By Ellen McGrath, published on July 1, 2002 - last reviewed on May 21, 2007
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.
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.
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.
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.