck. Both stuck and resisting any help!
So what’s happening and how can we avoid this happening to today’s boys?
What has changed for our older boys?
To explore what may be behind this time of challenge for some of our boys we need to acknowledge that schooling has become more and more of a challenge for many.
Formalised learning has been pushed down into early childhood over the last 5-10 years and many boys have begun their schooling journey with very negative mindsets about learning and education. Even boys who have transitioned well into big school can start struggling with engagement in the years 3 to 5 and I suspect the massive lure of technology could have something to do with this.
Quite frankly gaming – in particular multi-player, interactive gaming – is much more exciting than school work and meets many of our boys’ psychological needs in a far more exciting and engaging way.
Seriously would you do your homework instead of connecting with your best mates in a few battles of Fortnite after school?
Changing cultures of work
Many years ago, boys who were not performing academically would often leave school at 14 years of age and be made to work alongside men who would teach and guide them to learn a craft or a trade.
This mentoring was a slow process that taught boys not only trade skills, but how to be responsible and accountable.
In time they would see the benefits of learning those various skills, which could also give them an income and the freedom to make choices about how to spend that hard-earned money.
Today, many of these boys are often made to stay in school until 17-18 – frustrated, bored, feeling like failures and often disruptive and rebellious!
As Michael Gurian has explained boys tend to need to seek self-worth or personal self-validation through an external experience or event.
This is why they often have a competitive nature or have a need to meet a certain target or goal that they set for themselves.
Why school fails boys
Many schooling practices over the years have become feminised so they are more suited to most girls than boys. Continuous assessment, group work, increased desk time and less recess and lunch times can all be difficult for boys. This is especially true for those boys who need to find success somewhere external or to use physical movement to build up the neurochemical dopamine that can really help them focus and concentrate.
Boys are also biologically wired to only want to participate in things that they perceive to be of value to them and that they have a good chance of succeeding at.
As a former English teacher, I have had many long discussions with teen boys about the value of learning how to write an essay. Many of them believe that it is going to be a waste of their time because they are hoping to be sporting heroes so they don’t need to write essays!
In our overcrowded curriculums in both primary and secondary school, there is less and less time to create engaging, hands-on activities that boys may feel are worthwhile. Many boys prefer to watch endless hours of YouTube – often watching other boys doing stuff they love to do – bike riding, surfing or playing Minecraft or Fortnite. They are experiencing life through a screen instead of the real world.
This is a stunted way of learning about life but heck try and tell that to a boy who loves doing it!
Increased technology in schools has put an extra challenge for our boys’ learning. While it meets their need to be in charge of many aspects of a lesson, they are too easily distracted by what else they could be doing while on the screen (I have to say this is very true for our girls too but they are more likely to be on social media – that’s a whole other article!).
Many Middle School teachers tell me it’s almost impossible to monitor the ways that boys use their screens in the classroom and many boys brag outwardly about accessing pornography and gaming while they are supposed to be doing school work.
It is simply far more exciting and engaging for them to choose activities that interest them rather than doing maths or English.
This is a form of escapism from reality. Sadly it is also not helping these teen boys to develop the emotional competences of delaying gratification, impulse control, persistence at a task and doing something less engaging for a goal that may enhance their capacity to improve their educational outcomes.
When this is done over and over – especially from ages 12 to 15 – it can seriously compromise a boy’s ability to mature or to develop helpful patterns of behaviour that will help him achieve many life goals after he leaves school.
The increased testing regimes, alongside the crammed curriculums, make it harder for teachers to meet the unique learning needs of our boys in our classrooms.
For many years, there has been a decline in the number of bright Australian boys enrolling in university and those that do enrol are failing at a higher levels than they did previously..
Something has certainly changed that is contributing to the demotivation of our boys.
Re-engaging reluctant boys
It is interesting to note the re-engagement of reluctant boys back into learning that occurs when a school creates a more adventuresome play space outside.
The same has been shown to happen in some high schools when therapy dogs become a part of the school environment.
Another trigger that can re-engage our boys in our school environments with some more enthusiasm is the arrival of a new enthusiastic boy-aware teacher.
Boys hunger for positive relationships with teachers (as do girls) and they tend to thrive only when they feel a teacher not only cares for them but respects them. Maybe having a positive relationship with a teacher allows a boy to feel less stressed in the classroom environment and that may be another secret to why many of our boys are not achieving as well in our current educational climate.
We have an increased number of children and teens struggling with anxiety and stress.
Many boys will transfer their stress into their behaviour whether by being more disruptive, aggressive or silly.
We need to keep in mind that there is still a strong conditioning that boys must hide their feelings of vulnerability or distress especially in social settings. It’s easy, then, to understand how many boys just simply get confused and lost in our school systems. Sadly, they are often disciplined harshly for such behaviour when what they really need is some help.
Feeling misunderstood, incompetent and incapable of navigating the endless challenges of classrooms and playgrounds, many boys simply give up trying to improve.
They are often labelled troublesome and naughty and we know the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy!
I believe another thing that is contributing to the state of massive inertia that some of our 18-year-old boys are experiencing has to do with some key experiences that they miss in their boyhoods.
Most boys do still have an instinctual drive to be little warriors and adventurers. This can happen in their superhero play, or when they are building cubbies in the bush with their mates, or when they decide to swim in freezing cold streams in the middle of winter or spend hours climbing trees.
These experiences where boys stretch themselves and test themselves without a hovering parent nearby are innately important and healthy for them.
Yes sometimes they will hurt themselves when they make a poor choice and this will give boys the gift of a natural consequence. In other words a boy will learn through pain that he is not invincible.
So many boys today are not given enough of these opportunities and when they miss these vital learnings, they lose the gift of finding courage within themselves.
As loving and well-meaning parents give them subconscious messages that they cannot trust themselves to make choices – especially when they want to stretch themselves, –boys will tend to create overly cautious mindsets and a distinct fear of failure. The instinctual warrior instinct can weaken, possibly permanently.
Ultimately this impacts their capacity to be resilient and confident not only as boys but as emerging men.
In my book Mothering our Boys I explore how mothers can support the growth and development of their sons in healthy ways.
If you still have young boys in your home, please allow them, even from the age of two, to experience freedom, moments of autonomous play and endless hours in nature, preferably with plenty of mud, sticks and trees. Sit back with your cuppa and allow that little warrior to do what he needs to do to build the courage and confidence that he will need later when he leaves school.
Also please make sure you teach your boys valuable life skills around the house – how to do washing, how to hang washing out, how to bring it back in, (even if it’s still got pegs attached) and how to cook and clean! This does give our boys the opportunity to feel confident they can look after themselves!
Dads and other male father figures are seriously needed maybe more than ever, to take our boys away from worried mammas to allow them to play vigorously, adventuresomely and to learn to deal with risk to help encourage their innate bravery.
If you’re a mum who’s sole parenting, you may need to put effort into finding these figures in your family or community and nurturing a relationship with your son. This may be with a grandad or uncle, a neighbour, coach, family friend or the father of one of your son’s friends. Even though they were lucky enough to have their dad and stepdad in their lives, my sons have also had plenty of other male role models and ‘lighthouses’ to help them along the way.
Lastly, I have met teen boys who have collapsed under the weight of parental expectations that they feel are too high and unachievable.
If you haven’t watched the film Dead Poets’ Society for a long time maybe revisit it with whoever you are co-parenting your son with. High positive expectations are important however they need to be realistic and many boys can struggle with the very real threat of being a disappointment to their parents. Remember their prefrontal cortex, which will help them become the best expression of themselves, does not complete till the mid-20s; sadly we cannot speed up this development. They need to have lots of myelin to make adult-like decisions and that takes time!
Many boys take time to work out what they really want to do with their lives and many change tack around 27 and seriously strive to reach their potential – finally! In a way they may be on the couch waiting for myelin to grow?
So now we know why your lad may be feeling the way he is, how can you help your stuck son?
- Reassure him that in time he will find a sense of direction and purpose – explain the brain maturity stuff to him.
- Explain that stuckness = inertia and so movement of some kind, no matter how small, every single day is going to help him.
- Please don’t force him to get a job – he will have very little confidence and this is too big a leap to start with.
- Get him to choose a small training like a first aid course, a Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) certificate or barista training. Or consider a small volunteering opportunity.
- Explore previous activities or things that he has enjoyed in the past and talk about making feel-good chemicals.
- Explore options that may help him build his fitness even if it is just walking the dog – and if you don’t have a dog, consider getting one.
- If you have elderly parents or neighbours, suggest they ask for his help to do something that they can’t do.
- If he hasn’t passed his license yet, begin that process.
- Some teens have done a one-day cooking course just for fun. Keep an eye out for opportunities like this.
- If you have family or friends who live on a farm, or who are doing some renovations and need some help, or who simply might be happy to have him come for a short holiday – do that!
- Go camping with family friends.
- Invite his friends over for a sleepover – often.
All of these options are about breaking the inertia of being stuck without putting undue pressure on him that could trigger more stress and anxiety.
The last thing he needs is any more nagging, negativity or criticism because he is already doing that to himself. Gradually, building his confidence one small step at a time within the family can work.
Give at least a month using the suggestions above and if he is still stuck he may have slipped into depression so please have a mental health assessment done with the family doctor and seek some professional support if you are worried.
I want to say too that if your son is heavily into gaming (spending more than four hours a day solidly attached to his console for example), then these steps may take even more time – and they will be challenging and require patience, persistence and a whole lot of love from you.
As your son becomes of legal age, it’s difficult to implement guidelines such as the agreements we can put in place with teens still at school. You may need some extra support and if you’re concerned that he’s tipped into gaming addiction, perhaps check out Brad Marshall’s work in this area for more resources and support.
Please remember that inside every 18-year-old boy is a 4-year-old boy who’s confused about life and desperate to know that you will love him unconditionally especially when he cannot love himself.
Prioritise compassion, kindness and endless patience – even when you want to scream! And as a last resort, there is always the secret weapon – a well-timed fart to put a smile on his face.
If you need more information or support with your teen’s mental help please visit our support services for teens page.