Boys Under Pressure
Why some teenage boys opt-out of the competition.
Posted Apr 25, 2017
Much has been written about the kind of pressure today’s adolescents are under. But the media coverage tends to focus on the problems of a super-achieving academic elite—those kids enrolled in multiple Advanced Placement courses who are volunteering at the local soup kitchen, while mastering an obtuse Chinese classical instrument and holding down spots on several sports teams. Though these kids, whose parents take a “Harvard or bust” mentality, are under real pressures—as evidenced by the very disturbing rise in the abuse of stimulant drugs as study aids—there is another, typically overlooked class of boys who manifest their stress in different, less obvious ways. These are the boys I worry about. The boys who make time for television, video games, Facebook, Twitter, and friends, but not for school. Many do the minimum that’s required in order to get by, flying under the radar of official “trouble” while causing their parents plenty of grief and consternation.
Though on the outside, they look like they’re impervious to academic pressures, in fact their behavior is a direct response to the stress they’re experiencing. Contrary to appearances, these kids aren’t just lazy—they’re overcome by demands that they fear they simply cannot meet. And so, in the face of pressures they feel they cannot handle, they choose to “opt-out” of the competition altogether. These “opt-outs” are the subject of this blog, of my upcoming book He’s Not Lazy, and the core of my practice.
While many parents tell me that their sons are just lazy, the boys I know really do want to do better in school. On the surface, opt-outs do look lazy; but dig a little deeper and you will often find a very conflicted boy. One who wants to do well but is afraid to fail, and so does not try. It is crucial for parents to understand that opt-outs do not lack motivation to do well in school; in fact, they have mixed feelings about trying their hardest. Over and over again I find that the underperforming teens I meet really do care about their futures and want better grades. However, at sixteen or fifteen or thirteen they are already worried that they will not be able to meet the expectations of their parents, teachers, or of society in general. This worry is hidden beneath the fortress of defenses they have built to shield themselves from criticism and failure. You can hear it in their statements: “Tests don’t measure intelligence or help you learn, so what’s the point of studying?” or “I am not going to be one of those nerds who have no life.”
The world through which these boys are navigating is infinitely more complex than that experienced by their parents. Regardless of the quality of their schools, kids these days are being asked to juggle like never before. Over the past twenty years, high school students have added an extra class to their school days, with 7% also taking more rigorous courses. Their extracurricular activities are generally plentiful and varied—part of a hyperextended college prep process begun as early as elementary school. Meanwhile, their friends are texting (incessantly) and their online world of choice awaits, buzzing with messages and notifications as soon as the dismissal bell rings.
This increased volume of work, stimulus, and play requires the organizational skill of a business executive. But teenaged brains aren’t maturing any faster these days. The adolescent brain is a developing entity, with many boys still in the process of obtaining the focus, the attention to detail, and the planning capabilities these increased obligations call for. And so it’s no surprise when the obligations go unmet, particularly by boys. Nationwide, there’s been a well-documented decline in the number of boys who attend college—with girls more likely not only to be accepted, but also to earn better grades and to graduate. Boys are also much more likely than are girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and with behavior disorders like ADHD—diagnoses I see in many of my patients.
In my experience, the parents of these teen boys are themselves left floundering, engaging in superhuman acts as they struggle to become the engine of their sons’ motivation. They may get overly involved in micromanaging their son’s homework, checking in on his assignments on a nightly basis—a great recipe for increasing tension and fighting while decreasing academic motivation. They may hold their sons to unrealistic standards, believing they are being realistic about what it takes to get into a top college (even if such an outcome is unrealistic for their particular son). They may beg. They may cajole. They may threaten. Sometimes (more often than they care to admit) they even do the work themselves. Despite their best intentions, worry and fear cause them to make worse the very problems they seek to ameliorate.
What I have learned in over twenty years as a clinical psychologist is that above all else, these kids need less pressure and more time to develop. Yet, this not what most parents give them, and the pressure to grow up is fierce. Future blog posts will explore many of these issues. I will draw on the experiences of my patients and their parents to offer a deeper insight into the challenges these boys face. I will also offer suggestions on helping them to make the journey from defiance to self-reliance.
Please feel free to email with any questions you might have that can be addressed on this blog. I look forward to your feedback.