The world of teen boys is one that many people assume is very simple: make some friends, have some laughs, eat plenty of French fries and pizza pops, and enjoy life to the utmost. As we get older and become parents ourselves, it can be very easy to long for those apparent carefree days where life seemed so simple. As I am reminded on an almost daily basis however, life for teen boys is anything BUT simple most of the time, and carries with it a minefield of emotions, social norms, and other complexities to be negotiated. It is no wonder that behaviours and reactions we see from our own teen boys in the house at times seem to change in the blink of an eye, and without easy explanation.

Have you ever experienced a colourful array of door-slamming, impatience with the simplest of requests (“I’m not washing any more of these stupid dishes!”), or laughing at the misfortune of others? Recent data suggests there are some predictable reasons for these and many other challenges with emotions as teen boys grow. First, brain development in teens is still in process well into the teen years, and the centres of cognitive thinking and emotional regulation may not be fully completed until the age of 21. At one point, science believed that brain development was essentially complete close to the age of 12, and certainly by 14 or 15 years of age. Such is not the case; the development of the important quality of empathy for others is often not truly present until after 16.

When there are biological reasons for boys to be less empathetic toward the challenges faced by others, it can be easier to understand their sometimes caustic reactions when being asked to support those in need, for example. However, the complexity of the teenage boy’s world goes further still: their friends and peers at school and in the community may further restrict their ability to truly advance toward emotional maturity, even if their brains have developed enough to allow this maturity to occur. How does this happen?

Male culture during the teen years is unique and much more complex that some give it credit for. Primarily, middle and high school years involve seeking out and gaining membership in a group of peers, and having their needs to belong met. A quick glimpse into the world of a middle school will usually show that things haven’t changed much in the last 50 years in this way – most boys hunger to be accepted by their peers, and if that means compromising their own values in a manageable way, then such is a price many boys are willing to pay. After all, is there a more frightening scenario for a 13-year-old than to be alone in a large school, and be more susceptible to being picked on or bullied as a result?

This in turn means that boys have an amazing capacity to act in ways that may seem completely foreign to parents or even long-time friends. During my days as a middle school teacher, it was an almost daily occurrence to observe someone, usually a boy on his own or with limited social connections, be picked on simply because a peer group leader saw this as appropriate, or encouraged others within the group to do so. Suddenly, a young man who was by all other standards polite and respectful toward others in general could become cruel and unfriendly in a given moment. He doesn’t have the ability and/or willingness to step away and say (to himself or others) “Guys, that’s not cool, leave him alone”.

One of the toughest parts of being a teacher or parent is helping a teen boy to develop and live by his own clear sense of right and wrong. It can be a frustrating practice, and we can at times be surprised and shocked to see what boys can do to each other simply out of a need to belong to a larger group of peers. This is particularly so when we feel we only have time for “sound-bite” parenting, and giving advice such as “go out and do the right thing” while hoping he has the ability to act on this fast, over-simplified comment. Engaging our boys in activities and conversations that are meaningful to them help us to meet them on their level, and empathize with the challenges and divided loyalties they can often feel. When we do so, we invite a valuable dialogue that can go on for years, provide answers to understanding how to honour ourselves when presented with challenges with peers, and deepen our connection for a lifetime!