How Adolescent Boys And Girls Seek And Develop Purpose Differently (page 2)
Research from a number of scientific fields can help us develop an understanding of the "male" way of seeking purpose during adolescence.
Seeking the Self Inside His DNA
Zoological and genetics sciences are now providing insight into male adolescence by studying male biochemistry in not just humans, but other species as well. Researchers such as University of Toronto zoologist Susannah Varmuza have compared DNA evidence from humans and other primates and discovered that, as Dr. Varmuza put it, "At the level of DNA, a male human is more similar to the male chimpanzee than he is to a female human, because of the Y chromosome."
This kind of research is controversial because of its stark comparisons with other animals, which can seem to make males look unsophisticated, inferior, or defective. Researchers like Dr. Varmuza, however, are studying DNA patterns on the Y chromosome in order to help us understand the needs of both boys and girls, and the patterns of nurturing that are required for males and females to be successful. The Y chromosome sets males up for surges and spikes of testosterone during adolescence that need a certain kind of care and supervision.
Among chimpanzees, for instance, the social process of acquiring power, then acting in socially helpful ways, is taught differently to young males than it is to young females. All young chimps commonly learn about power and service via experimental behavior, and then communal response. Civilized behavior is modeled from older chimps, and punishments by senior males and females are meted out for wrong behavior, as are rewards for right behavior.
For males in particular, however, when their testosterone begins to flow at puberty, there is special attention to discipline and self-discipline via role development. Males challenge other males hierarchically to figure out where they are in the pecking order and what role they should play for the survival of the group. These males receive "wounding" (rebuffs) like Kelley's son Connor received. This kind of wounding and aggression-nurturance is a part of the development of males' sense of empathy and boundaries against too-extreme risk-taking. The community wants male energy directed rather than haphazard, seeking after healthy roles and goals, rather than constantly warring against other groups or within the group.
This kind of research is useful to us in helping our boys. It need not limit our sons, and certainly our sons are not chimps! But they are being hit—via five to seven spikes of testosterone per day—with high levels of a chemical that stimulates aggression and risk-taking behavior. Their need for hierarchical supervision (especially if they are more aggressive than other boys) is absolute: without it, they may well not be able to channel and discipline their energy—the very energy that can, if supervised, help them achieve a valuable life purpose and seek and find a path of worth. Helping pubertal boys manage their aggression (helping them "battle the primitive" with the "expectations of civilization") is a very human duty, and one that takes courage and a lot of people who are ready for the challenge.
Differences in Stress Response
Adolescent boys and girls handle stress differently. This difference, too, should raise our antennae as we think about how to help pubertal boys become conscious seekers after a healthy male self.
Research at UCLA, Rutgers, and Macalester College has discovered different biochemical arrays in boys and girls when they feel threatened. Both boys' and girls' levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that regulates crucial body chemistry, fluctuate depending on their level of stress. But for boys the fluctuation is directly tied to their adrenaline levels. Thus, more of their brain's stress response focuses on the dangerous fight-or-flight mechanisms in the body and brain stem, in order to help them impulsively and instinctively regain physical and social stability of power.
Girls' brains secrete more oxytocin, a hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter released during hugging, touching, orgasm (for both sexes), and bonding, trust, and generosity. Higher oxytocin tends to help girls focus more of their chemical response to stress on the socially safer reacquisition of power and equilibrium through verbal connections with others. This is not a fight-or-flight mechanism, but a tend-and-befriend strategy. Unlike boys, girls generally do not need as much direction toward a potential "path of seeking," or specific "map of goals," because they are more constantly directed by a bonding chemical to gather and build selves through their ever-expanding verbal and social relationships.
The 2007 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, Mario Capecchi, recently provided a personal corroboration of the male-female stress-response difference. Brought up in hard conditions in Italy—starving and homeless—Dr. Capecchi recalls himself as a feral boy who beat up other kids in order to make friends among the other boys and gain food, shelter, and gang-like survival bonds. When he felt the stress of his physical and social conditions, he handled it by aggression techniques and even violence, ruled not by tend-and-befriend instincts but by fight-or-flight mechanisms.
Now, of course, he is an established and renowned scientist who received much-needed adult mentoring and education through and beyond his lonely adolescence. But his telling of his story is courageous and inspiring for those of us who look at stressed-out adolescent boys and girls and wonder, "Why do stressed-out girls tend to cut themselves, whereas stressed-out boys tend to try to hurt others?" Or: "Why do boys shoot up their schools, whereas girls tend to get on the Internet and try to destroy one another's relationships?"
Some (not all) of the answer lies in the fact that boys are driven by an adolescent biology underlaid with aggression and adrenalin. Students of gang behavior have corroborated this idea, noting how many gang members today do not get the mentoring and assistance they need to seek and find a socially adaptive path of worth. Lacking this path and training, they nonetheless seek direction and support toward something like it, and form violent, high-risk, highly adrenalized groupings in order to at least approximate what they need.
In neural terms, gang members do not respond to the stress and trauma of their life experience by bringing the civilized to the primitive. In biologically stark terms, they become unable or unwilling to discover socially acceptable pathways to purpose for their adrenalin and testosterone such as those ultimately found by Dr. Capecchi. Yet still they seek out male groupings in which to process and "civilize" their energy toward a common goal—survival of the gang and its territory. They create their own high-risk, highly aggressive structures, and encounter early death. The average life span of a gang member is twenty-five to thirty years old.
A recent case in New York provided insight into the male-female difference in stress and social rejection response. At fifteen, an outcast boy planned an attack on his high school (and got another rejected boy to help him). Thankfully, the two boys were caught before they could murder their schoolmates, but the fifteen-year -old's journal (con-fiscated later by police) read: "I will start a chain of terrorism in the world. This will go down in history. Take out everyone there. Perfecto." The violent plans were precipitated, investigators found, by the adolescent boy's feeling that "everyone was against him. The world was against him. He was upset at life in general and the world in general."
We' re all painfully familiar with cases like this, from Columbine to Virginia Tech—adolescent boys, especially unloved and lonely ones, who are on no path of seeking, and have no map of purpose except the highly aggressive, highly adrenalized, and destructive stress response. These adolescent males are more likely to make fewer social connections on their own than girls, and thus can feel their whole identity destroyed when they are rejected by a friend or social group. These boys may also seek more physically violent "solutions" to their loss of status than girls. Girls suffer immensely from rejection, but often have more access to nonviolent responses, both in the brain and in the world.
This area of social rejection of adolescent males is being studied carefully around the world today. New research continues to find that one-on-one mentoring and crisis intervention with these males is crucial. One or more powerful, instructive, understanding people can help set a young male on a healthy path of seeking. These young males are lonely for contact of this kind, contact that shows them maps for developing respect, increasing status, and developing authentic selves. They are hungry for others, including older peer boys and adult men, who can bring them into a relationship in a workplace, family, or social group, where they can feel themselves to be a purposeful part of society and civilization, the family and community, and not just left alone to battle their own primitive responses to the pain of rejection.
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