They're young, they're often highly visible—and they're in deep trouble. America's adolescent boys may look strong as they swagger down the street, but in reality they are the population at highest risk today for all kinds of serious problems.
Rates of anxiety disorders and depression are soaring among them. For the first time, depression among males is nearly as prevalent as among females in this group.
Adolescent males find themselves facing a set of unique pressures. Shifting gender opportunities have left many boys in the dust. The girls may now be equal players on the soccer team, but the boys no longer know the rules of play.
Then too, the boys, as well as their sisters, belong to the first generation of divorce. Instead of a stable and supportive family base to keep them from feeling overwhelmed at times of stress, many are the products of absentee parents and conflict.
And today's boys are facing unprecedented stresses from many directions. While there is less certainty about the outcome of the college race, there is no let up in expectations for male success. There is more career confusion, and paths seem less clear.
Given the disquietude, substance abuse is an easy lure, as is the pressure for early sexual activity. Contrary to popular mythology, boys are just as anxious and confused about sex as the girls are.
But perhaps the biggest problem with today's young males is that they often have mild to moderate alexithymia—they are unable to identify their own (and others') feelings and thus unable to communicate about them. They never learned how from absent or overworked fathers.
However, the ability to communicate feelings is an increasingly important survival skill. It is certainly required for stable interpersonal relationships throughout life—at school, at work, and in the families most expect eventually to create.
For adolescent boys as for anyone, resolving the pressures in one's life involves figuring out how you feel. Alexithymia is like having a padlock on your tongue.
There is an immediate need to take action. If not, our sons face life-threatening consequences—drug and/or alcohol addiction, self-destructive behavior and accidents, suicide, and violence towards others. Such problems are already rampant.
Educate yourself about the psychology of boys. Read Real Boys by William Pollack, Ph.D. And if you need more, get Real Boys' Voices, in which boys confide how they are struggling with their masculinity, their sexuality, their future, their harassment from other boys, their feelings, their relationships with their parents and girlfriends, and more.
Talk with adolescent boys. Let them know that you're really interested in understanding their experience in the world. Make no attempt to judge the information or control the discussion.
Discard the prevailing cultural myth that would have you take a step back from their lives. More than ever, adolescence is a time when kids need your support. Their lives depend on it.
Recognize that there is an all-important difference in the way genders display distress. Boys tend to express negative feelings in violence toward themselves or others, in self-destructive behavior and recklessness, and in substance abuse.
Take on the task of teaching emotional intelligence. You can't leave its development to chance. But even before you begin, tell the truth—that feelings are good, a source of strength, not a sign of weakness.
Help the young males in your life to develop an emotional vocabulary. To do this, they need to understand their own feelings and those of others, and put names to what they too often feel as undifferentiated distress.
Then impart emotional management skills. Boys in particular need to learn how to manage stress and the negative emotions—anger, fear, frustration, sadness, loneliness, doubt—because they are at risk for acting them out.
Teach empathy. Help boys learn to put themselves in the other person's place.
Help boys learn to handle competitive feelings. Males especially need strengthening of the ego so they can be more independent of others' judgment when others are being negative towards them.
Teach boys to connect and communicate instead of detaching when they face problems. Interaction always leads to better solutions. Boys need to be openly told that the closer they are to others, the safer and stronger they will feel. Support them in developing a "family of choice," composed of friends and parents of friends. And encourage them to improve relationships in their own family.
Instruct males to ask for feedback. They need to ask others how they are coming across. The world is too complicated for anyone to figure these things out alone.
Stay connected to young boys even though society pulls you in the other direction. My 13-year-old son occasionally asks me to walk him to school. I wouldn't think of saying no. But he consciously knows he's going to get flack from his peers. So a block from school he invariably says to me, "OK, Mom, now it's time for us to detach." We disengage our hands—but we still discuss what it all means.