Years ago, I worked as a college counselor as well as a classroom teacher. I had gotten to know one junior counselee well by the time we discussed his academic schedule for his upcoming senior year. I had already come to admire Walter’s intelligence, athleticism, and creativity, but had not yet come to appreciate just how decisive he could be.
Walter had excelled in every subject. He was bound for Advanced Placement (AP) or post-AP classes across the board. From the very start, however, he was clear that there was one non-negotiable for him where his schedule was concerned. He had to be in woodshop. Any other class, however accelerated its content or impressive it might appear on his transcript, could go; shop class could not.
Years later, that conversation came back to me when I observed a shop class. Music played lightly as boys arrived and got to work. Each boy had his own project, worked at his own pace, and assessed his own progress. It was both calming and energizing, centering and inspiring. I wanted to be in the class, too.
What Walter realized, even before I did, was just how important the class was to him. For starters, it was not in spite of his high-pressure schedule, it was because of it. The atmosphere was altogether different than any other part of his day, and it helped buoy him through the challenges of his senior year. However, it would be oversimplifying to say that he was simply distracting himself. More importantly, he had ownership over a major decision. He also saw tangible progress in ways he did not necessarily see in AP Physics or AP French.
External challenges add up for teenagers like Walter, many of them outside of their control. Fewer will experience anxiety, the body’s reaction to stress even when there is no such threat. True anxiety is unyielding and debilitating. For Walter, and for us all, stress is a reality to be managed.
How We Got Here
Talk about stress and anxiety is on the rise. The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Children’s Health found that one in five teen boys have experienced new or worsening anxiety since March 2020. In 2022, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended pediatricians begin screening children as young as 8 years for anxiety. Suicide is on the rise since 2000, as well, with males’ deaths of despair outnumbering females’ by a considerable margin.
It is important to note that stress is a natural phenomenon and is, very often, not only a normal but a helpful response. Dr. Sonia Lupien, Founder and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, offers an acronym for helping identify causes of stress: NUTS.
- N. Novelty.
Something new, different, or unfamiliar can trigger stress responses.
- U. Unpredictability.
Anything that disrupts established patterns or routines can be a stressor.
- T. Threat to Ego.
Self-confidence is earned, and anything that jeopardizes it can compromise emotional equilibrium.
- S. Sense of Low Control.
As emerging adults, children and teenagers yearn for control over their lives, and they feel threatened by feeling they have lost it.
As holdovers from early human development, reactions to these factors are hard-wired into us. The brain processes inputs and filters emotions through the amygdala, small but important parts of our cerebral lobes. Spotting a mammoth back in the day, say, stimulated the amygdala and resulted in fleeing, fighting, or freezing.
Today, boys and young men are unlikely to encounter actual mammoths. For the amygdala, though, any number of contemporary challenges – the C on the quiz, the error on the baseball diamond, the ghosting by the new crush– are no different from the existential threats that once confronted our earliest human ancestors.
But they are different.
Brain development for young men continues into the late 20s. One veteran colleague used to point out that, unlike voting at age 18 or drinking at age 21, it is fitting that it is usually only at age 25 one is able to rent a car.
For boys ages 6-12, sensitivity to stressors begins at home. They will start to register anxiety about the unexpected. They are also increasingly aware of and curious about absolute stressors – whether particular, like a global disaster, or universal, like death. A boy’s first experience with death, even of a beloved pet, is often his first grappling with an absolute stressor that he, like all of us, will continue to deal with throughout his life.
For boys ages 12-18, the range of relative stressors grows as boys’ worlds grow beyond the home. They become more sensitive to their social environment. To parents’ frustration, however, they do not become more vocal about that environment. The cute little boy who plops into his car seat and speaks freely and excitedly about his day is often replaced by the surly adolescent who may, if we are lucky, offer little more than a one-word response.
In their late teens, boys can become less attuned to and interested in the home environment as they are the social environment. They are also acutely aware of their own places within hierarchies. They are confident in their convictions of who is the fastest or the smartest. Boys who perceive themselves to be at the “bottom” of any hierarchy are reliably those who will manifest and register the greatest stress and anxiety.
Thankfully, we can start to help boys deal with stress and anxiety.
Keeping it in Perspective
Most important of all is maintaining perspective. “Stress is only considered harmful under two conditions,” writes clinical psychologist and author Dr. Lisa Damour: “when it is traumatic, when it overwhelms a person’s coping resources, or when it is chronic, meaning that it becomes unrelenting.” The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that nearly one-third of people will experience clinically significant anxiety in their lifetimes. Put another way, more than two-thirds of people, the majority, will not. Helping boys distinguish drama from trauma is one of the most important skills we can impart.
Creating Open Dialogue
How we communicate with boys about stress and anxiety helps to shape their understanding of stress and anxiety. Best-selling author Dr. Michael Thompson warns against keeping children’s setbacks and stressors top-of-mind. “I believe that we live the story we tell ourselves – and others – about the life we’re leading,” he writes. “If you constantly interview your child for pain, your child may begin to hear a story of social suffering emerge.” Rather, “your role is to empathize with their pain and confusion, to receive and to hold it and not to go nuts with it. If you interview for pain – as in ‘Who hurt you today, dear?’ – you’ll get pain. If you interview for strategy – ‘How did you handle that? How did you cope?’ -- you'll get conversation.” Leading questions can lead to continued, and intensified anxiety.
Modeling Best Practices
This communication can be verbal as well as nonverbal. Child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Clark Goldstein warns against telegraphing to children outsize and unhelpful reactions to stressors: “Don’t reinforce the child’s fears. What you don’t want to do is be saying, with your tone of voice or body language: ‘Maybe this is something that you should be afraid of.’” We should listen and validate boys’ feelings, to be sure, yet we can also cue up boys’ reactions with our own reactions, sometimes well beyond the situations or topics at hand.
Our example is all-important. In his book Raising Boys, Steve Biddulph writes, “Role-modeling is an evolutionary trait in humans.” Indeed, boys and young men need mentors for their own evolution, and nowhere is mentorship more needed than in managing emotions. “By adolescence,” Lisa Damour writes, “girls drive along a broad emotional highway, while our teenage sons restrict themselves to an increasingly narrow lane.” Boys’ experience in adolescence is, very often, increasingly gendered. Correspondingly, their comfort with expressing emotions is increasingly fraught.
Yet boys can and do look to role models for their wisdom and “in-car” guidance. I cannot count the number of times, for example, I have seen some of the toughest student-athletes I know break down at the moment their final interscholastic sports season comes to an end. The moment is significant. For most of them it is an ending; only a small percentage of high schoolers go on to compete in college. Their feelings are also significant. No one questions the boys’ tears – least of all their equally emotional team captains – because no one questions how hard they have worked and how much their bonds with one another mean.
For me, a vivid memory of my late father from my childhood comes to mind. With colored pencils in hand, I was busily trying to create my own replicas of paper money. I had done the research – I knew who Salmon P. Chase was because he was pictured on the $10,000 bill – and I was now doing the work. Of course, my replicas fell short of perfection. Far short. I started to cry. I was not shamed that day and do not feel shame to this day. However, my father did engage me in an open, honest, and thoughtful conversation about emotions. He spoke softly but powerfully of when he did and did not cry. The “narrow lane” was not closed to me; rather, an adult male I respected was teaching me how to operate within that long and winding road.
Our own handling of stress and anxiety is the most powerful lesson. “Teenagers of all genders should be able to express the full range of emotions,” Damour adds. “We want them to have the right feelings at the right time – regardless of the gender rules – and to learn how to manage those emotions effectively.” This management, especially from respected male role models, is essential to normalizing boys’ anxiety before it controls them.
In his bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford writes of the value my counselee Walter recognized long ago. The takeaways are tangible. “He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.” The benefits for Walter extended well beyond the beautiful artifacts he produced. They are skills that continue to serve him well to this day.