Many boys struggle with maintaining close friendships with one another during adolescence

Explore more about these struggles and ways adults can support the healthy relationships that boys desire and need.

Wanting to have close, intimate and healthy relationships is part of what makes us human, and these kinds of connections are essential to our overall well-being. In fact, many studies have shown that people who have positive social relationships and close friendships live longer and healthier lives. While some people may struggle with building and maintaining these kinds of relationships, researcher Niobe Way stresses that these struggles are especially prevalent in the lives of adolescent boys. By learning more about what she calls this “crisis of connection,” Way says that parents, educators and other caring adults can find important opportunities to nurture boys’ innate desires and capacities for close friendships with one another.

Way, the author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, has studied the social and emotional development of boys for three decades. In a recent webcast provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health, Way talked about boys’ consistent reports of sadness over losing close friendships, and she described some of the things that influence their struggles to develop and maintain loving and emotional connections with other boys. These include cultural messages and norms about masculinity that begin to play a larger role during early adolescence in how boys view both themselves and each other. Boys report that they risk being labeled as “girly,” “gay” or “childish” if they express a desire for close relationships with other boys and if they share vulnerable feelings with them. Boys also struggle with cultural norms about maturity as they move through adolescence. This is in response to messages that boys and men are supposed to be self-sufficient, independent, stoic and able to take care of themselves – as opposed to having characteristics that reflect community, connections to others, caring and empathy.

To address this crisis of connection, Way stresses that adults must be willing to talk about how normal it is for people of all ages – including adolescent boys – to want to be part of close and caring friendships. When boys hear this message, it opens the doors for them to talk about their own vulnerabilities and desires for connection. In turn, having these kinds of conversations with boys helps adults to recognize the emotional intelligence and perceptions that boys already possess related to these issues. You can also use the following kinds of strategies to support and nurture boys around these issues.

Challenge gender stereotypes

The work of brain researchers such as Lise Eliot has shown that boys and girls (and men and women) are much more similar than they are different in their core capacities related to social and emotional intelligence. Whenever anyone says that girls tend to be “feelers” and boys tend to be “thinkers,” respond that both feeling and thinking are valuable human qualities that all people draw from. Also be willing to explore and challenge your own beliefs, attitudes and behaviors related to gender, gender expression, and notions of masculinity and femininity. Think about the messages you may consciously or unconsciously convey in the language you use with and about boys and girls that might reflect narrow conceptions of gender.

Talk with young people about sexual orientation and homophobic language

If boys express concerns about being described as gay when they talk about the desire for close relationships with one another, be willing to have conversations with them about the differences between a person’s sexual orientation and the needs that all people have for close and caring friendships – including same-sex friendships. In addition, if you hear young people (or adults) use homophobic language to describe others, be willing to interrupt and challenge that behavior.

Provide boys with settings that promote healthy friendships and a sense of community

Way stressed that it’s not enough for boys to have places where they can just “hang out.” They need opportunities to spend quality time with one another where they can be vulnerable with and supportive of each another. This can happen under the guidance of programs lead by caring adults (such as teachers, coaches, youth group leaders and faith leaders) in settings where boys can develop and sustain relationships over time. Within these programs and settings, adults and youth can have ongoing dialogue about healthy relationships, and they can work in partnership to ensure that the environment is safe and welcoming for everyone.

Invest in family activities that promote boys’ friendships

Starting when they’re very young, boys take in messages about what it means to be a boy or man in our culture – including messages about males’ relationships. By talking with boys early on about what you value in friendships and other kinds of relationships, it will help keep these kinds of conversations going as boys move through adolescence. Fathers and other male family members can provide boys with models of their own same-sex friendships, as well as conversations about what it takes to maintain these friendships and handle conflicts within these relationships. During the middle school and high school years, find ways to nourish boys’ friendships by inviting friends to spend time at your home and to be part of family gatherings and outings.

As stressed by Way, boys’ healthy friendships not only contribute to their positive health and well-being, these relationships help prevent risky outcomes such as drug use and poor academic achievement. To learn more about Way’s research, view the recording of the 30-minute webcast. In addition, you may be interested in resources provided by Michigan State University Extension related to the social and emotional health of young people. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and inclusive settings.

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