Big boys don’t cry: How social norms hurt boys and the rest of us

BlogHealthSep 15 2016

Men and boys in the U.S. account for 78 percent of all suicides, 80 percent of fatal heroin overdoses, and 98 percent of mass shooters. While suicides, substance use, and mass violence show variation by race/ethnicity, the dominance of men is consistent in all categories.

These statistics are startling, yet when I share them with friends and family, their response is almost universal: “I’m not surprised.” Either these folks know the data really well, or there’s a widespread understanding that we are not raising boys to be as healthy as they could be.

It’s time to amplify the conversation about social norms, when it comes to masculinity.

In the United States, expectations for boys tend to center on dominance, control, avoiding weakness, and restricting or hiding emotions. These norms can be the most stringent during adolescence, partly due to policing by peers. Boys must prove their masculinity daily to peers, and should they falter, on average, boys have fewer coping skills than girls. In fact, a meta-analysis of coping studies concluded men were less likely than women to use every single coping skill included.

Instead, anger, violence, substance use, and other externalizing behaviors are the strategies often modeled for and employed by boys. Continuing to limit the social-emotional development of boys may have dire consequences for boys and even for those around them.

“Big boys don’t cry”

The expectation of invulnerability for boys may make their suicides harder to prevent. In general, surveys of adolescents find that girls are much more likely to express suicidal ideation or attempt suicide—both of which can offer windows for prevention. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to have fatal suicide attempts (partially because they are more likely to use firearms, a topic warranting more research).

Even if a boy exhibits behavior indicating he is considering suicide (e.g., becoming withdrawn and irritable), the community may be hesitant to act. For example, in October of 2014, a Detroit high school senior who had been struggling with depression, but who classmates knew as a vibrant and outgoing guy, posted several pictures to Instagram. The pictures referred to his last meal, wanting to get a haircut for his funeral, and needing to test whether his watch was waterproof. Later that day, he drove his car into the Detroit River and died. Researchers have shown that teen suicide isn’t typically an impulsive act. More often, teens plan and even communicate their intentions, but friends (the usual confidantes) and adults may not notice the threat nor take it seriously enough.

“Drugs not hugs”

A lack of emotional coping tools in young men may make substance use more likely and addiction harder to stop. A key conduit to heroin use among youth is opioids, such as Oxycontin and Percocet. A large study of 7th– to 12th-grade students found that some of the key motivations for opioid use included sensation-seeking, rule-breaking, and aggressive behaviors, all of which are considered characteristically masculine and are examples of the externalizing behaviors boys may engage in to compensate for social-emotional problems.

Unfortunately, if adolescent boys begin taking prescription drugs recreationally, they are less likely than girls to recognize this behavior as a problem, seek help, or ask questions when receiving medical care.

“I’ll show them”

Over the past 50 years, 98 percent of mass shooters have been men and boys. Studies of school shootings have found that the vast majority of perpetrators had been bullied. More specifically, their masculinity was questioned. Analyses of the mass shooters found they were bullied because they were considered bookish, artistic, shy, and/or non-athletic, a perfect illustration of how narrow the expectations for boys can be. For the bullied boy, a violent response can serve two key purposes: (1) to enact revenge and (2) to prove their masculinity.

Reasons for hope

In recent years, women have become more widely known as world-class athletes (more women competed in the 2016 Olympics than ever before in history), politicians (the U.S. presently has its first woman presidential candidate of a major party), and corporate powerhouses (the share of U.S. companies with women CEOs increased six-fold from 1997 to 2009).

It is high time for our definition of masculinity to expand as well. Boys should be taught that “being a man” includes expressing emotions other than anger, using coping tools other than violence, and embracing roles other than economic provider.

Thankfully, numerous programs (and even a film) are working to expand the definitions of manhood. Studies show that programs that build young men’s understanding of how masculine norms influence their behavior can produce healthy shifts in attitudes and behaviors. In the words of one such participant, “The ManKind Project gave me the opportunity to live a life of connection with the world around me, rather than isolation and fear.” Child Trends has also compiled research on ways to improve the healthy development of boys, ways to prevent or reduce socio-emotional difficulties in adolescents, and best practices in bullying prevention.

Recently, a 16-year-old boy saw a man on a bridge and asked him, “Are you okay?” After talking with him for forty-five minutes, the boy convinced the man to seek treatment at a hospital, and prevented his suicide. As more boys are able to express their emotions, empathize, and ask for help in a community that celebrates rather than bullies them, I have to believe that fewer boys (and men) will struggle with addiction, mental illness, and suicide.