13 year old Jimmy came home and slammed his books down on the counter. Mom asked him what was up and he marched directly to his room and slammed the door.
If you are the mom, what is your best option?
A) Tell him he needs to talk about this asap
B) Go directly into his room
C) Tell him he is acting ridiculously and to stop it.
D) Say, “I’m here if you want to talk” and wait for him to emerge.
E) Make him a sandwich.
F) Do nothing.
Which would you choose? D is most likely your best bet depending on your son. You let him go and hibernate for a while. This pulling back and secluding oneself is a tried and true mode for males to process upsetting material. It is particularly popular among teen boys. He would likely go into his room, flop down on his bed and start thinking about what is bothering him. And he would keep thinking about it. We call this “grinding.” He is literally grinding on his upset and telling his story over and over in his own head. Not too different from the more traditional female path of talking out the story except it is done in private and only in his own head. He may take 30 minutes or an hour (while you anxiously wait) and then emerge from his room in a very different mood. He may even say “What’s for dinner?”
By all means tell him what’s for dinner! Then ask him what’s up. Avoid asking him what he is feeling. One question that will help sometimes is “Are you dealing with something tough?” This question honors that whatever he is working on is probably tough.
The idea of fight or flight has been shown to be a primarily male response to stress. Jimmy’s was the “flight” path. Get away, get quiet, and grind on it.
For those of us who are more familiar with the “talking about it” approach this can seem to be not really healing. But it can be.
Here’s what you can do. The next time Jimmy is calm and in good spirits do some activity with him that he enjoys. Shoot baskets, play catch, whatever it is that he likes. During the activity, when you both are relaxed, ask him about what you can do that would be the most helpful to him when he goes to his room and slams his door. Listen carefully. He will tell you just what you need to know. You might even tell him that it is hard for you but you want to do what will be of most help to him. If he resists telling you what you can do you might want to tell him that you really want the best for him and what helps him the most and maybe you can talk later about this, or maybe email or text? The trick is to find out where he feels safe and go there to communicate.
He may not say so, but he will really appreciate your asking him this question. Most young men are used to being told they are wrong and this will seem like a breath of fresh air to him.
The first reason is that when boys go through puberty and get elevated testosterone levels their access to their emotional tears goes down. Basically, when boys are 12 they lose some of their connection with their emotional tears. My experience in working with boys and young men in therapy has shown me that they continue to experience the same emotional pain, but don’t have the tears as a way to release the pain. Boys that just a few years before could cry very easily, and did, now find it more difficult. The tears seem to have dried up. Big boys don’t cry.
The second reason is that boys and men live in a hierarchical world. The same testosterone that seems to have limited their tears now is pushing them to strive for status. Yes, for years scientists have unsuccessfully tried to tie testosterone in with aggression but that never worked out. The present view on testosterone is that it pushes boys and men to strive for status, to win, to compete, to come in first. So tell me, is crying in public a sign of winning or losing? If you cry in public do you appear dependent or independent? Clearly you look dependent and boys will work to avoid appearing this way since our culture, and most women, value them for their status not their emoting. Therefore boys and men will continue to strive for status in order to succeed and to impress the women.
If women were to suddenly shift and want to marry and have sex with men who were sensitive, and emotional you would likely see men change very quickly. But the way it is now, men are valued based on their status, how much money, power, prestige they might have. Crying in public is the antithesis of that. Big boys don’t cry.
“The following is an excerpt from the section on how boys heal. This excerpt focuses on healing through creative action.
Excerpt: Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons, page 53-54
I once worked with a young man whose girlfriend was killed in a car accident. The young man was distraught and crushed by her death. Shortly after the death he did connect with some friends and talk about her and how hard it was for him. As time went on he found he had a great deal of pain due to her death and he found some creative ways to work with it. He played guitar and he started to write songs about her. He didn’t share any of this with many people. He kept it mostly to himself (invisible to most) but the songs were about her and about their time together and they were very emotionally powerful. Can you imagine as he is writing these songs what might be happening to him? He was surely experiencing the emotions surrounding her loss but he was doing so in a way that had nothing to do with talking and everything to do with an activity that helped him move into the feelings and slowly release them. No one told him to do this. No one instructed him about what to do. He did it on his own without any direction. This is a great example of a young man using his creative action to help him with his emotions. He was telling his story through his creativity and his emotions and reactions were likely similar to what you might expect from someone else attending a support group.
How could you be of help to this young man? Would you ask him to sit and talk about his feelings about the death of his girlfriend? No. How about asking him about his songs? Which is your favorite? What is the newest song? Can you play one for me? The young man would be more likely to want to share a song than to sit and talk face to face about his feelings. As he played you can imagine the emotions would pour out. By focusing on his music you are entering his safe place. If he allows you to enter all the better but also know that he may not really want to share this. That’s ok too.