I knew a young man who, at seventeen was bright, sociable and fun loving. One night he drank beer and smoked cannabis and got on a friend’s 800cc Yamaha without a crash helmet. He accelerated the bike into the nearest stationary car. He died.
Why do young men take such needless risks?
In The Male Brain, Louann Brizendine suggests that young men have a problem. On the one hand, the development of ‘the activating system’ in the brain, including the amygdale, fuel young men’s sense of adventure. On the other hand, their prefrontal cortex, the command and control centre of the brain, haven’t developed sufficiently to rein in their exuberance for life. In fact the prefrontal cortex doesn’t mature fully in men until their early twenties. Risk taking, though worrying for parents, has its advantages. Young men’s risk taking often means they are “societies purveyors of new ideas” (p. 46).
If we are lucky as young men, we have authority figures in who we love and respect to set boundaries for us. We may not like it, but they keep us safe.
Risk taking is not the only drama in a young man’s life. At the point girls learn to talk and connect with each other, boys are preoccupied with the dominance hierarchy of other boys and men. Young men are extremely competitive with each other, which is great if you can find a niche, like sport, fashion, or attracting girls. But for many young men they feel they do not measure up. Just as there are winners in the scramble for dominance, there are just as money losers. These young men risk becoming the victims of bullies, and suffering a lifetime of low self esteem as a result.
Boys of course, stop talking when they become teens. They often stop talking to parents but also to each other. This can be a painful and socially isolated time for a young mind. If life is charmed, and you have no problems, you’ll probably come out unscathed. But if you are not so lucky, you may feel you have an intolerable burden of pain to bear … alone.
If this wasn’t enough, there is sex … or more to the point, masturbation. Young men are often reported to masturbate on average three times a day. A fact some young men wear as a badge of honor, but more frequently, as their terrible dirty secret. They feel guilty, as if it were only happening to them. Their reticence and feelings about sexuality often stay with young men for a life time.
Teenage brains also slow down in their ability to learn. During puberty, navigating around somewhere new, learning a language or detecting errors becomes harder. Often boys are also simply bored. This is at a time when the pressure is increased to learn and gain academic achievement.
There is a worrying trend in boy’s for them to opt out of academic achievement. For many boys doing well at school is not cool. Boy’s significantly under perform at GCSE level and gain fewer places in higher education then girls. Not doing well at school means young men underperform in the work place too, leaving them alienated from a consumption society.
It’s so easy to see why so many young men feel frustrated, angry and alone, and act out their feelings in bad behavior, or succumb to drug and alcohol abuse, or reach out to gangs where they at least find some self esteem. Of course this makes them noticed, but labeled delinquent.
The institution of the State that takes up the slack is the criminal justice system. There has to be a more humane way of helping young men navigate the drama of being a teen.
Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK. He offers:
Dr Tyson is also regularly quoted in the printed media and as a guest on local and national broadcast media.