Web-only article from "Men" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(5)
The World of Boys
Every day we send our boys out into the world of other boys. A world where they have to constantly be on their guard against potential humiliation and physical aggression. If our boys relax their guard for even a moment-if they display a moment of fear or confusion or sadness-or even a moment of compassion or empathy-they are at risk of being attacked. They risk being called "gay" or "faggot" or "wuss." In other words, they are at risk of being called "girl." Being a girl in this context means not being a man. Any male who is identified as unmanly is in grave danger from other males. He is in danger of being publicly ridiculed, tripped, pushed into lockers, spat on, urinated on, stolen from, hit, beaten, raped and even killed.
The sweet little boys who hugged us and talked to us about their feelings and cried when they hurt such a short time ago are now coming home surly, monosyllabic, shut down and angry. As caring parents and educators we try to talk to them. We keep asking them about what's wrong and especially we ask them to tell us how they feel. When they respond with "I don't know," or with sullen grunts and angry body language, or when they don't respond at all, it can be difficult not to become frustrated. It's hard not to take it personally.
It can be very useful to understand what is likely going on for the typical teenage boy. When a young man responds to questions about how he is feeling with "I don't know" or "Nothing," he is probably not just trying to get on our nerves. It is extremely likely that he is simply telling the truth. In other words, he doesn't know what he's feeling or he feels nothing. We don't give our boys much permission to experience the full range of their emotions. It is unmanly to demonstrate any vulnerability or sensitivity or confusion, so even if they are feeling these things it is highly unlikely that they will admit it. When we ask them about their feelings and they look inside and see a big black abyss of unknown territory, they may feel afraid or inadequate. When we pressure them to talk, they may feel anxious and even more inadequate. Then anger, the one emotion that they are allowed to feel, steps in to cover for the fear and confusion. So anger is often the only emotion we see them express. It's what they're most comfortable with.
When one of our boys seems locked down tight and doesn't communicate anything at all, it may be that the angry thoughts and feelings he is having feel out of control and scary to him. He may be afraid he is bad in some way for having the angry images and thoughts he is having. He may be afraid that if he says anything, the lid will blow off and all of the angry words and actions will come pouring out. We pressure him, he locks down tighter and tighter and finally, in desperation, he explodes out of his chair and storms out the door, slamming it behind him.
Anger is what our boys know best because it is what our boys have most commonly seen other males model-on television, in the movies and, most importantly, in their personal lives. When a boy sees his dad bang his shin on the coffee table and hears him bellow and then kick the table and curse at it as though it were to blame for getting in his way, he learns that is how males respond to pain.
When his older brother is struggling with a computer glitch, he doesn't hear him say, "I have no idea what to do. Boy, it sure is frustrating and confusing." His brother is more likely to grit his teeth and curse and groan and finally pound his fist on the desk and storm off, blaming the "stupid goddamn thing."
With his father at the wheel, this boy and his family will ride for many hours in the wrong direction before the man of the house will admit he is lost or ask for directions. All the lessons this boy has learned in the playground, in the schoolyard and in the movies are being reinforced on a daily basis by watching the most influential adult males in his life. Never show pain. Never admit you don't know. Only anger is acceptable.
We socialize our boys to be incapable of having any feeling besides anger. We teach them that being violent is synonymous with being masculine, that to ask for help is a weakness and to talk about their feelings is being "a girl." Then we act surprised when nice normal boys sexually assault women and we are shocked when ordinary teenage boys take guns to school and shoot their classmates.
It is not difficult to imagine what these boys who commit terrible violent acts must be feeling. We can imagine that they must be suffering from years of feeling deeply hurt, terribly alone, afraid and especially powerless. But we must also question whether or not they are feeling these emotions at all. It takes emotional strength and wholeness to feel our feelings. When we actually feel our pain, we are usually far too empathetic to hurt others. When boys consistently push their vulnerable feelings down time and again, year after year, we must question whether these feelings are still really in there. Many grown men will admit they are unable to cry. Do the unused feelings atrophy in the way that unused muscles wither up and become useless?
One thing seems clear. When all that pain and fear and powerlessness has been funneled into the one emotion that these violent boys are allowed to have-anger-it is highly likely that they will be unable to feel empathy. These boys are emotionally isolated and very, very angry. Is it really all that surprising that some boys strike out from this powerless and hopeless place?
Shoulder-To-Shoulder / Face-To-Face: Learning How To Talk To Our Boys
Boys tend to be more comfortable in shoulder-to-shoulder interactions. Often the most useful way to bring out conversations about real issues with our boys is while engaging in activities such as walking together or driving in the car. Even watching television and playing video games can be useful diversions during intense discussions. There are a number of things in these settings that work to make boys feel more at ease. First of all, there is another activity going on, so the boy isn't the entire focus of attention. He hasn't been asked to sit down and have a "heavy" talk. Any adolescent can feel extremely uncomfortable in a face-to-face conversation. Just making that much eye contact can be very difficult for a young person. Boys especially can have a hard time with the intimacy and openness involved in direct eye contact. "Look at me when I talk to you!" "Turn that TV off when I'm talking to you!" These are only too familiar lines from parents and teachers.
When we make these demands and the boy complies we should not be surprised to see a stony, dead gaze or defiant glare. If we allow our teenager to stare at his feet, shift around restlessly and stare at the TV screen, we might find we'll get further than if we demand his full attention. This may be the best he can do and allowing a distraction from the intensity can serve to take off some of the edge for him, making it more possible for him to stay present.
A car ride, as long as it's to a specific location and a fairly short distance, can be the perfect setting for a talk with a teenage boy. First of all, if the adult is driving, it is impossible for any extensive eye contact or observation to happen. It is common for teens to suffer from a "spotlight syndrome"-a developmental stage where they feel that everyone notices every minute detail about their physical appearance and behaviour. It is a relief for a teen not to have someone sitting there staring at him when he feels so intensely self-conscious. As well, there is a structured time element to the talk. If the conversation starts in the car on the way to the dentist, the youth knows that in the amount of time it takes to get there, the talk will be over, at least for now. If he doesn't feel in control of when it will end, he can feel powerless and trapped.
Most parents and educators can identify with the frustration they feel when so any of these well-meaning talks end with the boy saying, "Can I go now?" It can feel to the adult that the child has been sitting there the whole time barely listening, just waiting to go. Well, in fact, this may be true. Not because the boy doesn't care but because his ability to stay focused in the face-to-face dynamic is very limited and this style of communication can produce tremendous anxiety for him. In order to achieve a release from his anxiety, he may become belligerent in order to push the adult into an anger response. If the adult becomes angry he will then have an excuse to jump up and storm out. Once.
About the author
Anita has worked in the violence prevention field since 1976 and is the founder of SafeTeen, a program that teaches assertive communication skills to youths. She is the author of Safe Teen: Powerful Alternatives to Violence. Her website is www.SafeTeen.ca.
Originally appeared in Safe Teen: Powerful alternatives to violence. pp. 214, 229-233. Reprinted with permission.