While doing research for a book I was writing, I interviewed high school-aged boys to discover who they turned to for emotional support. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t their parents. “My parents, especially my father, always tell me that I need to learn to handle problems on my own,” George, then a high school junior, told me. Six months before we talked, he had attempted suicide when his girlfriend ended their relationship and he felt incapable of handling the situation on his own.
American males of every age, race and income level are lost and bewildered, angry and scared. Sobering new statistics suggest that when we set young men like George adrift too early, they sink instead of floating. That shouldn’t be surprising. They receive very mixed messages: Men are too soft. Men are toxic. But one thing is clear: traditional tropes of masculinity — the tough guy who swallows his feelings and solves his own problems — no longer serve boys, men or the rest of us.
Since the late-1970s, research has shown that infant boys are more sensitive. They experience more negative emotions and need more support. But according to psychologist Edward Tronick, a groundbreaking researcher in infant-mother relationships, many parents respond by withholding support.
Why do they do this? Mostly because they simply aren’t aware of boys’ greater need for what Tronick calls “emotional scaffolding.” In fact, many of them still operate from a dusty playbook on masculinity that tells them to toughen up their sons. “The manning-up of boys begins in the cradle,” says Tronick. Fathers and mothers use far more emotionally rich language with toddler-aged daughters than sons, for instance. Fathers are also more likely to sing to and soothe their toddler daughters at night when they cry.
My own research and work with boys has taught me that the more we ignore their deeper emotional needs in the name of early independence, the more public health risks they face as young adults.
Gendered expectations from parents, teachers and coaches only amplify when boys start school. There’s a prevailing myth that boys are tough enough to handle the barbs of bullying, especially the smaller ones, but research tells us otherwise. A 2021 study showed that boys are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of bullying. In fact, bullied boys reported mental health problems at a rate four times higher than boys who weren’t bullied. That’s especially concerning given the long, toxic tail that bullying has for all children and given that bullying is one of several risk factors that increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Things don’t get easier for boys when they graduate high school. You may already know that women are more likely to be enrolled in college today than young men, but what you may not know is how much the men who attend college struggle. A four-year longitudinal study of more than 5,500 college students found that, unlike their female classmates, many young men don’t seek emotional support when they need it because they fear being perceived as weak and ineffective. Another study found that the more these struggling young men ignore their need for support, the deeper they dig themselves into entrenched patterns of emotional avoidance, which compromise their academic success and emotional well-being.
My own research and work with boys has taught me that the more we ignore their deeper emotional needs in the name of early independence, the more public health risks they face as young adults. The alarming rate of mortality for U.S. youth under the age of 25, the highest in the West, is largely fueled largely by gun violence, vehicular deaths, accidental injuries and the opioid epidemic. And all of these trends hit boys, whose brains don’t mature until their mid-late 20s, harder than girls.
Father’s Day is the perfect time for us to rethink how we prepare boys for independence because dads are integral to providing the support older boys need for longer.
So, what’s the answer? The common reflex to shame young men for “failing to launch” inevitably backfires. Sure, it might help you achieve desired results in the short term (a brief spurt when they do their own laundry or consistently seek academic help, for instance), but these behaviors rarely last, and the shaming adversely affects mental health in the long run.
Father’s Day is the perfect time for us to rethink how we prepare boys for independence, because dads are integral to providing the support older boys need for longer. New research shows that when fathers are present and emotionally invested in children’s lives, they are more likely to develop a stronger sense of self-worth and excel in everything from school to relationships. This emotional bond is the X factor: It promotes cognitive growth and feelings of well-being and stability. It also diminishes violent behavior and depression far beyond childhood.
It’s ironic, but independence isn’t something you can learn all by yourself. Boys need tolerant, empathetic adults in their lives in order to become self-reliant. They need to know that we care about and value them, even when we don’t agree with their desires and decisions.
We can turn the tide for boys by developing deeper connections with them and helping them do the same with others. Yes, we absolutely need to promote their autonomy, but we must also encourage effective self-agency. Praise them when they ask for help. Encourage them to share their struggles — with you, of course, but also with other trusted adults, a therapist or even friends.
Boys who are taught to create emotional safety nets flourish as men. That’s the lifeline they need to thrive.