A few weeks ago, at the end of a long day full of work, school, and after-school activities, my husband and I decided we’d lighten our load a bit by taking our two kids out for dinner at the local taco dive.
“Can I bring my laptop?” my seventh grader asked. “I want to keep working on my homework.”
“Absolutely,” I said. It was an unusual request for Lucas, who has ADHD. I was proud he was taking initiative, as he has always struggled to get work completed and turned in on time.
He’d been a bit whiney and snippy that day too, complaining about his “stupid homework” and being short with his 8-year-old sister, so I was relieved he was finally “pulling it together” as I had not-so-gently suggested several times that afternoon. “This is life,” I’d told him. “You just have to be strong and do the work.”
Stress and anger in teen boys
When we got to the restaurant, my son immediately asked the hostess the Wi-Fi password and dove into furious typing on his laptop. The rest of us chit-chatted about our day, but as the minutes wore on, Lucas interrupted more and more, lashing out with overblown outbursts about his drink not being right, his sister wiggling too much, the music being stupid, the waiter taking too long. In short, he was being a short-tempered jerk.
Finally, I snapped. “You may be stressed, but that doesn’t mean you get to unleash your anger and negativity on everyone around you. This behavior is completely unacceptable. No screen time for you for two days!” My raised voice had drawn the gazes of other restaurant patrons. I was furious that my son was behaving so badly that he was making me lose my cool. Why couldn’t he just pull it together?
But then his face turned red. A tear swelled in the corner of his eye and spilled down his cheek. He swiped it away like he didn’t want anyone to see. My heart cracked a little, and the day came rushing back all at once. Lucas had gone to school early that day to clean the science lab. He hadn’t gotten home till 5. I’d dragged him to his sister’s piano lesson.
The whole time, even through his grouchy outbursts, he’d been frantically working on his laptop. And every time he’d complained, I’d shushed him. I’d told him, over and over, to “pull it together.” To “be strong.”
My son had tried to tell me how he felt, and I hadn’t listened. Rather than validate what he was feeling, I literally told him to stuff it down, ignore his own body and brain’s signals that he was floundering and needed support. I hadn’t allowed him to express his anxiety over his heavy homework load, and, in the end, all those bottled-up emotions erupted as anger.
Anger often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, especially for boys. Compared to girls, boys often either don’t feel comfortable expressing their emotions or simply aren’t as adept at it. These issues are compounded for boys who have ADHD.
More than that, boys in particular receive messages from a very young age about what it means to be male. We’ve made incredible progress in recent years empowering girls and women to do and be whatever they want, but boys are still largely bombarded with a single, stiflingly narrow directive: Be strong.
Other variations on this directive: Don’t cry. Don’t act “like a girl.” Don’t complain. Toughen up. Suck it up. Man up.
If boys aren’t allowed to express their feelings and receive validation for those feelings, is it any wonder the eventual outcome is anger? Of course testosterone plays a role in how boys and men express frustration, but there are so few acceptable male emotions—stoicism, fearlessness, and anger primary among them.
But if a boy is unsure and afraid, and the world is telling him to “Be strong” and that he isn’t supposed to express those “feminine” feelings, what other emotion is available to him? Anger. That’s all he has left in his coping toolkit.
The day at the restaurant, after seeing Lucas’s tear fall, I knew I had failed him. I had fallen into the trap of telling my son to man up. I try to treat my son and daughter as equal as possible, but sometimes I fail. Sometimes I am guilty of softer feelings toward my daughter. For her, I know I often have an elevated tolerance for tears.
How much are other parents like me—well-read, progressive-minded parents who have the very best intentions—inadvertently steering their boys toward anger? What can we do to provide better support to mitigate this and encourage our boys to articulate their emotional needs? Being aware of our biases is a start. And then we need to put aside our own adult frustrations and force ourselves to be present.
I scooted over in the booth and hugged my son. He melted into my arms and cried as if that was what he’d wanted all along. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “You’re stressed. I can see you’re stressed. Tell me.”
And he did. Not only was Lucas overwhelmed with his workload, but he was also frustrated that his friends often seemed to finish more quickly than he did. He had a lot to get off his chest. In the end, I promised I would pay better attention to his stress signals, and he promised he would work on not lashing out and would try to instead verbally tell me when he was feeling anxious.
And, of course, no more restaurants on heavy homework nights. I allowed him a cup of coffee at home that night so he could finish his work, and drove him to school the next morning so he could sleep in a bit.
He came home after school that day feeling proud that he’d managed to get all his work turned in, completed and on time. I shudder to think how things would have turned out if, when he’d started crying in the restaurant, I’d barked at him to dry his tears and “pull it together.” He would have likely bottled his emotions and become even more angry, and I in turn might have added on days of grounding without understanding that he was hurting.
And what a shame it would have been for me to miss that proud smile on his face after school the next day.