How Adolescent Boys And Girls Seek And Develop Purpose Differently (page 7)
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.
The Issue of Status and Respect in Adolescent Male Development
The brain and biological differences we have just looked at help us understand adolescent boys from the inside out. I hope as you've read them, you've felt a pull toward your son, a sense of wanting to know how he is doing as a "seeker" after relationships and maps that will guide him through his own choices between the primitive and the civilized. I hope you sense his inner hunger to be led to possible paths that can lead him to become a man of purpose. Adding to all this is the fact that adolescent boys develop a sense of self-motivation somewhat differently than girls. We are learning this from studies of male and female social groupings during puberty and into adulthood. Research at the University of Missouri has found that the male brain and biochemical base creates a greater need in boys than in girls for developing, in the words of researcher Dr. David Geary, "motivational and behavioral dispositions that facilitate the development and maintenance of large, competitive coalitions, and result in the formation of within-coalition dominance hierarchies."
Dr. Geary's research has found that whereas all humans, male or female, can seek dominance and status in large groups, males tend to pursue not only close one-on-one relationships, but also large, project-driven groups (such as Boy Scouts or gangs) that potentially hone their skills and teach them right and wrong via maps of purpose and paths of seeking truth, justice, and self-worth. Geary and others surmise that the male's need at a certain point during adolescence to become a seeker after status within a large group may derive from the male brain's evolution along a hunting trajectory, with males working, for hundreds of thousands of years of our history, in large hunting groups. In these groups, males became more civilized, directed, motivated, and purposeful by cooperating and competing in hierarchical structures where status, respect, and authentic power could be earned and utilized.
The importance of status in large groupings among adolescent boys cannot be underestimated. Recently, I was working at Morehouse College on educational issues facing black youth and asked the educators what was the single most important thing sought by the adolescent boys they worked with. Nearly every teacher and administrator agreed: a path by which to gain respect. Adolescent boys come to school, athletics, neighborhoods, extended families, sports arenas, streets, or parties at a friend's house looking for ways to gain respect. They will do high-risk things in search of that respect, and they will turn away from structures such as schools when they feel disrespected in that school—that is, when they feel that the school or other institution is not set up for them to be able to seek and gain respect there. They will say, "School sucks, it's for girls, it's not for me." They are ultimately saying, "I am compelled from within to find maps, people, and structures through which I can gain status and respect—if this school (or home) isn't the place, I'll find another. I will push and push against every limit of every place until I find paths and places that will help me gain status and respect."
Seeking Respect Through Authority
In all the areas we've looked at so far in this chapter—aggressiveness, stress response, social rejection, status-seeking and respect-building, let's make sure not to group all "adolescent boys" as if each individual fits a stereotype. Hormonally speaking, some adolescent boys at any given moment are higher or lower in testosterone. This can matter. For low-testosterone boys, adolescence might be difficult because of challenges these boys might face in climbing high-testosterone male hierarchies. These particular adolescent boys are not as driven to try to gain status and respect in large groupings—they may get deeply involved in a single solitary activity (a lot of the obsessive video gaming of shy adolescent boys fits in this category). These boys may not be as adrenalized and aggressive as the more high-testosterone boys.
At the same time, adolescent male development, whether at its lowest testosterone levels or its highest, and whether the boy is shy or quite extroverted, can benefit from authoritative leadership from strong male influences. This piece of "hardwiring" seems to transcend all variety, and speak to all adolescent boys at some time in their development. Each will tend to need some kind of authoritative instruction in how to find paths of worth that are purposeful and gain the boy respect. Even the solitary boy obsessed with video games is seeking in the virtual world his own way of "winning" and raising status.
Studies in South Africa and Zimbabwe have noted that, similar to male humans, male testosterone expression among elephants, whether high or low, becomes socially disruptive if unchecked by alpha authority during adolescence—much more so than female elephant adolescent development that is unchecked by alpha authority. When young males have been either withdrawing socially or attempting to acquire power through socially violent behavior, putting them in the presence of a strong male authority can affect them profoundly. The authority "puts them in their place" via instruction, encouragement, and anger management techniques which establish pecking orders and vehicles for appropriate respect and status acquisition. The withdrawn young males tend to come forward more, and the overly aggressive young males tend to desist from their disruptive and violent behavior.
And quite interestingly, for adolescent females, empathy and power development often follow their understanding of the pain they are causing others—but this is not as often the case with males, especially high-testosterone males. Often, these particular males need intense authoritative structure, supervision, and discipline in order to change their behavior from primitive to civilized. They need authoritative males who have clearly gained respect and status already to "take them under their wing" and show the young male how to seek real status, real power, real purpose, and real worth.
Seeking Respect Through Sex and Intimacy
In few areas of male development do ALL adolescent boys need more help in developing their purpose than in the area of sexual intimacy. Much of a man's future sense of success and earned respect will be tied to his sexual ability, sexual success, and intimate alliances. Sexuality begins in boys far younger than puberty, with first erections happening even in the womb! Boys have sexual fantasies when they' re still quite young, feeling confused and excited by them. Then, at puberty, as surges of testosterone rush through the male brain and body at a greater frequency, sexual fantasies, desires, curiosities, preoccupations, and infatuations become an almost everyday happening for boys.
Sometimes, feeling that we are ill-equipped to get involved in our sons' internal lives or that it is not our place, we forget that our sons are becoming sexual seekers, and wrestling with the primitive and the civilized in the arena of sex. But we really need to be aware that these young boys are already trying to work through primitive drives and feelings and find appropriate and civilized outlets for sexual energy and desire. Simultaneously, they are setting goals for sexuality and intimacy that will bring them respect—trying to have sex, and later, an intimate partner (or more than one), and a spouse and children.
We'll deal in more detail with practical strategies for helping boys develop sexual values and purpose in Chapters Four and Five. In this chapter on the young seeker, I mention sexuality in order to ask you as a parent to rethink male sexuality as a normal part of his search for purpose, respect, and meaning.
As you raise your son through adolescence, you are raising a young man for whom sex is a mysterious vehicle for respect and purpose in direct proportion to how "shameful," "confusing," and "thrilling" it seems to him. As your son discovers the irresistible allure of another person's body, masturbation, pornography, sexual storytelling, fantasies, projections, puppy love, and love, each becomes a big part of his seeking and finding himself. Even though some of his urges can frighten us to the point where we forbid them, each is also a challenge toward bonding: the more we talk to our son, ask him questions (a list of questions is provided in Chapter Five), and join with him in exploring sexual boundaries and respect for other people's bodies, the more we help him seek and find civilized values for sex. In doing this, we show our son that we respect him as a young sexual seeker.
Many of our ancestral cultures spent much more time than we do teaching young men about their own bodies and helping them understand "rules" for relating to women sexually and intimately. As our society reinvigorates a sense of the purpose of boys, we will keep increasing our dialogue with boys, over the ten years or so of adolescence, about what is good and joyous in their developing sexuality.
Adolescent Boys and Girls Respond to Social Rejection Differently
One significant stressor on our early adolescent boys (and indeed any child) can be social rejection—feeling isolated from, bullied, or constantly ridiculed by a dominant social group. Studies at Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley have shown that adolescent males and females respond differently to this threat. Specifically, when he feels that his social identity is threatened, less of the adolescent boy's brain activity involves frontal lobe activity—which includes making "good decisions," thinking out a response, talking out a response with a friend, parent, or mentor—and more of it involves brain stem and lower limbic activity, which links directly to uncontrolled impulse and violence. Girls' brains often react to the same threat with increased frontal lobe activity, leading to more tend-and-befriend efforts.
One contributor to this neural process is a little almond-shaped part of the brain called the amygdala. It is in the middle of the brain and swells up with fear during social rejection. More signaling from this amygdala passes downward to the brain stem in adolescent boys; more goes upward to the talking and thinking centers of the brain in adolescent girls (frontal and temporal lobes in the cerebral cortex).
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