Updated: Nov 13, 2022
There's something happening with this generation of young men. Parents know it.
In my experience, Mom's especially seem to have a special maternal sense that something's not right with their son. These same mother's contact me in hopes that their struggling son can connect with someone at Valiance, a "role model", a "life coach" or someone that he is more likely to "open up" to.
And while we may serve those roles with some of the male clients that we see, parents still come to us questioning how they even got to this place of needing to seek out support. A familiar refrain that I often hear from parents is that their once dutiful, happy, purposeful, or energetic son, is now distanced and sullen. "He's a good kid," parents say, "but something's happened to him".
Here's three reasons why we're seeing an uptick in the need for mental health care for young men and three proposed solutions for how you can help your struggling son:
Problem 1: No stress, No Drive, No Purpose
Male's are largely driven by purpose. From an evolutionary perspective, one function of being a male in the child rearing process was to act as a vigilant guard to protect themselves, their partner, and most importantly, their offspring. That purpose drove behavior, and influenced how the brain would later develop to perceive and adjust to risks. Interestingly, this very source of protective purpose was stimulated by risk, not safety. The threat that a male's offspring might perish motivated vigilance to protect and provide.
It's hard to argue that in today's day and age, stress is more often manufactured artificially than it is experienced acutely, as our ancestors may have experienced it. As parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors, we are often sharing a message to young men that they need to, "live up to their potential" while in the same breath messaging that we just want them, "to be happy." Men end up suffering in silence as a result, confused by the tension of what it means to happily strive. With nothing but externalized stress to contend with, they are choosing to opt out, versus opt in. Why should they get good grades? Because it will make you--his parent--happy? Smoke less, go out more, get a job, drink less, work harder. Why? To be what? An image of success in your eyes? Far too often the expectations placed on young men are void of meaning. Expectations are thus often an elusive portrayal of a parent's desire. If your son does actually buy into living up to this "potential" that you speak of, what's in it for him? At best, it's likely that there will be a fragile connection between what he becomes, and who he believes he is. Worse off, if your son does indeed apply effort towards these objectives that you've set for him, and he fails to achieve them, he'll experience the overt shame of letting himself down, and the pernicious effect of letting those who created those expectations down as well. If happiness is endlessly outcompeted by the tireless messaging that one has yet to rise to their potential, and if achieving that potential only serves to satiate parental anxiety, then perhaps, your son may ask, "why try at all?"
For Your Son:
Create expectations around process, not outcomes (how a person conducts themselves, not what they do). Let young men narrate their own story, but hold them to standards of high moral character, of grit, determination, sacrifice, honesty, and effort, to name a few. A high moral compass will be more meaningful in their journey in life then outlining all the steps required to get to a desired outcome.
I believe that one of the hardest deaths a parent faces is the death of their ideas of what they hoped or wished their child would become. Parents must be given space to mourn this ideological death, but must be encouraged to mourn it nonetheless. To not, will leave parents tightly gripping onto ideas and images of their son that at best are unrealistic, and at worst, are counterintuitively demovating to your son. If your son is striving to live up to the image or outcome that you have for him, he is playing your game, not his. Create expectations that develop character, not results and the results you wish to see will come. By changing your definition of "potential" from outward facing milestones, to inward facing character development, you are directing your son's attention towards something he can control.
Problem 2: Too Many Eyes On
People have never had to compete globally. For generations, our competition extended to our communities and very rarely much further than that. With the advent of the internet and social media, what has been purported to be a social connector, has morphed into a social evaluator. Whether viewing things from an evolutionary standpoint, or simply at the level of human neurology, the brain is designed to be hyper attuned to threats (see Problem 1). It defaults to negative thinking as a means to keep the human being safe. As a result, the brain is a computing machine, constantly recognizing signs and signals. Over time, and in an attempt to conserve energy (an average brain uses about 20% of a common caloric intake) our brain's create heuristics. These heuristics are mental models that allow us to not have to actively focus on things like the yellow lines on highways, or be hyper attuned to the process of brushing our teeth. We do these things so frequently that our brain has conserved energy and shut down the need to think fast about these mundane and repetitive tasks. But what happens when the stimuli available to the brain to compute is not repetitive, nor mundane? As young people are more connected than ever, so too are their brains sent into overdrive trying to compute whether they are safe from judgement or not. Too many inputs creates too much data for the brain to make sense of. Hypervigilance goes up, comparative analysis goes up, and as a result, fear, insecurity and a behavioral retreat to safety ensues.
For Your Son:
Strengthen their immediate community of support. Even those who don't have good friends probably still have mastery in some domain where there are peers that they can relate with. If a young man has mastery over a domain, and that domain has a community, that should be nourished and supported (so long as it is not unsafe).
Video game/internet communities are not inherently bad, nor should your first reaction be to eliminate this potential peer group environment. Just as with any sort of peer group or community, be on the lookout to see if your son is spending so much time with a group of friends that it is taking away from other areas of importance in his life. Use this guiding principle of "impact to overall functioning" to assess when to try and rebalance priorities, set boundaries, or create some rules of engagement.
Problem 3: The Paradox of Choice; Giving Up Before Getting Started
Have you ever tried shopping for groceries when you're hungry and don't have a list? If you're like me, it becomes really difficult to make choices. Everything seems appealing, and it's hard to exercise your will over what's the right thing to be buying. What's happening at the neurological level is that when we are overtired or underfed, our brains don't have the blood sugar supply needed to exercise choice making. We are irrational. In our irrational state, we might even leave the grocery store, having not purchased anything of what we really needed, and only things that seemingly satisfy our immediate needs. But grocery stores are also set up to deplete your will power through choice making. Even the well nourished and well slept amongst us can be perplexed by the sheer enormity of the supply that a cereal aisle may have on offer. Too much choice, in this way, is a bad thing. We are forced into evaluating versus deciding.
And so too is the case for our young men. In general, Millennial, Gen Z and Gen X's have had parents carve paths out before them that maximize choice, and for good reason. Their parents may have been personally corralled in a certain direction by their parents, only to realize later in life that a long tenured career in a great paying, but underwhelming job, isn't something they wanted their children to experience. Yet, by carving out a path to maximize career and aspirational choice for their children, these parents have inadvertently positioned their children to be paraylized by choice. Young men specifically find it hard to know what the right course of action is. Do I live in my parent's footsteps and try to earn a good living, thereby growing into my role as "provider", or do I follow my "dreams" and risk financial hardship and judgement? Far too often young men are forced into analyzing their paths and thus forced to subsequently calculate the risks and rewards of certain paths over others. Rather than being decisive, they toil in worrying what is the right next move, the perfect next step. In my experience, they feel like it is better to take no action and be safe, than to take the perceived wrong action, and live with regret.
They're the equivalent of walking into the grocery store, hungry and tired, and turning back with nothing but a Snickers in hand to show for their trip.
For Your Son:
Nurture resilience, the ability to overcome challenges, change direction, adapt, and overcome. Frankly, few of us truly know where we'll end up in life. We set a course, but that course often changes. Nurture these character traits and you'll have built a strong foundation for your son's ability to weather life's variability. In fact, celebrate it when your son makes a choice and changes direction. He'll have demonstrated that he at least knows where he doesn't want to go any longer, which isn't nothing.
Action over everything. It is only through action that your son will learn what they are up against. Even the most calculated young man only has as much data as their lived experience will allow them to pull from. The faster they can gain experiences from which they can learn from, the faster they will learn. To expedite action, narrow choices down to no more than 3 whenever you see your son struggling with a major life transition (ie: "you can either work FT, go to school FT, or go to school PT and work PT).