The second your life might change.
Every parent fears it – the shrill sound of your phone suddenly breaking the silence when all should be asleep. Your heart races, your palms break out in sweat and your mind sees the myriad of possibilities that you might soon need to deal with. Your world will never be the same after you answer that call.
“Mom?” He’s been crying. You can tell from that stuffed up sound he makes and there is a slight tremble in his voice – that signal that he needs to tell you something you are not going to want to hear.
“Mom. Eric’s dead.” There is no space to talk, to comfort my boy. His heart is breaking and he needs to sob, to release enough pain and shock so that he can connect with me. I wait for him.
The story begins to unravel. Eric is his best friend; like a brother. They are young male adults just starting to live an independent life where drinking, drugs and sex are at the forefront of many of their actions. Eric is just 22. He died from an overdose. It could have been my boy.
Where did I go wrong?
I read all the books.
I reflected and analyzed things ad infinitum.
I had become an advocate for boys, gave talks to parents and teachers of young boys, sharing what I knew would make a difference in how they viewed boys and how they were impacting them.
I fought for a healthy emotional world for young boys.
So what did I miss? What did I get so wrong?
I didn’t understand
the male brain.
There wasn’t any scientific evidence available yet that would help me see things clearer. Today brain scans and images of the developing brain are answering many questions parents have when their sons enter adolescence and move into adulthood. We now know the male brain is not fully formed until the mid to late 20’s.
Think about that.
Our boys graduate highschool, maybe go to college for 4 years. When they join the real world, with all the expectations to act like an adult, their brain is not yet fully formed! A fully formed brain thinks with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. The not fully formed brain of young adult boys process information from the amygdala, the emotional part. When we ask “What were you thinking?!” as we are shaking our heads, the answer is that they weren’t thinking so much as they were feeling.
So here we have a young man just out of college. He is expected to put behind him his wild college days behaviour and become a responsible adult male. He feels the constraints and the pressure intensely. His not fully formed brain is telling him to act on his impulses, engage in that dangerous or risky behaviour. He is stressed and full of anxiety. He looks for ways to feel better, to escape. That escape can be fatal.
Parents raising boys today have a great responsibility as well as incredible access to information that allows you to understand the world of boys and how we can support them as they grow into a man. Boys are treated differently based on their gender right from birth. Studies show that boys are not spoken to as emotionally and expressively and are handled a little less gently than is a girl. People’s expectations for behaviour are dependent on gender, with stereotypical expectations. The Boy Code or Man Box is alive and well, but parents can teach our sons how to deal with it, as long as we understand it exists. As parents of boys, we must prepare ourselves to understand the emotional world of our sons; to advocate for their right to be their authentic self; to find support both for them and ourselves, to navigate through the challenging times.
We still might get that life shattering call at 3 a.m. Our boys still might fall through the cracks. But if we can do our best, maybe they will be able to do that too. They deserve to know we get them, and understand the challenges they face. They need to know we have their back!