New Study on Boys and Men Heralds Paradigm Shift

by Joseph Cohen, President, and co-founder, Empowered Fathers in Action. 

There was something different this time about the shouting coming from the kitchen. Jim had heard his parents argue before, but his mother’s crying frightened him. He ran from his bedroom into the kitchen and saw his father hitting and pushing his wife. 

“Stop hitting my mother, stop hitting my mother,” Jim screamed as he got closer. Jim tried to stop his father, but he turned his anger and rage onto his six-year-old son. He punched and knocked Jim down before he began kicking him. “Joe, stop! Stop! You’re going to kill him,” yelled Jim’s mother.

Her plea finally stopped the beating, and Joe left the room.  “You had better get out of here before he comes back and tries to kill you,” said Jim’s mother. He couldn’t stand up so he crawled from the kitchen out the back door and onto the lawn. The sun warmed his face as he lied on the grass. Jim felt comforted by nature and called out to God for help.

Dr. Jim Wisecup recalled decades later the intensity of that beating in 1950. He remembers feeling the sun on his face that day on the lawn. He can’t forget the sudden dark cloud that came to block out the sun. Jim said he felt God’s presence as he was cut off from the warmth of the sun. He believes the message he received from God that day was to have compassion and forgive his parents. It was a difficult thing for a six-year-old boy beaten by his father to do.

A Defining Moment

By age ten — suffering from ADHD and having a propensity to talk back to his parents —  there were many other beatings. “You’re not good enough was how my father made me feel,” laments Jim. There was also a defining moment. Jim decided against pulling the trigger of the shotgun he placed in his mouth. This occurred one day in the basement of his Sioux City, Iowa home.

“Although my father, Joe, was angry, controlling and physically abusive, he was also very honest,” says Jim. “He was a generous community-oriented man with a strong work ethic.” Joe ardently supported Jim to earn his Eagle Scout badge and other awards, but he was very critical.

Jim’s Eagle Scout experience was the foundation for a vision quest. This is an American Indian rite of passage into the wilderness and the spirit world. Jim’s grandfather was part Cherokee. He introduced it to Jim at age fourteen. Years later, Jim taught wilderness survival while interning as a Chaplain at a local college.

Jim met his mentor while attending the prestigious Blanton Peale Institute graduate program. Louis Birner, Ph.D., was a professor who would become his psychoanalyst, supervisor, and the man Jim says “saved my life.” He was an exemplary role model and a father figure. “He helped me feel understood and valued,” says Jim. “I was able to feel safe and venture into my vulnerable spaces. It was ok to cry and express my pain and trauma.” Subsequently, Jim received his D.Min. in psychology and pastoral psychotherapy from Andover Newton Theological School in 1981.

Personal Transformation

As a minister and therapist, he has been using his adverse personal experiences to become more empathetic with clients. “My most significant achievement resides within the individuals who have experienced other dimensions of their personalities,” says Dr. Wisecup. “They have tuned in to their innate goodness, depth and ability to heal and fulfill their potential.”

He believes anyone can shed the suit of armor necessary for personal transformation. This requires the willingness to change their state of mind and beliefs, and open up to their feelings. 

The relationships Jim developed with his sons Bjorn, Erik, and Jason are a bi-product of overcoming the most significant challenge he faced as a young man. The challenge was believing he was good enough and achieving academically despite his ADHD.  “Becoming a father can be a time for growth by resolving wounds from a man’s own father and for reinventing fatherhood, or at least trying to become the father one always wanted,” according to A review of research on masculinity ideologies using the Male Role Norms Inventory by R.F. Levant and K. Richmond. This 2007 article is in The Journal of Men’s Studies. It was referenced in the 2019 American Psychological Association Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.

Dr. Wisecup, the founder and Executive Director of the Riverside Counseling Center, has helped many of his clients. He believes most men lack the training and aren’t equipped to become fathers because they are removed from their feelings. “I wanted to make you strong because the world is harsh,” the elderly Joe Wisecup told his son. “But I didn’t know how to do it any other way.” As an adult, Jim told his father that the way he treated him was difficult to bear.

Coming to Terms with Trauma

It is possible for a son to come to terms with his trauma and work through the challenges he faced with his father and still appreciate and love him. “Resolving the root cause and creating a healthy and sustainable relationship can be achieved through the vulnerability developed in men’s support groups and the insight gained in books like Write Father, Write Son: A Bond-Building Journey,” says Dr. Wisecup.

In a very reserved tone, Jim recalled the day when as an adult he initiated his own healing process by saying “I love you, dad.” But he got no response from his father. “I repeated those same words a few more times until he finally told me,” said Jim. “The child inside each of us needs to hear I love you.”

Jim was fortunate to overcome his trauma while therapeutically helping others and becoming an effective father. One in seven children experiences physical or non-physical violence between parents or caregivers. This is the most significant factor for becoming a perpetrator or victim of childhood domestic violence, according to Linda Olson, Ph.D. She is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Georgia Chapter of Childhood Domestic Violence Association.

A Paradigm Shift Underway

The Need for Professional Practice Guidelines for Boys and Men section of the 2019 American Psychology Association (APA) study has revealed several important facts. Those facts herald the urgency of a paradigm shift. One fact is “conforming to traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development and negatively influence mental and physical health.”  Another fact is “boys are disproportionately represented among schoolchildren with learning difficulties (e.g. lower standardized test scores) and behavior problems (e.g. bullying, school suspensions, and aggression).” A third fact is “men are overrepresented in prisons, are more likely than women to commit violent crimes, and are at greatest risk of being a victim of violent crime (e.g., homicide and aggravated assault).”

Despite these disheartening statistics, there is good news.

The APA study contains guidelines for Psychologists to facilitate a paradigm shift. For example, guideline 5 — strive to encourage positive father involvement and healthy family relationships — highlights two significant advances. The first advance is “the traditional paternal breadwinner role is less entrenched in modern families and is giving way to a new focus on the father as a more involved, available, and equal co-parent.” The second advance is “nationally representative samples suggest more than 80% of fathers report being involved in their children’s lives, but little more than half of the fathers believe they are doing “a very good job” as parents.” These two important advances represent a paradigm shift. 

Adverse Childhood Experience Study

“The APA Guidelines provide a much-needed synthesis of the scientific evidence outlining the important role that psychologists can play to address the mental health and well-being of boys and men,” says Shanta R. Dube. She is recognized both nationally and internationally for her research on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. The ACE Study focused on early life stress and substance use and abuse, and mental illness in adulthood. 

As a researcher and Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Georgia State University, it is her duty to ensure there is increased awareness and acceptance about the fact that all children are vulnerable to the long-term consequences of abuse, neglect, and related traumatic stressors. Dube explains that abuse, neglect, and related stressors tend to be kept hidden due to the shame and secrecy. “This serves no one in society. The idea that ‘boys will get over it’ and that the hardships of childhood adversities won’t impact boys and men is a misconception that is not supported by the research,” says Dube.

In a study she published from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, one in six men reported exposure to childhood sexual abuse.  The magnitude of the association between childhood exposure to sexual abuse with alcohol abuse, marital problems, family problems was similar for adult women and men. In other studies she conducted, men who were exposed to childhood domestic violence were at an increased risk of abusing substances and perpetrating violence as an adult.

Dube emphasizes that psychologists can take this opportunity to apply the APA Guidelines to shift gears and shed light on the realization that all children, including boys, are vulnerable to adversities and trauma. “As well-respected professionals, Psychologists can also use this Guide to help men work through unresolved trauma and promote their healing,” she says.

Removing the Roadblocks

Many psychologists including Jim Wisecup and Linda Olson, who sits on the Board of Directors of Empowered Fathers in Action, have been working to reduce the high rates of problems boys and men face and act out in their lives. These problems include aggression, violence, substance abuse, and suicide.

Psychologists are aware that childhood physical and/or sexual abuse victimization has been found to be a significant precursor to aggressive behavior in boys and men.

They know that men who are violent toward their partners are more likely to have been physically abused and/or witnessed domestic violence as children than those who are not violent.

Psychologists see that the impact on men who have experienced violence and abuse in childhood are more likely to have higher rates of mental illness.

They understand why suicide rates are also higher for men who have been abused or witnessed abuse in childhood.

Mental health professionals can’t ignore that men, in general, constituted more than 70% of suicide deaths in the United States between 2000 and 2012.

“One of the roadblocks for boys and men is they are not taught to express their emotions,” says Dr. Olson. She has learned this while raising three sons of her own. Most of the boys she works with have never had a male role model to teach them how to understand their feelings or manage their emotions. She believes that most men act out their feelings (i.e. aggression, bullying, or violence) because they haven’t learned how to acknowledge or express those feelings. “Boys are taught that they need to be ‘rational’ which means denying their feelings. It’s very black and white thinking. This negative belief also reinforces men’s fear of being judged as weak, too sensitive or crazy.”

From Hurt to Healed

Dr. Olson has launched Project Hope Bear. It is based upon studies that have shown the impact of providing a comfort item to help traumatized children heal. Having a bear to cuddle for comfort can soothe and reduce the stress of a grieving child. She was a child who struggled to overcome the feelings of hopelessness. Dr. Olson believes this project can help families heal. It can also provide hope for those who have either witnessed or lost a loved one to domestic violence. 

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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