Why is there a “boy crisis?” – part 1

by Joseph Cohen, President and co-founder, Empowered Fathers in Action (EFA) Foundation

A discerning father and writer scrutinizing facts typically considers the source before accepting its validity — especially when the information is heralding a crisis of education, mental health, fathering and purpose.

Why would the Chair of the Commission to Create a White House Council on Boys and Men, a Ph.D who has written books published in 17 languages including two award-winning international bestsellers, declare a “boy crisis?”

How can it be true that worldwide, boys are 50 percent less likely than girls to meet basic proficiency in reading, math, and science? Or that ADHD is on the rise, and as boys become young men their suicide rates go from equal to girls to more than triple that of young women?

What has caused boys to grow up with less involved fathers and become more likely to drop out of school, drink, do drugs, become delinquent, and end up in prison?

Is it possible that a boys’ old sense of purpose — being a warrior, leader, or a sole breadwinner — is fading, causing many bright boys to experience a “purpose void,” feeling alienated, withdrawn and addicted to immediate gratification?

“Any help given to boys is often seen as taking away from helping girls,” according to Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D, a New York Times-best selling author of Boys Adrift and Why Gender Matters, who endorsed The Boy Crisis written by Warren Farrell, Ph.D and John Gray, Ph.D. “Farrell helps us to understand why if boys lose, girls lose as well. But what boys need to flourish is different from what girls need to flourish.”

For the past fifty years there has been an ongoing national discussion about the challenges faced by girls and women, who have made indisputable strides from the corporate world to the athletic arena and many sectors in between. It is critical to integrate an equally nuanced discussion about boys. Supporting both genders while helping boys to flourish begins with understanding why boys are struggling so we can get to the root cause of the problems and affect change.

In this series, exploring the crisis of our sons’ mental and physical health will be followed by looking at the crisis in education and economic health and conclude with answering the important question of why have we been so blind?

A Mental Health Crisis

As much as school shootings are homicides, they can also on some level be considered suicides — even if the troubled gun totting boy survives the incident, his quality of life has come to an end. Although the incident itself is a tragic misfortune impacting families and society on many levels, we must also consider the boys’ troubled state of mind prior to the incident and the circumstances in his life that caused it.

According to Additional Facts About Suicide in the US published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, by 2015 boys and men were committing suicide three and a half times more often than women. Getting to the root cause of what Warren Farrell describes as “feeling depressed and isolated because he feels no one who knows the real him loves him, no one needs him and there’s no hope of that changing” begins with exploring the early relationship he has had with his parents and then looking closely at the bond he currently has with his father.

The Critical Role of Attachment

“Any child can be made into a psychopath through failure of attachment,” according to Elliott Barker, M.D., D. Psych and director of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “We have to change a lot of established patterns or ways we do things — our priorities— so that nothing gets in the way of attachment in the earliest years.”

The concept of attachment is fundamental to understanding early social development. An infant needs to develop a strong mutual relationship of communication and receive sensitive responses from a mother or primary caregiver for normal social or emotional development to occur. A neglectful or dysfunctional primary relationship will result in a child’s inability to form healthy future relationships.

“One of the most fundamental roles of a mother is to instill in her child a sense of feeling good enough,” says Linda Olson, Ps,y.D a clinical psychologist and founder of Georgia Childhood Domestic Violence Association. “A lack of maternal nurturing can later manifest in low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. She explains that the reason many boys walk around feeling “less than” even though they have many accomplishments under their belt is because feeling unimportant or insignificant is buried deep in the subconscious.

Mindfulness is one of the methods Dr. Olson uses with her patients to address low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. It is an approach that fosters non judgmental thinking and the acceptance of any emerging thoughts and urges. When an individual begins observing and describing their feelings (such as anger or anxiety) it helps to rewire their brain leading to recreating neural pathways in the brain and leads to improved self-esteem.

An Indispensable Father

“Children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections with peers,” according to The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children, a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Human Services in 2006. “Numerous studies have found that children who live with their fathers are more likely to have good physical and emotional health, to achieve academically, and to avoid drugs, violence, and delinquent behavior.”

A strong father-son relationship begins with a father’s willingness to engage his son in open communication and a son’s willingness to participate in the process. Whether you are most comfortable sitting down for a heart to heart with your son or carving out some time to craft a detailed letter to him, your intention is paramount and will lay the foundation for a relationship that matures as he does.

This bond building process focuses on three essential questions:

Do you see me? A good place for a father to begin is by acknowledging and praising his son’s recent accomplishments to validate his efforts and create a safe space to open meaningful dialogue.

Can You Hear Me? The way to sustain a meaningful dialogue is by listening without judgement to develop a conversation for the purpose of identifying and clarifying any challenging issues.

What Can You Teach Me? Building a child’s sense of security and trust that will grow over time is contingent upon a father providing constructive feedback that will help them gain a fresh perspective upon which both parent and child can act to reach a solution.

The letters I wrote my son in Write Father, Write Son : A Bond-Building Journey illustrate the value of this bond building process.

Joseph Cohen is a former New York city public school teacher and journalist who recently published Write Father, Write Son : A Bond-Building Journey.

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