Boys are activity-oriented and like sports, while girls are relationship-oriented and like to talk about their feelings —right? Well, yes and no. Many boys do enjoy sports and girls often do talk about their feelings. But it’s not that simple. Boys also like to talk about their feelings — especially with and about their best friends. My studies over the past twenty years with hundreds of boys -- of all races throughout adolescence -- reveal that boys are as relationship-oriented as girls. They not only want male friendships in which they can share their deep secrets, they often have them, especially during early and middle adolescence.
A 15-year-old boy who participated in my studies said, “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.”
Yet as boys reach adulthood, 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. As they reach their late teens, boys also become more isolated and lonely and, according to national data, are five times more likely to commit suicide than girls.
Is having fewer friends as boys get older a red flag for parents? Absolutely. We need to worry about this pattern of loss because decades of research, including my own survey-based research, reveal that close friendships are associated with better emotional and physical health as well as academic engagement and achievement.
Adolescents without close friendships are at risk for depression, suicide, dropping out of school, early pregnancy, drug use, and gang membership. Health researchers find that adults with strong friendships are less likely than others to get colds and other common illnesses, and are at lower risk of death.
In other words: having close friendships really is good for you.
So how can we help our sons maintain their close friendships and stay emotionally healthy? The first step is to recognize their social and emotional nature. The second step is to encourage this essential part of their nature. And here are six actions parents can take to support the emotional health of their 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 – friendships that are mutually supportive.
5. Talk about feelings at the dinner table. Make such discussions a normal part of the daily routine.
6. Talk about your own friendships. Hearing about your friendships will help your son understand the benefits and complexities of friendships.
Niobe Way, author of "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection" (Harvard University Press, 2011), is a professor of Applied Psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She is also president of the Society for Research on Adolescence.