From the Globe and Mail
“Dylan, please take your dirty clothes out of the TV room like I asked you to this morning.”
“Mom, I just got home.”
“Dylan, take the clothes out of the TV room. I don’t want to have to keep asking you.”
“For Chrissake, I just got home. Why can’t you just leave me alone?” And Dylan storms up to his room, where he proceeds to slam his fist into the wall, putting yet another crack in the plaster. With teenaged boys, once they get mad – and minor household issues often spark their anger – it very quickly escalates to physical violence.
Teenage girls have tempers too, of course. But where girls will unleash a torrent of screamed words, guys are prone to reacting physically – a hole in the wall, a storm door knocked off its hinges by a too-violent exit, a remote control thrown across a room. In this regard, teenaged girls are definitely superior to teenaged guys.
Generally speaking, girls are more skilled at expressing their feelings verbally. Many guys do not have the same aptitude. They tend to process any strong feeling – anxiety, embarrassment, disappointment, being overwhelmed by their day – as anger, and often in some form of physical expression.
What is their problem? For one, guys are trained early – as part of the perceived gender roles in our culture – that the only way to express strong feelings is through physical aggression. Over time, this gets in the way of being able to negotiate problems. If they’re emotionally upset, they swiftly get to a point where all they want to do is hit something. There is nothing they can resort to between 0 and 60 – no intervening behaviour.
In preschool, kids are constantly reminded to “use your words” rather than get physical. Girls seem to learn this far better than boys. The typical teenaged guy isn’t exactly forthcoming about his feelings.
“What’s bothering you?”
It’s not the most illuminating conversation.
Girls often have a better approach: They follow up an angry confrontation with an immediate communication – a text, an instant message, a phone call – with a friend:
“Tracy, omigod, you won’t believe what just happened. My mother…”
My suggestion – and I’m dead serious – is that if you have a teenaged boy who gets physically angry too quickly – which may be most teenaged guys – you want to openly encourage them to use their words. When they are upset, suggest they contact a friend, whether they talk directly, text or instant message. And if not to someone else – as a second choice – just write about it for themselves. Writing on your own is good, but it doesn’t have all the benefits of interacting in the here and now with a living, reacting human being.
There are many problems with the electronic world in the lives of our teens, but one absolute plus is that teenaged boys use the Internet and texting for communication, and they will talk about feelings – often with a girl who is a friend – to a degree that really didn’t exist before the Internet. If they can’t talk to a friend, writing gives a degree of distance that makes it possible to express strong feelings without being emotionally overwhelmed. Writing allows a guy to talk about how he feels, which he might find impossible in direct communication, and the feelings become more manageable.
What I am recommending is that during a quiet, neutral moment (not in the heat of an argument) you say to him, and more than once: “If you are feeling upset, try communicating to a friend how you feel. Talk to them. Text them. IM them. And if there’s nobody you’re comfortable with, write it down. Describe what is bothering you and how you feel. That is the best way to deal with bad feelings.”
Does this make a difference? If you regularly encourage him to do this, it might. You are taking a stand. You are saying that communicating with words is a far better way to deal with strong feelings then trying to push them down or waiting for them to explode.
Often parents will try to channel their sons’ anger into more acceptable means of physical expression: karate, boxing or any strong physical activity. This is fine, but does not ultimately address the issue of learning how to express negative feelings through words.
Rather than punching a hole in the wall, what might be the verbal version?
“Cody, you don’t know what it’s like. My mother is like a crazy person. She’s like this cat we used to have, as soon as I get in the house she pounces. I hate this house. You don’t know what it’s like.” (Except any real version would be punctuated with many swear words.)
It’s so much better than the usual fight-or-flight response. When boys finally learn to “use their words,” there’s a much better chance that problems will get resolved. Learning how to do this is an incredibly useful investment for future relationships.