Tween Boys' Development

From the toddler years through puberty, boys develop more slowly than girls. On average, boys walk and talk a few months later. They complete potty training and other developmental milestones more slowly. It takes them longer to learn to express their emotions appropriately, control their behavior, and comply with adult requests. Boys are more active and aggressive and less rule-bound than little girls even during the toddler years.

By the time school begins, the differences between boys and girls are more pronounced. The motor activity, frustration tolerance, impulsiveness, verbal fluency, fine motor coordination, and emotional maturity of the typical first-grade boy are on a par with the average kindergarten girl, so school presents more of a challenge. Boys' greater interest in activities requiring lots of physical movement may enable them to hold their own in recess and gym, but girls are ahead of boys in every school subject except arithmetic, where boys and girls are about equal. Boys' early struggles can readily create a sense of failure, which persists throughout their school careers.

Parents often resist having their child repeat a year in school or attend special education for fear of stigmatizing him, yet parents tend to be the worst offenders. If you feel good about your child's need for extra help and time, and advise him about how to respond to questions from peers, his social problems should be minimal.

The first signs that boys are approaching the physical milestone known as puberty are an enlarging of the testes and a thinning and reddening of the scrotum, which occur between ages nine and fourteen, with the average being age eleven. Meanwhile, the first signs of puberty for girls occur a year earlier. Girls' growth spurt takes place at age twelve, while boys' sudden stretch doesn't usually start until age thirteen. Only at puberty do boys forge ahead of their female classmates in math. They close the other educational gaps in college; but even as adults, men have more difficulty in the interpersonal and emotional realms.

Developmental Needs

Developmentally, tween boys need an adult male to emulate, but one-third live with single mothers, and the majority live in households where mothers bear the primary responsibility for child rearing. In addition, most boys are in classrooms headed by female teachers, and everything from the school rules to the way the lessons are taught are more suited to girls. Specifically, the emphasis on sitting still, talking quietly, being neat, cooperating, persisting, and concentrating for extended periods is better suited to the average girl than to the average boy. Boys' greater need for physical activity, preference for competitive activities, and aggressiveness don't fit well with modern classrooms. As a group, female teachers and mothers have difficulty understanding and managing boy-style anger and aggression, and many boys are unwilling to accept lessons in comportment and manners from females.

Boys don't fit well with modern lifestyles in general, since sending them outside for free play and to get the vigorous exercise they so desperately need is not an option in many neighborhoods. It's not surprising that boys are reprimanded and criticized far more than girls and are punished more severely at home as well as at school.

Gender Differences in Emotional Development

When it comes to dealing with emotions, boys are at a disadvantage. They have a harder time identifying their own emotions as well as those of others. Just how hard becomes apparent when children are shown pictures of faces bearing different expressions and are asked what the people in the pictures are feeling. Boys misread them, while even very young girls score as well as adults.

This may be due to physical differences in brain structure, since boys' brains are less reactive to emotionally charged situations. The centers of the brain that process emotions are smaller in boys, and they have fewer of those all-important connections that enable them to process feeling states.

Women's brains may have developed better physical capabilities for processing emotional information because throughout the ages, women have played the central role in nurturing children. Modern boys need to be experts at handling emotions, too. Since identifying and coping with feelings may be more difficult for them, they need intensive help.

Boys' difficulty in recognizing their feelings and emotions, which is the first step to learning to control them, may also be due to the fact that adults provide them with less emotional instruction. From birth on, parents spend significantly less time discussing feelings with their boys than with girls and are less sympathetic, compassionate, and helpful when they do talk to them.

Adults are more likely to respond to tearful boys of every age by telling them not to cry, while they ask tearful girls what is making them sad and provide support, reassurance, or comfort to shore them up. Adults tell boys that they are silly to be afraid, but they give detailed explanations to help girls approach a fearsome situation, person, or object. Adults also provide emotional support and encouragement when girls try to be brave and praise them for their courage afterward, while they ridicule and shame boys for having felt afraid in the first place.

Boys are ordered not to hit, yell, or otherwise overpower an adversary, and they are punished if they continue. Girls, on the other hand, are helped to consider an adversary's feelings and point of view and are given suggestions as to what to do and say when they are angry. Adults yell at boys for being too rowdy when too much excitement causes their behavior to deteriorate, but they help girls redirect and channel problematic behavior by encouraging them toward an alternate activity.

Teaching Anger Management

Boys' difficulties identifying their feelings and using words to express themselves make it hard for them to ask questions and explain their problems in ways that others can readily understand. Since people who cannot talk about their feelings tend to act them out, and since boys are primed to act rather than talk to begin with, it is important to teach boys basic anger-management skills.

The first step is to help them identify what they are feeling at the moment. You can do this by simply saying, “You are feeling angry (frustrated, jealous, afraid, cranky, worried, lonely, proud, loving, excited).” The next step is to provide support and reassurance via a hug or words of comfort and encouragement. For instance: “I know you really want to watch a video right now.” Just having someone empathize with them can often reduce their aggression. The third step is to teach boys how to express their feelings in an acceptable manner. For example: “Maybe punching your punching bag will help you get some of your anger out.”

Be sure your boy has ways to discharge anger, such as a punching bag to punch, a beanbag chair to wrestle with, or something he can safely throw stones at. Parents may not appreciate the noise, but asking your son to step outside and yell at the top of his lungs can help him, too.

Counting to ten and taking several deep breaths are good ways to calm down. Pounding a pillow, clobbering a tree stump with a bat, and ripping up a phone book are good ways to discharge tension. So is drawing an ugly picture of whomever they are mad at and ripping it to shreds.

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