All conscientious parents of sons ask themselves at some point, “What can we do to keep our sweet boy from going down a dark path?” Some of us are haunted by painful events in our community reminding us that kids get murdered, become murderers, get kidnapped, and become addicted to meth in our own neighborhoods. The world is a terrifying place for parents.
But here is the good news: we can have hope for each of our sons. After 25 years of seeing a lot of troubling things, I believe that with all of my heart.
First of all, many healthy kids go through trials during their teen years and some may dabble with alcohol, drugs, and sex. But most who are raised in a sound family pull through and end up on the right track when they are in their twenties.
A PERFECT STORM IS BREWING
Let’s focus, though, on the boys who murder, shoot people, and want to blow up buildings. These kids are deeply, deeply troubled, and most adults who work with kids can predict that they are headed for trouble.
First of all, teen boys who do horrific things like these have a situation, which is much like a perfect storm—where multiple issues come together. They often come from a painful home situation where parents have divorced and they have had difficulty landing on their feet. Additionally, many suffer serious mental illness.
A number of years ago, I had a 10-year-old patient who was adopted from Russia at an older age and had experienced such profound abandonment in his early years that he literally couldn’t feel any emotion but anger. He was unable to feel empathy or sympathy. Add to these problems recurrent exposure to violent video games, isolation from friends, an inability to appropriately process normal emotions, and you have a perfect storm.
Teen boys in these situations explode by lashing out at family, girlfriends, or strangers. Can you prevent them from harming others? Sometimes. We can identify mental illness, help get them treatment, keep them from violent video games (yes, I believe they play a big part), make sure they spend adequate time with adults who love them, and maybe they can be stopped.
KEEP SONS CONNECTED TO MOM AND DAD
So what can a parent do for an otherwise healthy, stable young boy to keep him from getting involved with drugs, alcohol, violence, and sex?
We have a lot of great studies showing us that the most important way to keep kids out of trouble is to keep them “connected” to loving adults in their lives—first and foremost Mom and Dad. Then, keep them connected to a grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher, or youth leader. Keeping kids on the right track isn’t about making sure that they spend enough time with peers (opposite of what we are taught). The truth is, kids feel better about life and themselves when they spend more time with loving adults—not peers. And when parents are with them, they need to make sure that kids get three things in addition to love: acceptance, affection, and admiration.
If a parent consistently shows a teenage son that he is accepted for who he is and that he is an integral part of the family, he will establish a sound sense of self. He will learn that he has great value because he belongs to the family unit. This is extremely important for teen boys because if they don’t feel that they are accepted in the family, they will find somewhere where they will be accepted, such as in a gang or with other troubled teens.
GIVE YOUR TEENAGE BOY AFFECTION
Second, when a teenage boy receives affection from his parents, he believes that he is lovable. When a father hugs his son, the message to the boy is enormous: I see you, I love you, and I like who you are. Why is this important? Because 99% of teen boys feel insecure about who they are and what they should become. Affection teaches them that at a certain moment in time, they are worth loving. This keeps them emotionally grounded.
LET YOUR SON KNOW YOU ADMIRE HIM
Third, every teen boy needs to know that he is admired as a young man and that he is capable of standing on his own. Ideally, this is a father’s job because every young boy looks up to his father. He wants to be like his dad; he doesn’t necessarily want to be like his mother. When his father tells him that he wants to hear his opinion on important matters and that he believes that he can succeed, the teen boy recognizes that his father believes in him. And when a boy feels that his father believes in him, he’s ready to fly.
If Dad isn’t available, then a good mom can stand in his place but she needs to know a trick. She needs to learn to be tough and communicate that he doesn’t need her to provide everything he wants. Loving mothers often keep young boys from feeling admired because we do too much for them. We keep them from knowing what they really can do because we do it for them. Mothers often make excuses for sons and coddle them, preventing them from standing on their own. I fully understand how easy this is as a mother because I have an adult son.
If a parent communicates to a teen that he is loved (tell him because he won’t always believe that he’s loved), receives attention from his parents, is given a healthy dose of affection from his family, and if he realizes on a deep level that his mother and father admire the man he is becoming, the chances of him straying into dark territory are very slim.
We can’t control our kids and it’s good that we can’t. The best we can do is shape the environment in which they grow. And we can make a great environment for our kids that will affect who they become. We can make sure they feel loved and valued and that they grow up with a deep sense of belonging to a unit that wants to protect and nurture them.
For many boys, however, no such environment exists. They are emotionally abandoned by one or both parents who simply haven’t the time or energy to invest in them. Many parents are so tightly wound in their own worlds that the son comes and goes but is never seen or they are afraid to step up and behave as adults because doing so takes guts, a bit of fearlessness, and a lot of energy.
But what young man isn’t worth it? Certainly not the one living under your roof.