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“How do I understand my teenage boy?”

 

Hi Nicola,

Do you understand the brains of teenage boys? My 16 year old spends hours playing on the xbox, shouting and swearing at his online ‘friends’ (apparently they do the same to him). I don’t know why he chooses to do something that seems to make him so angry. I’d love to understand him better

This is really interesting in lots of ways and there are several things to think about. First, a word about gender differences. This is something that people get quite angsty about, if someone even suggests that there are inherent differences between boys and girls or men and women.

It is my view, based on an enormous amount of reading of the work of experts, that there are inherent differences. HOWEVER, this does NOT mean that all boys behave one way and all girls behave a different way. It does NOT mean that a girl who behaves in a way more associated with “boy behaviour” is any less female than another girl. And it certainly does NOT mean that we should treat boys and girls very differently or expect them to want or do different things. Humans are stronger than that, stronger sometimes even than the pull of evolutionary biology. I’m not even going to talk any more about this because it’s not relevant to what I’m about to say, for one reason: it makes not a blind bit of difference whether differences are inborn (nature) or created by environment (nurture) because I’m talking about teenagers, who are already the product of their nature or nurture (both, actually) and we can only deal with what we have, not what we wish existed.

So, boys. And anger. (Though girls get very angry, too.)

Testosterone, for a start. The “male” hormone. Gushing through the bodies of teenage boys, turning them into men. Testosterone is the chest-beating chemical, the one that makes them wish to be the best, the alpha male, or at least the best they can be, for not everyone can be top dog – and that’s angrifying itself. Testosterone allows muscle build up, ambition, struggle to win. All good things. In sport (or warfare or trying to dominate a herd) it allows bravery and risk-taking and daring. And with these things come aggression. Or, if not aggression, anger and frustration. It’s a raging bull hormone. And some boys respond more to it than others (for reasons we don’t know, or I don’t, at least).

I don’t think anyone chooses to be angry. Angry happens. Angry isn’t nice, not for the person feeling it or the person seeing it. But I think angry through computer games, or angry thumping a pillow or angry running as fast as you can, are all better ways to be angry than actually doing something bad and scary and aggressive.

Angry is sad but also angry is natural and needs an outlet. It can be shortlived or longer-term.

Allow angry people (whether boys or girls) a vent for their anger. Physical exercise, manic laughter, a crazy evening playing strange games with friends, wrestling, mock fighting, killing dragons and demons. Whatever it takes. Physical exercise is probably the best – running, football, the gym, whatever it takes.

Another vent is talking but sometimes the angry person doesn’t want to talk to the person who most wants to help him. Perhaps there is someone else he talks to? Let that happen and don’t be upset.

The angry person is not angry with the person who wants to help. The angry person is just angry inside. He doesn’t know why. He just is. He is not angry with the world; he is just angry.

And one day, when the hormones have settled, and he has grown into his muscles and his body and his ambitions and his hope and fears, he will be less angry and he will be a man and you will wonder why you worried. Except that you are his mother and worry is what mothers do.

Excessive anger, damaging anger, may need anger management help. If a boy or girl is violent and cannot control that, ask for help from the school guidance department or your doctor, or a psychologist.

Boys. Girls. They worry us, if we care. We can try to understand but sometimes the best we can do is simply to say and think and feel: this is how it is and I love you and am there for you, even if you are too angry to see that just now. And I’ll still be here when it passes.

 

3 Responses

  1. Thanks Nicola. It makes sense, especially as he’s much more chest-beating and alpha-male-ish than his brother! I agree that it’s better to take out anger in this kind of way (and he does plenty of physical activity as well), but I worry about whether these sort of games are addictive or might have some harmful effect on developing brains. Do you have any views on that?

    1. Hi Ali. There’s some conflicting evidence about computer games but I think the main two things that everyone agrees with are a) yes, they are addictive, drawing you in, making you want more, and setting up a target-driven scenario which makes you want not to stop and b) if someone spends too many hours on anything, it means they aren’t spending enough time doing other things – whether music, work, sport, relaxing the eyes and brain, whatever. So it’s mostly a time thing. Your son is building the neural networks that make him better at the skills involved, which is good, but at the expense of the networks he is not building. So, balance is desirable.

      I don’t worry too much about a “harmful effect on developing brains”, further than what i’ve just said. Also, when he stops/grows out of it, he can rewire his brain. I just worry about what he’s missing out on. I definitely think doing these things before bed (within an hour) is a bad idea from a healthy sleep point of view, too.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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