20 August 2018

Parenting Corner: Boys, brains, and anxiety

Posted in Family life / Youth issues

By Steve Biddulph AM

Once upon a time people thought men were tough and thick-skinned, while women were tender and sensitive. But research into the development of boys shows that it’s males who are the vulnerable sex.

When a boy baby is still in the womb, his body starts making its own testosterone.  This helps him grow his male features, but it also has a remarkable effect on brain growth: it slows it down!

This means that by the time he is born, he is less developed than a baby girl.  And the difference continues — by age five there is a 20 month gap in the development of some parts of his brain compared to his sisters.

This is the reason why most girls are ready for school at five, but many boys are not.

When a brain grows more slowly, it is more vulnerable to hazards of every kind.  A recent large-scale study by Alan Schore*, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, concluded that boy babies are much more prone to stress and anxiety in their first year of life.

It’s possible, Schore suggests, that many of the problems we see in men in society — family violence, crime, suicide, divorce through marital conflict — are actually driven by anxiety patterns laid down in that first year.

When a mother or father are not able to give calm, good-humoured and warm care to an infant boy, that boy’s brain does not grow properly in the regions which help to self-regulate emotion.

He may become more aggressive, exhibit hyperactive behaviour, and have trouble thinking clearly under stress.

Perhaps most problem males are not bad, but seriously anxious.

Males are nine times more likely to go to jail than females, three times more likely to become an addict, and three times more likely to die before age 25.

Those are terrible statistics that we have to do something about.

Chaplains and counsellors working in schools find that forming a strong reassuring bond with boys with behaviour disorders is the first step to helping calm them and teach coping skills.

The old ways of just punishing and chastising children who were already on a negative path clearly made anxiety worse, and so made the problems worse.

Ultimately we need to care better for young parents, so that they can provide a calm environment for their babies — both before and after they are born.

We have so much trouble with males in this world, and giving them a loving start will help us raise far safer, stronger men.

*Schore, A.N.  All our sons: the developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk.. Infant Ment Health J. 2017 Jan;38(1):15-52.

Steve Biddulph is the author of 10 Things Girls Need Most, Raising Girls, Raising Boys,Complete Secrets of Happy Children, and The New Manhood.

For more information visit stevebiddulph.com.

Jennifer Kerr

Media and Communications Administrator


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