Teenage Boys Are Afraid
Teenage boys are afraid.
Now this really surprises grown ups . . .
I admire the irony of the bumper sticker I see on boys cars and trucks: no fear. Nothing could be further from the truth. Probably the greatest secret teenage boys keep is that theyre scared. They dont act like it, but that is it: its an act. Despite all the bravado, prancing and preening, cool postures, and reckless behavior, the fact is they are afraid. It just happens to be the last thing theyre going to admit . . . and the most important thing that they cover up.
How are they afraid? I focus on four areas . . .
First of all, teenage boys dont have a clue as to who they are and where they stand. Their boy identity wont hold in the cutthroat competitive culture of teenage boys. Who they are in relation to their peers is as unstable as can be: even good friends can turn on you at the drop of a hat. There are constant ups and downs in the teenage boy world. He may be popular one minute, not the next, in with one group of friends, then he doesnt belong. Friends are friends one day, but quite possibly not the next week.
Now, as I said, teenage boys refuse to act afraid. They resort to all kinds of shenanigans including acting absolutely obnoxious, super-cool, butt-kissing, and the cutup clown to fill a role. For many, it is fit in at all costs. For others, it is find a quiet niche where no one will bother you. And there are always some who make their stand by not fitting in at all.
Ive worked with boys who recoiled at the constant competition for nothing and took on a persona to keep people away. Theyd take on a social manner and/or dress pretty much guaranteed to ostracize themselves from the other kids. It was a painful form of self-protection: they were frightened to the point of self imposed exclusion.
The second is teenage boys are afraid of girls. Most boys are absolutely lost in knowing who they are in relation to girls. Watching their show will mislead you. Whether theyre first-rates flirts or way-behind wallflowers, their self-concept and image is fraught with fantasy and peril. Theyre plain scared.
A very bright and articulate thirteen year old I saw had a well-established reputation as a smart, geeky nerd. He was very comfortable with it. His position was secure in his opposition to the popular kids and identification with the other smart nerds. This boy exuded self-importance and confidence. One problem. Girls paid no attention to him whatsoever and the role of a smart, geeky nerd gave him next to no chances to talk with girls. Plain and simple, he was as awkward as a fish climbing a tree when it came to girls and, like most thirteen year old boys, he wanted a girlfriend.
One day, after I asked him what was on his mind, he sheepishly answered, how do I learn about girls? He was terrified.
Even the so-called cocky, self-assured studs are scared. They put on a great show and tell to try and score, really for the other boys because the girls could care less, but they are lost dogs either after they've "won" and/or in trying to relate in any personal, meaningful way.
Why should they be scared of girls? Because girls have feelings, because girls elicit feelings in the boys which they are embarrassed and confused about, because girls relate to and act on their feelings entirely differently than boys, and because girls are interested in relating and boys are interested in winning. Theyre lost and scared. So they do what boys do when their scared: act cool, tough, nonchalant, withdraw, and disinterested. Its an act. Theyre scared.
Thirdly . . . and profoundly important . . . teenage boys are afraid of becoming men. I'll repeat that: dragons are afraid of becoming men. It scares them silly. They do not like the idea of becoming a man at all: it looks boring, no fun, difficult, and depressing. They're afraid they don't have what it takes to be successful. They are afraid of what the future has in store for them and the rest of humanity. Theyre afraid: feeling alone, inadequate, and unprepared. They do not want to grow up and become men. This is not small potatoes: it is profound and significant.
A high school senior told me right after he turned eighteen, Im not interested in growing up. Im going to play for as long as I can. When I asked him when he thought he would be ready, he answered, oh, maybe when I turn 26 or something. I dont really want to be a grown man. What fun is that going to be?
Another eighteen year old boasted I should be able to do whatever I want. Im eighteen and I should be able to make my own decisions, go wherever I want, whenever I want and not have to answer to anybody. Why should I have to listen to his [fathers] rules.
I looked him straight in the eye and said, well why dont you do that? You're eighteen. Why dont you just go live your life as you want?
He became very quiet, leaned forward in his chair and returning my look said quietly, Im scared.
I softly answered, Ill bet you are.
I dont know how Id support myself? What am I going to do, work at Mc Donalds? How will I live. Im used to having a really good life.
Even a thirteen year old told me, I want to stop things at seventeen or eighteen. Just before high school graduation. That would be perfect. I can drive, go wherever I want, be around my friends, but not have to be responsible for anything. Not have to work and support myself. That would suck.
Its not just that they dont like the image of being a man (which most of them dont), its that their afraid of it. They arent confident they can do it, theyre scared of the responsibilities and afraid of the boredom.
Its not limited to young men who may be challenged academically or struggling socially. Its pervasive, including the bright, talented, and socially active ones. And it will be the absolutely last thing they are going to show adults, especially their parents. They put on a fools parade.
Finally, and critically important: teenage boys are afraid of having more emotional power than their parents. Dont believe me? Surprise! Its a half-truth that they revel in being disrespectful and humiliating their parents. Its a game. One with very high stakes. And its one the grown-ups play unwittingly and, from the boys point-of-view, lose with remarkable frequency to everyones disadvantage.
Consider this common family scene: he has not met some family expectation or has done something wrong - and he defends, provokes, argues, rationalizes, calls them names, swears or what have you OR acts nonchalant, like he doesnt care, its no big deal, what are they upset about . . . whatever . . . and Mom or Dad just goes ballistic . . . hes pushed their buttons.
Now, the parents, before they lost it, are simply asking their son to comply with what they consider are reasonable expectations and getting upset when hes defiant. For the boy, when they lose it, he thinks, Ha! They arent acting any more grown up than I am. They cant handle their feelings any better than I can. In fact, worse because I can push them around. This is being an adult? This is it, the end of the maturity train? Great, so what have I got to look forward to? This isnt right. I dont like it. Thats scary!
Teenage boys will do everything they can to steer the grownups clear of the fact that their scared. All the bluster, obnoxiousness, withdrawal, and claims to independence distract the adults from recognizing the truth: the boys are afraid.
©2012 Ted Braude
Youth is wholly experimental. - Robert Louis Stevenson