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Woman on a Deserted Road

Part 2. Parenting Adolescent Boys (post DV) - Advice from the experts

Updated: Jul 10

In this second post on navigating the adolescent stage with boys I reflect on author Maggie Dent's book 'From Boys to Men - Guiding our boys to grow into happy healthy men' Chapter 3 - Important and interesting behaviour common to boys.


This article contains both my many ruminations on this topic in light of my experience as a survivor of DV as well as highlights of Maggie Dents book that particularly resonated with me whilst I navigate raising a young man who is a survivor of family violence. It is worth noting the examples in this article fortunately are not the experience of all families, nor are the evidence based examples of child development.




Poor decisions

What an important life changing chapter. In the section called ‘Why boys make poor decisions’ Dent concludes 'Boys behaviour is a form of language'…. It didn’t make any sense until I reached the section that talks about boys wrestling and rough-and-tumble play. How it often ends in things going a bit wrong. Dent explains that boys need to discharge excess energy or cortisol from their bodies which means they move without thinking so when the movement goes wrong, we need to remember that it’s not necessarily intentional or disrespectful. When they might be being aggressive or getting too physical with their friends or family what they’re actually doing is trying to expel the cortisol through raising serotonin  levels that they develop through the activity of movement. Accepting this and providing space for this in school and homes is vital to boy’s development and mental health. Sending the boys for laps of the oval is rooted in science. Telling your boy to walk the dog it literally good for his mental health.


Emotions

As for boys emotional development Dent explains that it’s not that boys don’t feel things the same as girls do, they don’t necessarily analyse and think about them as intensely as girls. Their feelings of failure, exclusion, isolation or emotions that often plague boys will elicit a response of anger and physical expression and that can be problematic in a school setting. So often the anger is a symptom it’s not actually the cause behind the behaviour. They are expressing emotions they don’t know how to express any other way, and they don’t necessarily have the verbal skills to express them in the way that girls do at that particular stage of development.


Boundaries and manners

Understanding and respecting boundaries and manners seem to disappear from boys repertoire in early teen years which I can attest to this from my own experience. At around 12 manners can tend to disappear, but this is a normal developmental phenomenon compounded by a display of low levels of empathy (which I think we’ve all seen in some young teen boys) they can slowly change and become disrespectful and fail to understand personal boundaries. Their conversational skills can often be intertwined with these behaviours. This is problematic in the classroom setting, my many  conversations with school teachers, Principles, year level coordinators and school psychologist confirm this.


What is truly shocking to a mum is the time and energy that we spend on building a moral code into our boys as young children can effectively evaporate once they get to this stage. Dent recommends simple conversations with boys about behaviour and about demonstrating empathy, and modelling empathy. The natural response you may have as a parent is to be reactive, to be harsh and take a punative approach with your child. This approach isn’t necessarily going to be affective at this particular point in time, because his responses, processing and hormones are different to when you were disciplining a child.


Communication

One of the things that particular stood out to me was the issue of communication. I went from having this chatty little boy to having a boy that did the usual grunt and snort, with short sentence answers.

The research quoted in this book explains that when boys reach puberty they can have issues with interpreting and understanding social situations and emotions of others. In fact it can drop by up to 20%. So the emotional intelligence that they had been developing as they got older as a tween seems to drop off when they become a teen, particularly around the 12 to 15 age group.

Additionally their interpretation of facial expressions and body language becomes confused (I’m sure you have heard boys say “You looking at me?”).


More about this phenomenon is discussed in Bessell Van Der Kolk's - The Body Keeps the Score. Where he explains that people with post-traumatic stress can often be triggered by facial expressions, and I myself can attest to that, leading me to reflect on the potentially impact on children who may have a an increased sensitivity and reaction due to family violence.


Dent explains that these communication capabilities and reactions seem to resolve themselves somewhere between 15 to 16


Risky Behaviour

'Hot cognition’ and risky behaviour is identified as a particularly dangerous phase and time in a teen boys life. It is the apparent pressure to perform that boys feel and often the pressure to perform in front of females as a natural mating behaviour that can lead to some fearless risky acts in an attempt to prove themselves. This is supported with statistical data on accidents and injuries at this adolescent age. Attempting to openly discuss this with boys is one solution to combat the risks….something that I have experienced myself when I have explain to my son, calmly my concerns and tried to give advice based on logical and evidence based information followed then by giving my son the space to make his own decisions. Which hasn't always ended well.


Risk vs Consequences

The importance and value of a learning opportunity can’t be underestimated. As an educator I can see why this is such a critical aspect of raising teen boys. It’s possibly one of the most difficult things that you can do as a mother or any parent for that matter,  is to step back, let them make the mistakes and let them see the consequence of their actions. Dent explains that at this age developmentally they are unable to evaluate the risks versus the consequences.


At puberty boys start to be focused on the reward drive and will concentrate on the positives of a risk rather than on the negatives. They are desperate to have new experiences and try new things because when they get that buzz it gives them the dopamine hit that makes them feel alive. They may do things in the heat of the moment without any thought for consequences.


So, as with many adults, children learn by doing rather than listening. So boys will tend to disengage from situations and topics if they are just talked about by adults.  Dent concludes that the best teacher is natural consequences. For a mother this brings with it a sense of failure, an inability to protect your child. Dent suggests to instead celebrate the natural consequences because they are a critical learning moment, and hopefully they will solidify in the teen’s brain that consequences are likely to result from certain decisions, so they won’t repeat them.


Physicality

One rather odd behaviour I noticed when my son was 13-14  was his desire to get into a punch on with me, not seriously, just play fighting. Boys can desire some sort of physical engagement and for them roughhousing as opposed to a hug is the answer. Once you accept that, you’ll take the punch in the arm or a playful tackle as a sign of affection. However, we have to ensure that is as far as it goes, and try to foster more gentle physical engagement, particularly with boys from family violence histories like mine, to me I think it's critical to hug, we know a hug releases hormones that create loving feelings and attachment so it's an important part of bonding.


For boys especially cortisol overload can be an issue and it can result in a meltdown or irrational, physical aggression or sometimes running away (as I've experienced where the fight or flight response kicks in). When boys have a cortisol meltdown your instinct is to tell them to settle down,  behave themselves, sit quietly yet what they need for that brief period is the opposite. As mentioned in the 'Poor Decisions ' section at school it is vital to provide plenty of time for boys to release that cortisol and make dopamine and other positive endorphins to reduce the anxiety. This might involve mucking around, talking,  getting up out of their seats, being physical in a classroom when they’re supposed to be being quiet and behaving themselves. For boys this can borderline on physical pain and can exasperate anxiety.


Additionally it's worth noting this behaviour is also how boys connect with each other,  by mucking around being silly, being physical, it reduces their stress and so when boys are mucking around being silly in class maybe the solution is to drag them all out to the oval as mentioned previously and tell them to do a couple of laps or kick the footy for 10 minutes and then come back and return to their work. Revisiting the ways we manage classrooms is very much on the agenda in education these days, we need to stretch our thinking on student engagement and as the Leader of Academic Educator Development in a University it is a topic I’m particularly familiar with. Active and applied learning is well suited to teen boys development stage and keeping boys physically engaged can optimise learning, as does segmenting the learning experience.


Male bonding

Male bonding for teens often involves group dynamics, gangs, having each others back, payback and retaliation. It is a right of passage for boys, who can get involved in fighting or physical confrontations in an effort to defend friends, or as a means to manage fairness or hierarchy within gangs. The section about payback resonated with me because anyone who is a mother of boys or possibly girls will know about retaliation, bullying, payback.


Respectful behaviour

Dent advises parents to consistently encourage boys to behave with respect towards one another and to others in the community… to foster basic manners. I would add to that to foster reflection. Which can help boys to empathise and consider the impacts of their behaviour. Dent suggests the basics are critical in behaviour norming. Simple behaviours like welcoming and saying goodbye, being respectful with elders,  being understanding and compassionate towards people with a disability, or possibly someone who might be tired because they’re pregnant. Additionally it is important to never tolerate or accept verbal abuse or hitting of anyone, which is challenging given the propensity for rough housing.


Set expectations and encourage teens boys to be polite to people in shops and restaurants, to use please and thank you, to  compliment the person who’s made food and encourage basic phone and in person etiquette. This also extends to congratulating a winner of something or apologising when it’s necessary, offering help when needed and being patient. These simple social behaviours can set a baseline for future social behaviour and without them they can become excluded from social inclusion.


Forgetfulness and Confusion

Forgetfulness and confusion is a behaviour I noticed in my 13 year old son with the addition of  over sensitivity  and disorganisation. I was determined to understand what was happening.  It makes it a lot easier on parents and caregivers if they understand  the issue of synaptic pruning in teens. Neurons and connectors sheer off in the early teenage years, which can mean the brain is trying to become more efficient and discarding information that is not necessary. Sometimes this can impact behaviours through pruning off some of the useful information which might be connected to organisation, communication etc. Understanding that their forgetfulness is not because they’re stupid is critical, and they’re not being intentionally rude or inconsiderate. For me this was a turning point in being forgiving or more understanding of the forgetfulness.


I sat down with my son and talked to him about some of the issues in Dent's book because it is a critical piece of information that can help put a boys mind at ease about the plethora of changes they are experiencing. They don't know why they are struggling, why they are being forgetful.


While they are being disorganised it can effect their self-esteem, it can effect their sense of intelligence, and it can affect their ability to perform academically. So it is a relief when it is explained to them that this is normal, it’s okay, it will pass and get better. Explaining that you just have to hang in there through this change that’s happening in your body and your brain can take the pressure and self judgement away.


It’s absolutely critical that we don’t make boys feel stupid, useless or awful when they make poor choices, forget and are disorganised (to a point). We in fact need to be more supportive of them through this time rather than give them more things to worry about by becoming upset or angry.  It’s a good time to back off the nagging and lecturing and instead try to adopt some of logical calm communication. Easier said that done I know!

Dent suggests the forgetfulness will dissipate around the age of 18, so it’s important to just be patient with this process.


Dark thoughts

Teen boys can have some very dark and negative thoughts, such as thinking that they’re useless or a loser or stupid.  Reminding them as mentioned earlier that it's because of the changes taking place and that these feelings will not last forever is vital. Many boys with mental Illness will start to display characteristics at this teen age so it's important to observe and monitor behaviours resembling depression and anxiety, the best we can do is give them support and help them to professional care where possible and try to discern when these behaviours could be inductors or a more serious issue.


Reactivity and Emotions

An increased awareness that boys and girls have during puberty is all forms of criticism. They can become sensitive, emotional and blow things out of proportion. They will compare themselves to others and they start to see the world very differently. They start to notice things about the world that they were quite oblivious to before,  whether it’s to do with violence, safety, world events, anything. This comes back to their brain development and until they become an actual grown-up  their frontal lobe has not fully developed. At this stage they can start pushing for a sense of independence and autonomy, and it’s a good thing to provide them the opportunity to try and fail. There’s also the risk that due to their not yet fully developed brain that they can be impulsive and irrational. Risk taking collides with a period in development where they will not be thinking about the future consequences, hyper sensitivity and greater concerned with physical appearance and sense of belonging. It really is the perfect storm.


The Learning Stage

An interesting and somewhat contradictory part of this process of puberty and teenage development is that while they’re losing all of these connections, becoming forgetful and disorganised and feeling awful  they are at the same time, developing new synaptic connections that are critical as part of forming and learning new skills, new knowledge, new ways of doing things. This development happens at a faster rate than it does at any other time of development. The ability to learn during this period is also at its peak so the opportunities for kids to learn something new whether it’s a game, a hobby, a musical instrument whatever it is increased. They will be learning things about the world at an incredibly fast rate (hence the I know everything phase). This can feel overwhelming too. This is an opportunity to talk to boys about trying something new as the chances are they will have a greater success rate at mastering something new.


Teen boys and addiction

This is a time when good mentors and teachers, caregivers and male role models is significant. Finding ways that boys can experience new things and develop meaningful relationships is really important and it’s a critical stage of a boy’s growth into manhood. Due to the ability to make connections in their brain so rapidly at this stage role models also provide a vital safety barrier. Teens ability to learn can transfer to addiction to negative influences like games, drugs, vaping, alcohol, smoking, social media, crime and other activities that stimulate dopamine and can lead to addiction.


Research by David Gillespie suggests it’s to do with the gamma aminobutyric acid which works as a neurotransmitter. It is part of the inhibitor in our rewards centre in the brain during adolescence. This hidden protector turns off which spikes dopamine in the reward centre. So when boys do something that they enjoy like risky behaviour and repetition of phone use, social media, games, crimes, drugs, alcohol etc. the sensation of reward is escalated. It gives them a hit of dopamine and they’re more inclined to go back for more and more and more.


Because this inhibitor of the reward centre is switched off the risks associated with serious addition could be intensified.

 

In conclusion what we see on the surface with boys behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg. As I navigate the challenges of a highly rebellious boy, attempting to coparent with my ex abuser I have learned that often the best advice and support is found in the literature of the experts combined with the wise words of experienced parents.



 

 

 

 

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