Rossendale Free Press
How to breach a troubled teenage boy’s wall of silence
ABI JACKON FINDS OUT HOW TO GET TEENAGE BOYS TO TALK ABOUT THEIR PROBLEMS BEFORE THEY GET TOO MUCH
Are you a parent or guardian concerned about how you can help teenage boys to open up?
There is growing awareness around supporting young people’s mental health and wellbeing – laying foundations for them to be able to ask for help when they need it.
But this can be particularly tricky for males, and youth mental health charity stem4 says ‘toxic masculinity’ is still playing a part.
The charity surveyed 1,068 boys and young men aged 14-21 and found 37% are experiencing mental health difficulties. Stress was the most common difficulty reported (47%), followed by depression or low mood (33%) and anxiety (27%).
Of those experiencing difficulties, just one in five said they were receiving treatment, while 51% had not spoken to anyone. Meanwhile, 46% of all respondents said they wouldn’t ask for help ‘even if things got really bad’.
When asked why, 36% said they didn’t have the courage, 32% said they ‘don’t want to make a fuss’ and 30% said they would feel ashamed. Plus, 21% are worried people would laugh or think less of them, and 14% said they would ‘feel less masculine’ if they asked for help.
The survey also looked at where these beliefs might be coming from: 70% of the respondents said boys and young men are negatively portrayed in the media, and almost half (46%) said ‘pressure from peers to behave in a dominant masculine way’ was having a negative impact on the mental health of this group.
“We live in a culture that puts huge pressure on boys and young men to behave in particular ways, many of them damaging to their mental health,” says Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist and stem4 founder.
“Our survey shows exactly why this is so damaging with many suffering in silence, even when they’re approaching crisis point.”
Stem4 works with students, parents and teachers in secondary schools and colleges. As well as delivering workshops, there’s lots of information on its website. The charity has also four NHS-approved smartphone apps.
Spotting the signs
It may not be immediately obvious when a teenager or young person is experiencing mental health difficulties or how this is affecting them, and chances are they won’t be able to just tell you. Dr Krause says it’s helpful for parents and guardians to “learn how to spot any signs and listen to how boys may express how they feel, because they may not express it in the same way as others might.
“For example, it may be that they express it through their behaviour – and that might come across as very difficult to manage behaviour, but actually it might be that they’re feeling quite anxious,” Dr Krause adds. “Or that they are quite unhappy but want to be left alone to deal with that unhappiness in not necessarily the best way possible.”
Adjust your expectations
Issues like ‘toxic masculinity’ are often deeply ingrained in our culture and we may not realise how much they’re influencing us. It might be helpful to be aware of the phrases we use – such as ‘man up’ – which can be so unhelpful.
How we respond to children and young people expressing difficulties is another factor. It’s so easy to be dismissive, saying things like ‘what problems could you possibly have at your age?’ or ‘when you’re older you’ll realise that’s not a big deal’. This can result in them feeling more isolated and ashamed and less likely to speak up in future.
“It’s also about looking at changing your expectations,” says Dr Krause.
“So, do you almost expect somebody, if they haven’t done well, to just get on with it? [Rather] than focussing a bit more attention on someone if they’re feeling upset?”
Provide opportunities to open up
She suggests thinking about how you can “provide opportunities for boys and young men to open up about vulnerabilities”, without them feeling “too exposed”. Making them sit down and trying to force them to reveal everything that’s going on for them might not be the best approach.
“The message that has come up consistently is that boys feel like they’re not meant to open up and be vulnerable,” says Dr Krause.
“So [it’s helpful] if parents can provide opportunities – and those opportunities might just be the talking ones. They might be activity days, for example, where they’d be able to bring up any particular concerns.”
Focus on listening to them
If they do talk to you, try not to rush in with your own reaction. While it’s natural to want to make things better, remember the aim is to help them learn they can open up and ask for support when they need to.
“If you rush in to try and fix the problem, and maybe even share the problem, then the person on the other end may end up not feeling listened to,” says Dr Krause.
“The whole thing about listening, is providing them with listening without telling off. And then reflecting back to them what you think you’ve heard, and maybe asking them to expand on what they think the issue might be and what they feel might be
Who should support them?
It can be very difficult and upsetting if they’re not opening up to you. Try to remember this is quite normal – it doesn’t mean you’re ‘failing’ as a parent.
“Think about who might really be best placed to support them, whether it can continue to be done in the house and, if so, who is the best person,” says Krause.
“Or is there somebody external who could help?”