Finding The Lost Boys

Neal Brodsky , MPA, MA, LMFT – (Originally published in the November 2012 edition of the East Coast Sandplay Journal which is now the journal of the Association for the Healing Power of the Imagination)

As a family therapist who works with boys, I have noticed a few things that may be of value to you as parents or caregivers of adolescents.

To begin, I am the father of two sons, now in their twenties. For much of their lives, I was a non-custodial Dad, divorced, living separately from my sons and then remarried, bringing a step-mom and stepsister into a sometimes blended and sometimes not-so-blended family mix.

Much of what I have learned about boys has been in my own individual therapy as I contacted the “inner-boy” of my own childhood, and through the treatment of your kids. You should also know that my own boys, adopted at birth, were first the sons of other men and women whose sacrifice in giving birth and relinquishing their own blood to the hope of a better future, I honor as I hope my sons honor. So I come to this topic today as something of a “Stranger In A Strange Land” and on another level as a professional with great curiosity and caring for what is working today in the raising of sons and what is not.

Here is what I am seeing.

First, many of these boys, while often sweet of demeanor, hold a powerful amount of anger and frustration inside. Many lack confidence that they are coming of age in a world that makes much sense. They hope to have a purpose in something important, yet often have their doubts and fears that this will be possible. Often yearning inside for direct, human contact, they are being raised more and more in the distancing fog of an electronic world.

That world is populated by a hypnotically enticing convergence of video games, cell phones, social networking and ever more fast-paced movies and television – all increasingly available at the turn of a head or the touch of a button. At its best, all this can open up new worlds and vistas. Yet the electronic world promotes a certain shallowness of relationship and relational skills. As many of you now know, infinitely more compelling to your teen, is the gaming partner across the globe or the friend texting from around the corner – more real than the distraction of a face-to-face relationship with you, with a sibling…and initially with me as their therapist.

My sense is that electronic stimuli when delivered at numbingly high speed to growing brains and bodies drags kids into a kind of “flight or fight arousal” and in the aftermath of use, to a sense of deadness – something teens call “boredom.” The imprint of this cycle may contribute to a conflictual style of relating, a compulsive need for stimulation and a variety of other issues. This underscores the value of intervening with young people early because the complaints of “being stuck” that our adult clients come to us with, ranging from relationship issues to challenges with food, sex, alcohol, drugs and work are both rooted and shrouded in ways of being first formed and embraced in youth.

I have come to see all of this as a product of an American Dream gone awry and out of balance. For kids and adults, it can be a lonely chasm in which we find ourselves, amid the products on which we alternately gorge and later, unsatisfied -- the emptiness against which we are constantly self-medicating, leading us into ever greater levels of consumption.

If any of what I have said so far strikes a chord, you may be asking, “How can I contribute to fostering a climate in which my son can grow?”

First, I would say that the speed at which these boys are living combined with the underlying message – that their true value lies in what they can “game the system for,” or otherwise attain and then consume needs to be addressed. Further, the concept that individual achievement at any cost is the name of the game they will be practicing as adults needs to be challenged directly.

I graduated from one of the top high schools in the country, and saw the results of unbridled competition when my sixteen year-old friend, having been admitted to Harvard, attended for awhile, then came back to his parent’s New York City apartment and promptly jumped off their roof. That image has always stuck with me and I recently spoke at my old school where the kids strike me as even more stressed today then we were.

I urge you, if you haven’t been doing this already, to continually give your son the message that achievement needs to be balanced with other values that can include service and giving back to others, creative outlets in the arts, and yes, some connection with spirituality – that perhaps we are a part of something greater than we may know or see at any given moment.

Second, I urge you to encourage activities that will get your son outdoors into the natural world, away from the seductive magnetism of his virtual universe. When I see clients, the therapy space, can as needed, extend with views to the outdoors. When the weather allows, I sometimes walk outside with my clients.

Third, how is your son with emotional expression?

What has been termed “emotional fluency,” beginning with expressiveness around “likes,” “dislikes” and moving in intensity towards sadness, frustration, fears, pain, hopes and dreams can be transformational. When channeled well, learning emotional expression can help a boy constructively build his life, moving effectively and powerfully into young adulthood.

Without grounding and a sense of proportion, emotions inevitably reach the boiling point, sometimes coming out explosively or seeming to fizzle out. Either way, they are deeply impressed into and held in the body. That’s the reason my family practice now includes expressive body-centered work where we can move therapy beyond talk, using movement and energy to “build the container” for emotional expression and fluency, allowing what has been covered over to be expressed and moved through in a therapeutic context. While this is not always the case, I have noticed that girls are often, at first, more fluent in the emotional arena than boys. From the other part of my practice, I can tell you that the ability to work through emotions in difficult situations can help people of any gender and sexual preference to stay the course in committed relationships, and happily so.

Finally, I’d like to say a few more words about achievement.

We live in an area of the country where people are often high-achievers and we expect or hope for similar as we look at our kids. Yet, what is the lasting legacy we would leave them? Who is this boy before you? What are the individual, special gifts he has been graced with?

Is the rush toward achievement in school, sports and even in creative arenas such as performance and the arts where your boy needs to be today? Or does he need some downtime and rest for a while; recuperating so his next step may be a wise one? Lao Tzu, the Chinese Philosopher is reputed to have said: “If you do not change direction, you are likely to end up where you are heading.”

Ask for a moment – in which direction is my son going? Does he know his true value, and has he learned something about what is really important in life? I love kids. I remember being one. And I love coaching them into their individual genius and collective wisdom. One day soon, they’ll be running the world. I’d like to think when we’re gone, they’ll be doing the best job they can and living a life they love.

Neal Brodsky is a Marriage & Family Therapist in private practice with offices in Fairfield County, Connecticut and Manhattan. Contact him at 203-644-3960 or [email protected]

In Grief & Hope - The Lessons of Sandy Hook: An Addendum to "Finding the Lost Boys"
written ten days after the Sandy Hook School Massacre in December 2012

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