A recent study conducted by the University of California San Francisco and Princeton looked into the primary reasons a boy became an adult criminal. The results showed that income and privileges were significantly less of a factor than the influence of family structure during the adolescent years. Homes with a biological father or a strong paternal presence improved the young male’s chances of living a life free of criminal involvement and incarceration.
The rise in juvenile arrests for homicides and other assaults in the past decade is alarming. The above referenced study makes the connection to the increased rate of divorce and the decreased exposure of young males to positive role models. Men participating in the study samples repeatedly spoke of feeling abandoned and alone and how their feelings were ignored or negated during their formative years.
The normal stages of male development are challenging to the most attentive fathers. Conflict generally increases as independence and the desire for privacy and autonomy clash with authority. Friends and social relationships take on new importance and higher influence reducing the quality and quantity of time spent with family. The natural forces of opposition and obstinance surface and cause the limits of rules and wits to be tested. New interests and role models start to replace those of childhood and arguments and disagreements are often the order of the day.
The way a father responds to these conflicts is critical but even the most enlightened of dads is likely to revert to his own experience in managing disputes, both as a boy and a man. The problem with letting the past determine our future is that mistakes and failures are repeated in the cycle of family dynamics. Understanding the differences in male and female conflict style is a healthy place to begin creating a model for addressing the inevitability of problems with the adolescent male while still placing value on the individual and the relationship.
Females (typically) set a higher priority on conversation and working toward mutual resolution of problems. We like win-win and have a tendency to forfeit the game if it will preserve feelings and minimize harm to relationships. Males (again, generally) see conflict as a competition or opportunity to display dominance. If opinions and ideas differ between males, the other side is viewed as an opponent or trespasser, of sorts; and the ideal outcome is to emerge victorious and therefore, dominant. Often this status is achieved by shutting down discussion and discrediting the opponent.
When a man who has been socialized to deal with conflict in this way meets up with a verbally aggressive adolescent they will both be intent on winning. The youngster, outranked and forced to retreat, will use the experience as an opportunity to revise the plan of attack and... power struggles damage relationships.
Before a disagreement becomes an argument or an inquiry becomes a personal accusation, consider handling it as an opportunity to communicate and possibly change the course of the future. Treating a son with respect and emotional support does not mean abdicating your role as disciplinarian and authority. Serving the best interest of the young men who will be the fathers of the future requires us to set aside some of our own. Entering a discussion with an open mind prepared to listen and withhold judgment and criticism will open the lines of communication. Honestly seeking to understand and not dominate or control will place value on what the young man has to say and will build bridges instead of walls.