Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Violence and Boys

"He's acting like a girl! Stop hiding him behind your apron strings," my father exclaimed in passionate disgust to my mother when she protested sending my ten-year-old brother out to play in a dress. At seven-years of age, I did not know what, exactly, my brother had done to deserve such punishment, but I felt the pain and shame of my father's cruelty as I watched my older brother hide from the neighborhood children who would taunt him. My father, a man who shielded his own sensitivity in military machismo, believed he was teaching his son to be a man.

William Pollack, in his book, "Real Boys" (Holt, NY, 1999), calls this kind of destructive behavior toward our sons a part of the "boy code" perpetuated by our society. His research validates what Olga Silverstein and feminist family therapists have warned us about previously in "The Family Web: Gender Patterns in Family Relationships" (p.166, Guilford, NY, 1988): Boys are shamed into early separation from their mothers and subsequently cut off from their own expression of sadness and vulnerability in favor of anger and detachment -- all in order to prove their manhood.

Repression of feelings (big boys don't cry) starts early for a male child in our society and mothers are warned from the beginning of the emasculating dangers of making their son a "mama's boy."

Boys are diagnosed with significantly higher rates of learning disabilities, hyperactivity and conduct disorder in our schools. In fact, Pollack tells us that boys are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious emotional illness than girls. Is it any wonder that boys, ashamed to show emotional pain, reach out for help through aggressive conduct? After all, it is manly to punch, while it is "sissy" to cry.

With suicide being the third biggest killer of young people ages 15 to 24, boys are four to six times more likely to succeed at committing suicide than girls.

The push toward early separation and independence for a boy, usually by toddler age, can set the stage for depression when adjustment problems occur later. And conflicts of identity and sexuality that arise in adolescence are fertile ground for complications when boys are given a second push to be self-reliant and repress needs for ongoing nurturing.

But William Pollack warns us that repression of vulnerable feelings may cause a boy to further harden. Anger and rage, as the only acceptable male emotions, can create a formula for violence. When this equation gestates over time, unexpressed inner grief can take the form of outward rage.

When disconnection has reached crisis proportions inside and out, violence can become the distorted cry for help. Anger and rage are perceived emotions of strength and even power -- while sadness, fear and loneliness are considered weak. When a boy believes this, he acts accordingly. Cut off from his own emotions, he becomes disconnected from himself. Perhaps it is when this disconnection becomes complete that the choice to kill ensures that others will know the pain he feels inside.

In the absence of any one committed adult who cares, the situation can worsen -- with destruction expressed toward oneself and others. Or, as in the Columbine tragedy, both. Certainly there are many contributing factors in the formula for violence of this kind, notwithstanding the availability of illegal and sophisticated weapons, the anonymity of the Internet and the potential for desensitization to violence than may evolve from the common violent imagery found in the movies our children watch and the video games they play.

Still, the line between reality and fantasy are crossed because of serious emotional illness, which has not been adequately addressed by people and the systems we create as a society to raise and nurture our children.

Our society's formula for manhood is a part of the equation for depression, which may help set a boy on a course toward "crying bullets" to express his sadness and break his isolation.

What can we do to help our sons?

  1. Establish a safe environment to talk about the "boy code" as it comes up: Let your son know that all of his feelings are natural and that you do not expect him to tough it out. If he is looking sad, note it. Ask him if he is feeling depressed and let him know you are available.

  2. Stay connected: Actively work to set the stage for contact that can lead to discussions. He may not choose to immediately open up to you, but he may open up when you are doing an activity together. Make weekly dates with your son to have lunch together, see a movie, attend a sports activity or some other event of his interest. I found that my teenage son loved to be tucked in each night, although it took the form of massaging his back after football practice and sports injuries. It was during this time that he gradually opened up and talked to me about his day, his fears and things that were not going well for him.

  3. Go beneath the surface: Try to anticipate periods of transition or events that could be stressful to your son, even though he says "I'm fine, no big deal." Being rejected by a girl he asks out, failing to make the baseball team, being ridiculed for his sensitivity or drifting apart from a friend should bring some down feelings. Let him know you expect him to have failures as well as triumphs, and share your experiences of disappointments as well as successes. This will help him feel less alone with defeat and less likely to harbor feelings of shame because of it.

  4. Reward him for showing empathy to others as well as being able to express his vulnerable feelings when they arise: You might say, "I am proud of your ability to be a good friend," or "I am glad you can cry about that, it shows you care."

  5. Affirm the kind of boy that your son is, outside of gender stereotypes: Let him know that sensitivity, creativity and avenues of pursuit -- such as cooking and playing house -- are just as valuable expressions of himself as is the accepted rough housing or action play. In fact, it is worth pointing out that such homemaking skills are essential to a boy's eventual independence when he does leave home to live on his own.

  6. Do not confuse action with violence: A word of warning about seeing your son's natural aggressiveness through a distorted lens of fear, particularly in light of the recent school violence. Help your son establish healthy limits and avoid self-destructive risk taking, but assist him in finding healthy and constructive avenues for letting off steam -- physically, too. Karate, sports and punching bags can help him release pent up energy while respecting and caring for others.

Testosterone does not equal violence, but it may contribute to differences in a boy's tendencies of self-expression. Do not shame your son for his aggression or label him because of it. Help him channel aggressive energy constructively and teach him to reach out for help without humiliation.

Keep in mind that the major protection your child has against drugs, unhealthy risk taking behavior or crime is the ongoing relationship of one, caring adult who is committed to his well-being. More is better, but one is enough! This is you. It is up to you to know where your child is, which sometimes may take extra effort in these days of travel in cyberspace! Do you know, for example, what sites your child has been visiting on the Internet? Time magazine (May 10, 1999) offers parents a list of software and tips to help you keep track of the sites your child has recently visited online.

Do not fall into despair or helplessness about violence in videos, music or movies. Instead, stay connected with your child in talking about them.

If necessary, consider limitations, but do not stop there! Talk about drugs, alcohol, violence and crime. Take your children to movies that show the values you want to teach them. Watch shows with them you believe are violent and be willing to discuss what you see. Your input is your child's greatest ally against unhealthy influences. Know who your child's friends are and what they spend their time doing. Now, more than ever, the answer is to connect and communicate!

A word of support to single mothers: Single mothers are often encouraged to find male role models, leaving a mother to believe she cannot raise her son on her own. This is not true! Feminist therapists have voiced the belief that a boy's relationship to his mother forms the basis for being able to be intimate. Emotional intimacy between mother and son is a foundation for a boy's growth, not his demise.

Certainly, including more adults, male and female in your son's life is desirable, as any one single caretaker has limited energy. But searching out male role models to make up for a deficit in your own perceived ability to effectively parent leads to false solutions.

Healthy parenting requires adequate self-esteem and in a single mother household -- as with a two parent household -- an attitude of respect for men and women is critical to a son's (and daughter's) development.

Mothers have long been held responsible for their children's development on the one hand, and ridiculed for their closeness to their sons on the other. The "boy code" binds both men and women.

William Pollack supports mothers and fathers in their quest to be close to their son. He acknowledges, rather than criticizes, mothers for their efforts: "...it is not mothers who are crippling our boys masculinity. It is society's myths about manhood that are preventing boys from being seen and trained as whole human beings, men who can work effectively and live in close relationship to other people." (p.98, "Real Boys")

Nurture your sons as much as your daughters. See their strengths and their vulnerabilities. The "boy code" does not by itself cause violence, but it can establish an environment where it can grow.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com