Boys Don’t Cry Out
“What I do know is that Dylan did show outward signals of depression, signs my husband and I observed but were not able to decode. If we had known enough to understand what those signs meant, I believe that we would have been able to prevent Columbine.”
(Sue Klebold, A Mother’s Reckoning)
Every time there’s a new, horrific school shooting, I’m reminded of my own childhood:
–In 3rd grade, way back in 1981, our whole elementary school was put on lockdown after a young man shot and killed his father in their home about 200 yards away from the school, and he was then on the loose in the neighborhood.
–In 6th grade, in 1984, a friend of mine narrowly dodged a bullet that shattered the glass in the front doors of the school, shot by a man in a car parked a few hundred yards away.
–A few years later, there was a boy we were all a little afraid of. His name was Ricky. Once, at a high school football game, I got word he wanted to “kick my ass.” Thankfully, Ricky was friends with Jeremy and Ryan, two popular and powerful guys who intervened on my behalf. A few months later, with the rifle they had just given him for Christmas, Ricky murdered both of his parents as they slept in their bed.
This time, after Parkland, I decided to re-read Sue Klebold’s book, A Mother’s Reckoning. The mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters back in 1999, Sue bravely published her gut-wrenching story in 2016, and it is a haunting account of a parent’s worst nightmare. Her boy, whom she had loved and nurtured as well as any other parent she knew, had become a suicidal murderer right under her nose.
Reading this book is not easy; since you know the horrific way Dylan ended his life and many others’, learning about his childhood and their family life up to that point is dread-inducing.
And yet, given the events in Parkland, their story is vital to understanding, and hopefully preventing future tragedies. It is also helpful for all of us to understand our sons better, and improve the ways we’re raising men.
That’s the one thing these incidences have in common with each other, and with almost every incidence of school violence: They were all perpetrated by young men.
This is especially true of mass shootings. By several estimates, 94-98% of mass shootings are committed by males. Of course, the vast majority of men are never violent, much less homicidal. But this is, shall we say, a very strong statistical correlation. So what is it that leads boys and men SO much more likely to commit violence? And is there anything we can do about it?
Part of the problem is our stubborn clinging to simplified notions about men and emotions. For instance, boys early on are given far more messages than girls about suppressing their feelings:
Stop your crying.
I’ll give you something to cry about.
Girls are supposed to be the ones who are emotional.
Boys don’t cry.
It’s not as if boys don’t feel all the same emotions girls do; they are just culturally discouraged from openly feeling and expressing them. What this translates to is that by and large, boys don’t cry out. They don’t ask for help. They don’t have a vocabulary, much less the role models, for talking about their emotions.
Are there gender differences when it comes to emotions? Of course. But that doesn’t mean one gender is more emotional; it just means they may experience emotions differently, and this then gets exacerbated by cultural socialization.
Young men, for instance, are receiving constant images and messages that their authentic masculinity is to be found in physical size and strength. Men are defined by their toughness, by their ability to dominate over other men, and by their choosing to avoid any signs of “weak, female” emotions like pain, vulnerability, sadness, compassion, or fear.
At the same time, though, boys are to discover and even nurture the “tough, male” emotions, like anger, dominance, and vengeance. Walk onto most practice fields and you’ll hear some form of this being preached constantly. Sports have taught our sons, far more than we realize, that success is achieved by size, strength, playing through pain, and aggression. Especially aggression.
One of my coaching clients told me about one such example, involving a baseball hitting lesson for his son. The coach asked his son to get mad. The boy was about 12, and apparently not showing the kind of aggression the instructor thought necessary for him to become a great hitter. To help his son find such aggression, the coach asked him to actively think of something he was really angry at, and channel that anger through his swing.
“What makes you really mad, dude?!?!” he barked.
After a pause, my client’s son shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “Nothing I can think of,” he said. (The sports dad part of my client admitted he was a tiny bit dismayed, but the vast majority of him was quite happy his son was so…well, happy.)
Real men are supposed to be dominant, aggressive, competitive, and tough. So what’s a boy to do when he feels scared, sad, insecure, and anxious?
Well, obviously, some men kill when they’re afraid, while feeling ashamed of being afraid. And some men use violence when they try to hide their intense emotional pain until it’s too much to shield, and they decide to “share” it by inflicting physical pain on others.
Emotional regulation is the key to all human success, and yet the most dominant message boys receive is emotional denial, or suppression.
Some things to do:
1. Let’s become better observers of our sons
Here are some of the signs of teenage male depression:
–any sudden changes in sleep, eating patterns, weight, acne, friends, homework, relationship with parents or siblings, religious observance, and screen usage
–any dramatic increase in withdrawal behaviors, like holing up in his room, not replying to calls or texts
–any expressions whatsoever of a desire to hurt himself or someone else, a feeling of being a burden to you, or a desire for revenge on someone
–any signs of drug or alcohol abuse
–any new interest in guns, explosives, mass murders, terrorism
–any expressions of having no motivation to do anything, even pleasurable things he once enjoyed
That last sign is one that’s not talked about nearly enough. It’s called anhedonia, and it’s an inability to experience pleasure. This is a telltale sign of depression in anyone, and in many ways is the worst part—you literally cannot imagine doing anything, anywhere, with anyone that would make you feel better.
2. Let’s become better listeners to our sons
The most heartbreaking part of Sue Klebold’s confessional book is when she details how, during his junior year, Dylan began spending more time with Eric Harris. She observed how Dylan couldn’t say “no,” to him, like he could his other friends, even asking her to fake “forbid” him when he really didn’t want to go hang out with Eric. One night, in a moment of clarity and openness, Dylan told his mom, “Eric’s crazy.”
Like all parents tend to do, she responded with a speech: “You’re going to meet people all your life who are difficult, and I’m glad you have enough common sense to recognize it when you see it.” She followed with: “I told him his dad and I had a lot of confidence in his ability to make good choices, with or without his friends.”
This incident is perhaps her greatest regret:
“Our confidence was obviously misplaced, but neither did we have any idea of what Dylan was dealing with. I had no inkling that the situation might be truly dangerous. Nor did I have any conception of what Dylan meant by ‘crazy.’”
That, of course, is why she needed to ask more, and tell less: “Crazy, huh? Your friend, Eric? What do you mean?” Put forth calmly, without even adding eye contact, this question could’ve changed everything.
And it’s a lesson for us all. I confess I’ve done this as well. I’m a trained expert, and there are many times I lectured my teens when I should have listened, so it’s perfectly understandable Sue Klebold, and perhaps you, would make this mistake as well.
But not anymore. I hear parents complain all the time about their teen sons not opening up enough, or telling them anything. But every time we dig deeper, there are moments here and there when our boys, like volcanoes, release tiny cracks of self-revelation.
Get curious. Get gently inquisitive. Your boy complains about homework, ask him, “What’s the hardest part?” Your teen makes an offhanded comment about someone, follow up: “Hmmm…tell me more about that.” As always be conscious of your tone, resisting like crazy to sound panicked or suspicious. Growing boys can be like frightened turtles, especially in adolescence, but even they crave to come out of their shell once in a while. Don’t pounce on them, but don’t ignore them either.
Here’s one of the best ways I know to open up a line of dialogue with our sons about emotions like anger and depression: Ask them about their friends. Here’s how you do it:
A. Get away for some one-on-one time. Text or tell your son something like this: “Hey man, you & me, Steak & Shake, 6pm.” (This is an exact copy of a text I sent to my 18yo last week. He replied: “Aye, aye, captain.”)
B. Use this latest Parkland tragedy as an starter, asking him what he thought about it, and what he and his friends have said about it.
C. Now, surprise him by NOT asking him about whether he’s ever felt angry like that, or depressed enough to hurt himself or others. In a great twist, ask him about his friends. “Do you have any friends you’ve ever been concerned about?” Tell him, “I know you really love your friends, have you ever noticed anything like (then throw out a few of the depression signs mentioned above in #1.)
D. Finally, you can gently turn the questions his way: “You ever have any of those experiences? What do you think you’d do if you did feel some of those feelings? Who would you feel safe enough to tell?” Do NOT follow this up with a lecture about how he NEEDS to tell you, or how available you are. Listen to what he says, and don’t take it personally if he doesn’t mention you as a resource. Just listen well in this very instance, and it will increase the chances he’ll open up to you in the future.
3. Let’s become better models for our sons
The only way boys and young men will naturally begin to see emotional expression and regulation as normal is if they swim in it. Like the young fish who has no idea what water is, young boys who regularly see their fathers do the following will come to expect such behavior from themselves and other boys and men:
–thoughtfully express their emotions, both verbally and physically;
–show assertiveness without aggression and passion without rage;
–embrace vulnerable relationships with other men; and
–willingly ask for help
In a touching op-ed essay in response to the Parkland tragedy, comedian Michael Ian Black writes “America’s boys are broken.” I would not completely agree, but I would definitely agree our ways of raising men need to be re-evaluated and re-engineered in the 21st century.
Our boys are crying out, in fact, in subtle and not-so-obvious ways. It is our job to become better observers, listeners, and models.
Peace begins with pause,