To end violence against teen girls, start with teen boys
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written byAmye Archer, MFA
Last updated: 08/03/2023
“I’m not in the business of defending all boys,” says Cheryl*, who has twin 20-year-old sons. “But I do find myself having to say ‘My boys aren’t like that’ constantly, and it’s exhausting. It’s like people expect them to be violent or angry, and mine aren’t.”
Those expectations may be frustrating, but they’re not unfounded. A record-high number of teens are struggling with their mental health, and this crisis is playing out differently across genders. Teen girls are reporting more sadness and depression, and in a 2021 CDC survey of high school students, 20% of girls reported having been sexually assaulted.1, 2 Teen boys, meanwhile, are much more likely to be the ones committing violent acts.3
From the time my own teenage daughters started to go places without me, I talked to them about potential dangers. Never be with a group of boys by yourself, always meet a new boy in public for the first time, always walk in pairs—many women learn these rules growing up, and we understand inherently that they’re meant to protect us from the violence of men.
Ultimately, though, protecting teen girls means addressing the underlying threat they face: a society that fosters anger and isolation among boys and young men. What does it feel like to be raising sons and reckoning with those forces every day?
Combating violence with curiosity and therapy
Not only is Cheryl battling outside influences in keeping her sons from turning to anger and aggression, but she also escaped an abusive marriage to their father when they were very small. She did her best to shield her boys from the violence, but she still fears that it somehow seeped into their psyches.
So when her son Anthony* started acting out around middle school, Cheryl noticed right away. “He was being mean and treating his brother harshly. Nothing crazy, but it was just out of character for him,” she says. “The smallest things seemed to get bigger reactions from him than necessary. I knew it was time to talk to our therapist and intervene.”
Cheryl’s sons have been in therapy regularly since they were young, so they have some experience communicating their feelings. “But they’re still boys, and they struggle with vulnerability like we all do,” Cheryl says. She knew she had to approach Anthony’s change in behavior carefully. “If I just yelled, he would go to his room and slam the door,” she says. “So I started questioning him—maybe harshly at times, but it seemed to work, especially if I did it with his therapist there.”
Therapist and author Kenneth V. Hardy, PhD, recommends approaching teens through this pathway of curiosity rather than condemnation, which can shame your child and cause them to shut down. Curiosity works because “it allows the young person, and young males in particular, to unpack some of their embedded sexism without feeling defensive,” says Hardy.
Signs your son may be struggling
Anyone who’s raised a teenager knows it can be a fool’s errand to guess what they’re feeling. But Hardy says certain behaviors deserve our attention and may be signs of trouble ahead. Take notice if your son does any of the following:
He begins to objectify people or pets. When a young person treats human beings or animals like things, says Hardy, that’s a warning sign. This might show up as physical mistreatment, but it can also include language. “Referring to girls with names like ‘shorty’ may seem benign, but if the objectification continues, the consequences are rarely benign,” Hardy says.
His behavior changes suddenly. Some behavioral changes are normal as kids grow up, but anything that seems quick or dramatic should raise an alarm. “A child who has enthusiastically gone to school consistently, for example, who now has a sense of carelessness and apathy about school, is usually a sign that something’s happening,” says Hardy. Reach out to your child’s guidance counselor or teacher as soon as possible to figure out what’s going on. It may be bullying, which can lead to feelings of anger, loneliness, or fear.
He appears to be feeling isolated. Many kids go through periods of loneliness, especially as they become teenagers and their friend groups shift. But long stretches of isolation can leave a child depressed. There are also external threats to teen boys who feel this way: Online hate groups like the incel (involuntarily celibate) movement, a worldwide community of men who believe women have rejected them sexually, along with “alpha male” influencers who use their social platforms to amplify misogyny, are actively targeting lonely young men.4, 5
How to confront your teen’s behavior
Hardy says if you notice persistent loneliness that affects your son’s daily life, or if you suspect he may be part of a damaging online community, it’s time to get involved. A good place to start is with some real talk.
“I think those of us who’ve raised or are raising boys have a responsibility,” Hardy says. “When we see these warning signs, we need to lean in and have conversations.” For example, if you notice your son is objectifying women with language, start a dialogue by asking questions about the terms he’s using.
Hardy suggests prompts like these: “Is it only girls who you call shorty? Why is that? What does that term mean?” Answering will require your son to look critically at his own words and understand why they might be hurtful. Examine the language together.
“We had a lot of conversations in our house when the Me Too movement was happening,” says Cheryl. “I talked with the boys about what it meant to feel pressured, harassed, and all those things women feel all the time.” Cheryl understood that as their parent, she was the best person to humanize the movement by telling them about her own struggles. “It was tough to share some of the things I went through with their dad and even with boys when I was younger, but I think it helped them understand what was happening.”
Help teens feel secure and valued
Life can be hard for teenagers, and they will get angry and frustrated at times. Hardy says there are ways to help boys feel more included, secure, and valued, which in turn will help them deal with challenges in a healthier way.
Hardy advises looking for an activity that enables your son to feel like he’s part of something bigger than himself. Sports teams are a great example, but they can be out of reach for some families due to costs and travel. One alternative is community organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which host teen programs aimed at building connections.
School clubs, volunteer programs, and positive faith-based groups are also accessible ways to find community. Cheryl’s sons joined their local church youth group when they were in eighth grade. As part of the group, they visited nursing homes and played games with residents, delivered meals to people in need, and spent summers working in a soup kitchen.
Normalize asking for support
Cheryl and her sons have been in various kinds of individual and family therapy since she left her first marriage. One of the more surprising results for Cheryl is that the boys have carried on with this work as they grow into men.
“My son Art* came to me the other day and said he was struggling with some mild depression and was making an appointment to get back into therapy,” she says. “I was prouder of that than of any good grade.”
Hardy says any form of therapy can benefit a struggling teen, but group therapy is particularly powerful for teen boys because it gives them a safe space to talk with peers who have similar feelings. Your family doctor or school guidance counselor can help you find a group.
To find a licensed therapist for you, your teen, or your whole family, browse our directory.
The role of intangible losses
Many mental health professionals, other experts, and parents are searching urgently for solutions to the teen mental health crisis. But we still don’t talk enough about the “intangible losses,” Hardy says.
“An intangible loss might mean the loss of hope or the loss of a vision for the future,” he explains. “I meet with so many young people who don’t believe they will be here to see a future 20 or 30 years down the road.”
This sense of loss can stem from societal factors like climate change, marginalization, or gun violence, and it can come from collective trauma like the COVID-19 pandemic. Cheryl’s sons spent their junior and senior years of high school online. They had no prom, graduation, or other rites of passage when they needed connection most, and it weighs on them. Even so, it’s not inevitable that their feelings of disappointment or loneliness will translate into violence.
The challenges facing today’s teens may seem overwhelming, but parents who create space for communication can help identify problems like violent tendencies before they get too big. “There’s tremendous healing and transformative potential in dialogue,” says Hardy. “Sometimes these conversations can be uncomfortable, but as parents, we have to push through.”
*Name has been changed.
About the author
Amye Archer, MFA, is a senior writer at therapist.com. She is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.
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