Blaming the absence of fathers for all issues surrounding minority boys is easy; but, a deeper look can reveal other pressing concerns.
Approximately 40% of American children are born to unmarried parents. The percentage of children similarly born in the African-American community is 70%. Any time a parent’s active presence is missing from a child’s life there will be a void; that’s real life 101. It is undeniable that a dad’s lack of active, consistent involvement uniquely affects sons. Violence diffused by various forms of aggression, pervasive anger, and drug and substance abuse are real in the black community. However, attributing almost every concern our young people face to the one issue of father absence eclipses our consideration of other factors present in their lives which also contribute to their emotional and mental health challenges. Fatherlessness is an obvious, readily identifiable measure of well-being, but other realities don’t so easily lend themselves to drive-by analysis of people outside the community who are paid to study the phenomenon. Many of the problems some black boys and young men face can only be discovered and the proper associations made, by careful, thoughtful, and ongoing observations of their temperament, lifestyle, and social dynamics.
A damaging source of stress with its related physical and psychological problems is the almost constant presence of micro aggressions. Small-scale, highly personal put-downs, threats, exclusions, betrayals, and confrontations plague them almost from the moment they leave their homes until they return. Interestingly, we seem to be able to understand the corrosive fallout other kids experience from bullying. Public media campaigns have highlighted specific behaviors that should be out of bounds in young people’s relationships. Somehow people struggle to apply the same concern and awareness of these types of behavior in the context of our sons’ lives. Interactions like this are common everyday occurrences in many black boys’ lives:
- A sneaker gets stepped on: “Bruh, you stepped on my sneaker.” “F**k your sneaker.” “F**k you too.”
- A teen attempts to apologize and make things right after a confrontation: “Ok man, sorry about what happened.” “What are you apologizing to me for? You’re being a punk.
- A high school senior tries to defend a female classmate when another student grabs her butt without permission: “Dude, you need to chill with all that.” “Hey man, who are you?” “I’m just saying, you should leave her alone.” “Man, stop acting like a bi**h.”
Persistent assaults on their dignity, masculinity, and sense of identity create a mental and emotional pressure cooker that keeps their lives on a slow burn. These intra-cultural interactions are in addition to racially-motivated slights and aggressions. Is it any wonder that undercurrents of anxiety and simmering anger might then erupt at the smallest provocations? Or that they might seem fatigued, distracted and unable to concentrate, or emotionally tense and challenging to deal with?
The current mental health treatment paradigm hasn’t proved terribly effective with our black boys and men. Stigma associated with the term “mental health/illness” and treatment is legendary within black culture. Furthermore, children and young adults are notoriously underserved in the mental health arena. Consequently, young black males have significant issues that are going unacknowledged, undiagnosed and untreated. Sitting in an office with a counselor either one-on-one or in group settings isn’t appealing to most demographics and certainly not this one. We can’t afford to let our sons continue to drown in the toxic waters of their social landscape. So what is the answer? I suggest we need a new model of approaching mental and emotional health issues for boys and young men that leverages cultural assets like group identification and protection, . Critical elements of a new approach should include some or all of the following, built on an integrated relational foundation of home, faith, and community:
Let treatment begin at home: We must make our homes, churches, neighborhoods, and schools safe spaces for young men and boys. Relentless teasing, routine physical fighting, criticism and put-downs, dream-crushing, stifling of emotional expression and other confrontational types of interpersonal interaction shouldn’t be tolerated. We need to teach resilience through positive examples and encouragement in tough times, not by allowing open season on our boys’ minds and emotions. To this end, professionals and experienced parents should develop parenting resources that teach moms and dads how to more accurately identify their sons’ emotions and the sources of those emotions without simply labeling every behavior as father-absent angst.
Maximize mentoring: Undoubtedly mentoring can play a critical role in helping our young men by providing solid examples of manhood, but let’s not stop there. Directed mentoring modeled after coaching relationships can address specific emotional and mental needs by affording opportunities to talk through daily relational problems and deal with intense emotions including but not limited to anger. Take advantage of peer power and influence by training younger adult males and older teen boys on emotion management, self-expression, and stress management. Small coaching groups feed into larger teams which act as a resource to coaches and afford opportunities to hear diverse views and experience diverse approaches.
Get more black faith leaders, counselors, psychologists, and therapists involved with our young men at the community and neighborhood level. Their expertise and skills should be utilized in school and court settings, and they should serve as advisors to coaching/mentoring groups. By emphasizing a co-sojourner rather than trained expert model, their involvement outside of clinical and office settings can demystify those professions and de-stigmatize receiving help for tough issues.
Photo: Steven Depolo/Flickr