The COVID-19 Pandemic might mean they are used to wearing their physical masks, but many teen boys have been wearing a ‘mask’ for most of their life.During the Relationship, Sex and Health Education lessons that are happening across the UK, teen girls are reporting that their male friends just do not open up about their feelings.Teen girls are explaining boys would rather push against the question, ‘Are you okay?’ with a repeated, ‘I’m fine’ to ensure the façade of strength is maintained and any vulnerability remains firmly hidden. For so many teen boys, the perception of their ‘hypermasculinity’ matters more, as entrenched pressures to conform to the gender norms of their peers and male counterparts continues. This expectation and stereotype is leaving teen boys emotionally damaged.Teen boys experience feelings of fear, anxiousness, loneliness, shame, abandonment and hurt, but for so many, they just do not have the trust or talk skills to share these feelings with others. The impact of frequent pandemic lockdowns has had a dramatic and devastating impact on the mental health and overall wellbeing of teenagers and just this month, the World Health Organisation has reported that globally, 1 in 7 (14%) 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder. The COVID-19 Pandemic has robbed so many boys from the time needed during adolescence to develop their interpersonal and coping skills, and the skills of learning to manage and discuss their emotions.
Is teen boys' lack of communication a trust problem or a talk problem?It is truly both. Many teen boys share that they cannot trust that any vulnerability they do show will not be ‘aired’ or mocked by their friends and there is not often an accepted level of emotional expression in their male peer groups.Moreover, teen boys may not have access to the necessary emotional literacy to explain their feelings or thoughts to their male friends. When some teen boys do open up, it is often only to their female friends, as they feel safe connecting to the emotional maturity and openness teen girls often demonstrate. So many teen boys just do not seem to have the words or the skills to support each other in their boy friendships.
What can be done to improve the mental health and wellbeing of teen boys during this overwhelming and uncertain time?There are a number of ways parents and caregiving adults can support teen boys to develop their confidence to speak up and in turn have the emotional literacy to develop more connected boy friendships:
- The first is attempting to confront deep-rooted masculine stereotypes. The excellent podcast ‘Man Enough’ is a movement to ‘un-define’ traditional roles and traits of masculinity and can serve as a parental conversation starter about male expectations and teen boy mental health.
- Representation matters and the more we, as parents, unpick male typecasts and begin unpacking them with our teen boys, the better! Try having some time with your teen boy sharing your own answers to the statement: ‘If you really knew me, you’d know…’. It is an insightful conversation starter to allow for discussions that are more vulnerable and builds the necessary bridges between teens and their parents to realise we are all ‘going through stuff’. Speaking face to face for teens can be overwhelming, so go for side-to-side interaction whilst on a walk or drive.
- We, as parents, should communicate our own emotional triggers and display that self-awareness for teen boys. Explaining what causes your big reactions to your teen boy’s actions is huge. Label those emotions! ‘Tense’, ‘frustrated’, ‘stressed’, ‘low’ – our teen boys need to know the language and what can cause it so they can develop the ability to know what specifically triggers their own emotions, in turn building better emotional literacy.
- One teen boy is capable of being both full of fear and brave beyond measure. So for the sake of teen boys’ mental health, let’s move away from the question ‘Are You Okay?’ which often elicits a binary response, and instead, keep asking that ever important question: ‘How Are You?’
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