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  • Silvia Farag

The Epidemic of Loneliness in Boys

A few weeks ago, while driving my kids we started talking about friendships. They were very curious about my friends. I don’t have a lot of family here, so I always overcompensated in friends. I used to have these epic parties and I would be very inclusive and invite everyone. I enjoy hosting but was whipped out after every party and my kids never wanted big shin digs. I realized it was more about me. As I got older though, my circle became smaller, more intimate and more meaningful.

My 14-year-old daughter said she had lots of friends, but only a few that she would feel comfortable confiding in, and she would rather just talk to me about the big stuff. Thank God. She reminded me of when I was away earlier this year and she had gone through what most middle school girls go through, “mean girl stuff.” She tried to talk to her brothers, and they offered her ideas of how to “fix it” and my youngest offered to go to her school and give her a piece of his mind. So, she called me and let it all out. After she had a good cry and the listening ear she needed, she told me she felt a lot better. “The boys just don’t get it, mom.” But opening up is natural for her. For me as well and most women I know. We are gatherers, nurturers. We even go to the bathroom in groups. You don't hear guys asking one another to go the bathroom together.

My 16-year-old son said he had lots of friends, too — but then added, somewhat casually, that he didn’t have a friend he would confide in. “Maybe one now,” he said.

I was shocked. My son has some very good and decent friends —and I’d always assumed they shared some level of emotional intimacy. How hard was it to go through middle school and high school without a single friend to open up to? I felt so sad for my son. Heartbroken, even.

Later, I asked him why he felt he couldn’t trust his friends enough to confide in them. He corrected me: It’s not that he didn’t trust his friends; it was just that they never talked about feelings or shared much about themselves. He also went on to say that “it’s not a big deal, it’s not what guys do” and that I was “extra.” I am sure that I can be, professional hazard.

I have written about my kids before. My 16yo son is an exceptional young man. His EQ is through the roof, and I was sure that he must have felt some level of loneliness because of that.

A lot has been written and discussed recently about the “crisis of masculinity.” If you want to broadly explore the issue, I highly recommend this podcast interview between Ezra Klein and researcher Richard Reeves, as well as this excellent Washington Post piece by Christine Emba.

Today I’m going to zero in on the specific issue of boys and friendships. Because what my son voiced to me is, in fact, a widespread phenomenon, and it has tragic implications.

Recent surveys find that both men and women today are suffering an epidemic of loneliness, but that the decline for men has been much steeper. Fifteen percent of men today say they have no close friendships, a fivefold increase since 1990. This helps to explain why suicide is so common among men.

I know it can be easy to scoff at the plight of boys and men today. I believe that supporting our boys in the right ways can have broad positive ramifications for society, for future families, because many of the world’s social problems are, at least in part, fueled by the toxic and gendered messages boys get throughout their lives. Helping boys, in other words, helps everyone.

It’s learned — not innate.

One big question I’ve had is why. Why do boys turn away from meaningful, deep friendships? The simple answer: It’s not them. It’s our culture. Their choices are a product of the infinite insidious messages our society sends boys about how to be male in our society — and, perhaps more crucially, how not to be male in our society.

I remember when my son was in 1st grade, and he got back to school after a week of being out sick. His classmates gave him the warmest welcome, with hugs and handwritten cards for him. I was so touched watching them at drop-off. The boys meaningfully connected with each other, both physically and emotionally.

But about halfway through 2nd grade, the dynamics of their friendships dramatically shifted. The boys became more emotionally guarded and began to shield the qualities that had marked their full presence and genuine engagement in relationships.

Given that the boys started school with such a rich capacity for connection — illustrating that boys do seek and enjoy emotional intimacy. This change was a reflection of the cultural messages the boys absorbed from others.

Niobe Way, an applied psychologist at NYU, has been studying boys and their friendships since 1987. She has observed that boys undergo another dramatic shift in relationships in adolescence. As she wrote in a 2013 paper: “Late adolescence for the boys in my studies is a time of disconnection from the relationships that they hold so close to their hearts. Rather than simply being a period of progress, adolescence, for these boys, is also a period of profound loss.”

When I speak to my boys, they teach me repeatedly that they have a rich capacity and need for connection throughout their lives just like my daughter.

They come into the world wanting what every human needs, connection. But then, during the teen years, they start to disconnect from what they know about themselves and disconnect from each other. Healthy adults have healthy relationships. This begins at infancy. This is God’s design.

The humanity of Jesus is as equally important as His divinity. Jesus was born as a human being while still being completely divine. The concept of the humanity of Jesus co-existing with His divinity is sometimes difficult for the finite mind of man to comprehend.

The humanity of Jesus enables Him to relate to us in a way the angels never can. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Only a human could sympathize with our weaknesses and temptations. In His humanity, Jesus was subjected to all similar kinds of trials that we are, and He is, therefore, able to sympathize with us and aid us. He was tempted; He was persecuted; He was poor; He was despised; He suffered physical pain; and He endured the sorrows of a lingering and most cruel death.

Only a human being could experience these things, and only a human being could fully understand them through experience. God sent His only son as the ultimate example to us. Our redeemer and our Savior was able to reach out and touch the lives of everyone He encountered here on earth in His short 3 year ministry through His raw emotion and love. He transformed mankind forever.

He serves as our example, providing a model for true human obedience and vulnerability.

But somehow, we lost sight of this. To give you an idea: A 2017 Equimundo report found that the more men believe that men should suppress their emotions, never ask for help, and act strong even when they feel scared, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, to have suicidal thoughts, and to engage in bullying and sexual harassment. It’s also worth noting that their loneliness often becomes an added burden for girls and women: Many males only open up to their girlfriends and wives, which means that women essentially become their partners’ therapists. Cue the future reactionary couples crisis counseling. I believe counseling should be normalized and proactive.

At first, I believed that my son (among many of the adolescents I counsel) was succumbing to these cultural pressures despite my best efforts to counteract them. I realized that boys are just trying to be included in the world of boys, not be marginalized. It’s just tragic that it comes with a cost.

Becoming part of the solution

What can we do to help boys seek and find meaningful connection in a world that doesn’t encourage it? Well, parents, you are their first teachers. This goes for your daughters as well.

1. Never lie to them. They are extremely smart and need truth more than protection.

2. Tell them you love them every single day.

3. Hug and kiss them. If they don’t receive physical affection, they won’t know how to give it.

4. “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” Allow them to get hurt. This teaches resilience.

5. Teach them about money, economics. Things they will never learn in school.

6. Teach them manners, eye contact and the value of a strong handshake. It should not be encouraged but expected.

7. Ask questions. Even if they get annoyed. Learn what they love, what they fear. Actively listening. Stay away from the lecturing. Be present.

8. Immerse yourself in their world. If they like sports, play sports with them. If they like video games, play video games. Build connection. Tip: I don't like either but I am there showing him how much I enjoy watching him play.

9. I am a big fan of dating your kids. One on one special time with your child. Light up when they walk into the room.

10. Discipline not punishment. Discipline comes from the word “disciple” “to teach.” You are their first teacher.

These are a few things we can do that help. Boys who have at least one parent who emotionally engages with them and offers them opportunities to deeply connect are more likely to maintain meaningful friendships throughout adolescence and healthy adult relationships in the future.

We normalize it by modeling it. We should talk about our own friendships and deep connections with others and be emotionally vulnerable with our children. We should ask questions of our kids — real questions that show our interest in understanding them and getting to know them deeply. When our sons make an attempt to connect with us or others or do or say things that are emotionally astute, we should praise them and show them that we value that behavior.

When we see our sons being vulnerable, or treating friends kindly, we should commend them. Really praise that with the same enthusiasm that we would for making a great goal on the soccer field.

Parents should also have explicit how-to conversations with boys on practical topics, such as: how to make friends, how to make plans with friends, and how to let friends know you care about them. As parents (myself included) we often assume that our kids have skills and knowledge we’ve never actually taught them. Considering that so many kids lost social opportunities during the pandemic, we should take extra steps to ensure that they have essential relationship-building skills.

Schools can do a lot to help boys, too. I am a big proponent of organized boys’ groups — regular meetings where a social worker or psychologist creates space for boys to share their feelings, connect with each other, and discuss deeper topics. These groups are powerful because the person leading them essentially gives boys permission to be emotionally vulnerable.

Middle school and high school boys are interested in talking about what it's like to be a boy today, and with a skilled facilitator, they will really open up. Sports coaches can be incredible facilitators for these types of conversations, too, but often do not have the training to feel comfortable doing it. I came upon this evidence-based program Coaching Boys Into Men that I recommend for any coaches, teachers and youth leaders to look into.

These interventions can also help ensure that boys don’t fall down the rabbit hole of toxic masculinity and the conflicting messages of gender confusion and gender fluidity that these kids are facing today.

Boys are looking for examples of how to be a man in the world. And when we don't proactively provide guidance and a place to talk about those issues, they're often going online and looking for the most visible examples — watching a lot of Andrew Tate videos and looking at examples of masculinity that are not so positive. So, I think there's a real place for facilitated groups to talk about these issues, and to have a have a safe place for boys to talk about what's on their mind and what's going on in their life with a little bit of guidance. But I encourage this at home first. Don't shy away from uncomfortable conversations.

To emphasize: Investing in our boys can help everyone. Of course, we need to be supporting our girls in myriad ways, too — and we have a lot of work to do on that front as well. But by giving boys permission and opportunities to experience emotional intimacy with others, we can help fulfill their needs and ensure that they grow up to be happier, healthier, and more invested in building deeper relationships and stronger homes. This strengthens families.

I want to leave you with a thought that struck me. In Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, Donald Macleod makes this comment about Jesus' suffering that reveals His humanity:

Pontius Pilate was the climax, not the commencement, of [Jesus’] suffering. It is tempting to surmise that because of Jesus’ inner strength He was able to rise early above the pressures and continue on His way unruffled and serene. But Jesus’ endurance and courage were not those of the insensitive and unfeeling. The pressure hurt, and sometimes there were tears John 11:35, sometimes anger Mark 3:5, and sometimes an almost mortal sorrow Mark 14:34. This is what undergirds the sympathy highlighted in Hebrews 4:15: Jesus was tested in every way, just as we are.

Christ's example gives us permission to feel and the ability to love.

Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate runs the Christian Center for Counseling and works with adolescent and adult clients in individual, couples & family therapy. Her personal philosophy is that through human connection, we can foster the encouragement needed to take courageous steps toward creating positive change. She uses evidenced based and strengths-based approaches & believes in the inherent ability of everyone to overcome when they are willing to step into their potential. Therapy illuminates the path so the client can make conscious steps towards emotional health. Her attitude is one of respect and acceptance of each client’s individuality, allowing for the creation of a safe, therapeutic space. Silvia serves with Coptic Women Fellowship, an archdiocese ministry focused on enriching, supporting, and strengthening the lives of women, along with the clergy and several accomplished women of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.


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