The Emotional Life of Boys

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have mentioned more than once that male humans are more emotional than female humans, and the difference in emotional expression is particularly true in very young boys. As an example, take a look at this segment interviewing adolescent boys which recently appeared on Good Morning America.

photo of boy with binder covering his faceWhat astounds me about this segment is that the young men appear to be so straightforward in their discussion of the pressures they feel as they are growing up. It is rare to find adolescent boys who will actually tell you what they are feeling, unless they know you very well. Boys are usually quite guarded in sharing their emotions, as they are easily hurt. You may also be interested in their fathers’ responses, as these men are a bit uncomfortable with their sons’ honesty about how difficult the boys find their lives. The boys state that they are more likely to talk to their mothers than their fathers about emotional concerns. The fathers understand that, but it hurts. They want to be able to share with their sons their understanding of what the boys are going through, but find it very difficult.

Is this difference due to neurobiology, or is it due to the way we are raising boys? Much of the recent research and writing in this area says that the gender differences in neurobiology are too small to account for the gender differences in behavior, and therefore the differences we see must be due to the way children are being raised. We are admonished not to let boys learn to be too aggressive, and that we should aim to raise children gender-free. In fact, a recent report from Sweden revealed that in some nursery and primary schools in that country, children will be treated without reference to gender, they will be dressed alike, and all children will be encouraged to develop without any connection to a specific sex.

Why then are boys more likely to be identified with ADHD, developmental learning delays, conduct disorders, autism, and early onset schizophrenia? And, for that matter, why are girls more likely to be identified with anorexia, depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder? No parent wants their child to develop any of these conditions, yet these problems are becoming increasingly common. The problem for females is a real one and I know there are those who are addressing that issue, but this blog is about boys.

According to Allan N. Schore, in an article published early this year, the problem stems from developmental delay in the stress-regulating structures in the male brain resulting in attachment problems as well as difficulties in dealing with emotional stress. These differences are present at birth and may be the precipitating factors for the behavioral and emotional problems that we see in boys. You are welcome to read this article, but it is 38 pages of carefully researched science. I share it because I want you to have access to the authoritative source so that you can pass it along to anyone who has a need for this information, which includes teachers and child development staff in schools across the globe.

Schore (2017) believes that this delay has implications for early childcare and, by extension, early schooling. This will not come as a surprise to those of you who are parents of boys who are having trouble in school. Evidence indicates that boys in elementary school are as much as two years behind their female classmates in developing social skills. In classrooms where group projects and social communication are increasingly important, this means that boys are falling behind. This isn’t helped in adolescence – remember that the prefrontal lobes of girls complete development at least two years before that of boys. It’s the prefrontal lobe that essentially makes us adults, since it’s the center of our ability to control our impulses and to make reasoned decisions.

You will be relieved to know that research reveals that males do catch up in adulthood, but at what cost? School and life constantly point out to boys that they are somehow missing something. They have trouble keeping up with verbal skills, they are less likely to be firmly attached to their parents, and they are more likely to be aggressive. This odd assortment of problems is the basis for poor school skills, poor emotional skills, and poor social skills. And it is real.

What can we do for our sons? Protect them from those who would treat them as though there was something wrong with their essential selves as boys. Give them space and confidence to stretch their wings. Be there for them. Help them know that they will grow up eventually, and not to despair. Make sure that they know and work with men who have made it through and who are willing to mentor your son.