About last night: I’ve lost my sweet little boys to testosterone

Australian scientists have discovered that an early stage of puberty known as adrenarche, which children go through at about eight or nine years of age, may be responsible for emotional and behavioural problems in boys.We have sons aged 11, 14 and 17. My partner isn’t prone to anger or aggression. My sons have changed from sweet, vulnerable little boys to surly young men who act macho around their mates, and often resolve issues with a punch or a scuffle.  They love action movies, shoot-’em-up games, and hip-hop. How can we make sure they don’t become violent men?

In an article about sexism and racism, Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys and The New Manhood, explained the evolutionary factors that form “part of a deep and dangerous problem … profoundly tied up in being male. It has been said that we have paleolithic bodies, neolithic brains, medieval institutions and modern problems … we have to go right back to the roots of male biology. For humans, like all social animals, hierarchy is a hard-wired phenomenon that is very hard to shake off.  We evolved both to co-operate, but also to compete. In balance these two forces worked fine: just as in any herd or flock, things settled down when everyone had their place. High status males had greater reproductive advantage  … Belonging was essential to survival, the risk of exclusion was a terrifying one. Shame – being humiliated or devalued – evolved in males into an almost life-threateningly negative emotion, one which men or boys would do anything to avoid.”

Puberty is the time when sexual differentiation occurs. Society treats gender as binary, and ascribes values to each. We call masculine girls “tomboys”, and less masculine boys “effeminate” – value-laden labels implying that femininity is inferior to masculinity.

Transgender people experience a dissonance between the body they inhabit, and the gender ascribed to that body. Under hormone therapy oestrogen softens skin and causes breast development. Testosterone deepens the voice and produces facial hair. These hormones also cause emotional changes. Testosterone is often associated with increased anger. This is also reported by women using testosterone to treat low libido.

Right now, the gender divide has degenerated into an unedifying “all men are bastards” versus  “all women are bitches” stand-off. Remember that we are all, primarily, human beings. Some of us inhabit an oestrogen-rich body (ORB), some, a testosterone-rich body (TRB).

A TRB has greater physical strength, and can get angry more readily. Team this with social gender values, and the dominant-male terror of being shamed, and it can make for a volatile situation.

At puberty, children undergo physical, emotional, and social challenges, while finding their place in the hierarchy. Many temporarily adopt an exaggerated version of traditional gender characteristics. For a TRB, this is the age of risk-taking, dare-devilry, punch-ups, and competitiveness.

Getting a TRB through adolescence alive and in one piece is an achievement.

Childhood forms the foundation on which we build our adult selves. Children need parental love, support, succour and guidance, as well as models of desirable adult behaviour – respect, co-operation, and positive communication. Fathers, and TRB role models, play an invaluable role in showing young people how to behave.

Your sons might appear to be going feral, but keep calm. Keep the channels of communication open, talking about topics as they arise – sexism, violent conflict, popular culture. Express your views, and listen to their responses. They need conversation, not a lecture. Try not to give the impression that you reject them, or men and their differences, when your opinions differ. Most importantly, let them know that you trust them to become decent adults.

You are competing with popular culture. Movies targeted at young men promote “might is right” and “kicking ass”. Popular music glamourises unhealthy gender roles and attitudes, especially around sexuality. In the short-term, your side looks pretty tame and uncool. This is an age of questioning, and rebellion.

However, society has rules and values designed to enable us to live together in large communities.  Most adults move beyond adolescent behaviour. If their childhood has been positive, most people come back to a version of the values with which they were raised, modified to suit them as individuals.

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