Boys are less emotional than girls, and less likely to want or have intimate friendships in which they share secrets. Right? Well, not really. My studies over the past twenty years with hundreds of boys throughout adolescence reveal a different truth: that boys are deeply emotional, empathic, and as relationship-oriented as girls are. Boys not only want intimate male friendships, they often have them during early and middle adolescence. Unfortunately, however, they begin to lose these close ties during late adolescence and become more depressed and isolated.
Consider this response from a 15-year-old boy who participated in my studies: “My best friend and I love each other:.that’s it:.you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other. It just happens. It’s human nature.”
Male friendships, according to my studies, sound more like out of the plot of Love Story than Lord of the Flies. Yet as boys reach manhood, they begin to lose their closest male friends and become less willing to be emotionally expressive because they associate these qualities with being female or gay. They also become more isolated and lonely and, according to national data, five times more likely to commit suicide than girls.
So why should we be concerned about these patterns of the loss of friendships? Decades of research, including my own survey-based research, reveal that close friendships – or friendships that entail emotional support – provide a sense of self-worth, validation, and connectedness. Having close friendships has been consistently linked with emotional and physical well-being as well as academic engagement and achievement. Adolescents without close friendships are at risk of depression, suicide, dropping out of school, early pregnancy, drug use, and gang membership.
And among adult men and women, researchers have shown that those who have close friendships or strong social support networks are less prone to depression and have longer lives. Similarly, friendships have been found to be more predictive of physical health than spouses or extended family members. In a six-year study of 736 middle-aged men, attachment to a single person did not lower the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, whereas having close friendships and a strong social support network did. Health researchers find that people with strong friendships are less likely than others to get colds and other common illnesses and epidemiologists have repeatedly found that people with fewer friends are at higher risk of death.
So how can we help boys maintain their close friendships and stay emotionally healthy? The first step is to recognize the social and emotional nature of all humans, and not just girls, women, and gay men. The second step is to foster and encourage this essential part of our nature. How do we do that? Here are eight steps we can take as parents to support our sons:
1. Be careful not to reinforce gender stereotypes by making comments such as, “Big boys don’t cry.”
2. Encourage empathy. Let your son know that he will get more respect from his peers if he sticks up for the person who is being bullied.
3. Model healthy close relationships for your children.
4. Help your son create and maintain close friendships. Sharing feelings with his best friend does not make him girly or gay. It’s what most boys do.
5. Talk about feelings at the dinner table.
6. Ask your son about his friendships (and not just about who you do not want him to be friends with).
7. Talk about your own friendships with your son as well. Hearing about your friendships will help your son understand the benefits and complexities of friendships.
8. Emphasize the importance of making good choices in friendships. Help your son understand that true friendships are those in which the support is mutual and the friendship helps each partner achieve his or her goals.