Following is an excerpt from How to Raise a Boy republished here by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019, Michael C. Reichert, PhD
Everyone has a story of a boy who has run into trouble. Like this one involving a seventh-grade boy.
At the time his mother called me, David was wildly out of control: though very bright, he was failing in school due to little effort and frequent misbehavior; he was defiant to his parents, and mean, sometimes abusive, toward his younger sister. His mother had tried a parenting support network, but their suggestions of tough love only escalated her conflicts with her son. When I met privately with David, I discovered that he truly believed that his mother did not like him, much less love him. In the heat of their bitter arguments, she would lose self-control and say things like “I hate being your mother.” It had apparently been like this for some time, and as David entered adolescence, he grew more vehement in rejecting her efforts to parent him.
I met alone with Lily to ask how she felt toward her son, and she admitted that he had been difficult for her from the beginning, while her daughter, coming several years later, had been a dream. As she discussed her first birth and David’s infancy, it became clear that Lily had experienced a postpartum depression and that her son’s needs had felt like nails on the blackboard to her. Scared and overwhelmed, when David would cry out for her, Lily often felt irritated and withholding. The relationship she established with her son on these terms simply increased in volume and anger as he grew to become a teenager.
David was actually quite likeable alone with me, and over time we forged a bond. He could tell that I enjoyed talking with him and thought he was talented and decent. We would laugh together, and I was careful not to blame him for his fights with his parents, his poor marks, or his conduct problems, instead offering that he had done the best he could, all things considered. Eventually I was able to leverage our connection to point out the self-defeating nature of his behaviors, and he was able to acknowledge that he wished things were better. I also intervened with David’s parents, recommending a moratorium on coercion and punishment and coaching his mother, in particular, to rebuild the relationship by summoning her delight in her son. Given that her son was a strong, physical boy who loved to roughhouse, I encouraged her to start pillow fights and lighthearted roughhousing with him.
Things went up and down. David remained skeptical of his mother’s commitment to him, and Lily struggled not to condemn him for his disrespect and lack of appreciation for her efforts. But as he grew and became more interested in relationships with girls, I upped the ante. I explained that the kind of relationship he had with his mother— his attitude toward her, his experience of closeness and trust with her— would set a framework for other relationships. I recommended a healthier intimacy in order to put their painful past fully behind him. I also proposed zero tolerance for any mistreatment of his sister. Over time, with his mother cheering him on, David was able to overcome the bad relational habits that he had acquired during their early years.
At Thanksgiving time in ninth grade, after not having seen him for some months, I received the following email from his mother:
I just wanted to touch base with you about David. It’s been a good thing that I haven’t been in touch sooner. Anyway, he is doing fantastic. I hope I’m not jinxing myself by sending you this email. But I often think of you and how much progress we made while working with you. And now, finally, the fruits of my labor are paying off. He is much more involved with his dad and me. He’s a little bit nicer to his sister. (I don’t think he’ll ever be really nice to her until he is an adult.) Also, he takes more responsibility for his actions and admits when he’s wrong. Most importantly, he is allowing me to be his mother. I can’t thank you enough for all your help. It has been absolutely priceless!
This family was in trouble, and David was on the verge of going south in ways that could affect the rest of his life. In the course of my assessment, I concluded that the family’s crisis was the result of a bad theory: the parents believed that their son was willfully misbehaving and was simply testing their limits in an angry contest for power. Their theory led them to believe that force and moral blame were the best responses.
My intervention went in an opposite direction, suggesting that there is a hardwired need for boys to form trusting attachments to their parents. I regarded David as traumatized by his mother’s rejection, ambivalence, and withholding, and talked with them both about how Lily’s early parenting struggles had gotten their relationship off to a bad start. Validating David’s sense of being wronged while also validating his mother’s lovingness and right to be respected allowed both to feel that I understood. I was then able to take a hard stand with David for better behavior, calling upon him to be the type of man— older brother, son, student, athlete— he really wanted to be.
For families seeking help with their sons, it is important to frame their crises as an opportunity to rethink ideas that are not working. A more accurate set of assumptions is called for. Once it is understood how things have gone awry, a new approach can be devised— one likely to include a deeper reckoning with the boy’s need for connection. In many families, a pronounced disconnect can arise between what parents had hoped for in a son and who a boy actually is. Dependent on their parents’ acceptance and love, boys have little choice when these come with a price. Most initially work hard to fulfill their parents’ hopes and expectations; some conclude that their best efforts will likely fail and look elsewhere to meet their needs. But conformity and striving to please have a downside: a boy’s cynical conclusion that his home in the world is contingent upon satisfying other’s needs. The conditional nature of parents’ love leaves many boys feeling insecure.
It is as if parents believe that they can order up a particular type of boy to fit their dreams or, barring that, force the one they have into a preferred mold. How many boys have heard from their parents some version of the message that they need to “man up”? “Try harder” at school or sports. “Achieve.” “Suck up” their feelings and show more “grit” and determination? Old-school masculine ideas that trying harder is the answer to everything ignore scientific in-sights about how grit develops and how motivation is deeply inter-woven with a boy’s emotional state. The problem with trying to fit a boy into a predetermined identity is the message he receives about the person he actually is: that he is not good enough.
This content is sponsored by Michael Reichert, Ph.D.
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