As a mother, there is nothing more terrifying than watching your son journey across the bridge of adolescence. It matters not how many parental self-help books you have read, or how strong a relationship you have built and nurtured in the formative years because from the age of 13 onwards you will feel as if an alien has invaded his body and, for a long time, you will wonder where he has gone.
Nobody tells you that it is going to be this hard. Until my son was 12 years old, he was a gorgeous boy with a beaming smile and a happy-go-lucky attitude. He loved life and he loved his family, and he and I shared a very close bond. And then overnight that bubbly little cherub of a boy became almost unrecognisable and my role as a mother quickly went from answering questions about how the universe was made to keeping him out of danger and keeping him alive.
There is no rite of passage in our culture to mark the difficult transition from boyhood into manhood. And perhaps because of this, our boys resort to engaging in risk-taking behaviour to assert their newfound masculinity. Weekly binge-drinking sessions, drug taking, getting into fights and driving too fast or drunk on our roads are all examples of young, male, risk-taking behaviour.
The absence of positive male role models, and in many cases the absence of fathers, is also a real concern, particularly during these difficult and dangerous years when boys are inclined to pull away from their mothers and become more strongly influenced by their peers.
From the age of 13 onwards, I had no idea how to reach my son. I tried being his friend and when that didn’t work, I tried being the disciplinarian and when that really didn’t work, I switched back and forth between the two. Suddenly all of my parental confidence went out the window and I had no idea what I was doing. Of course I still took every opportunity to tell him that he was loved and I still asked him questions about his life, but the line of free and easy communication had sealed shut between us. I had no idea what was happening to my boy or to our relationship and I was scared that I was losing him because I was losing him to the bridge of adolescence which mothers are not permitted to cross.
As I write this, I am pleasantly reminded that we are starting to see a shift toward more diverse and empowered young female role models in the media of cinema, advertising and television. This has occurred as a direct result of the social and political discourse that has taken place over the last decade regarding the negative role both the media and advertising play in shaping the body image of young girls/women.
And yet I see no such evidence for the way in which we as a society have even begun to discuss the negative stereotypes defining our young adolescent men, nor has there been any move to empower them with positive affirmations on any mainstream level. In fact what is occurring is quite the opposite. In both the media and in advertising, young men are stereotyped as either violent, drunk, stupid, sexist or obsessed with sports and cars. I think that as a society we have become immune to these negative stereotypes and thus neglect to consider the implications that this form of blatant demonisation can create on the young impressionable male psyche.
There is no doubt that negative male branding has a detrimental effect on the minds of our young men, but it also trickles down to the way in which our young men are perceived by the wider community. I will never forget the time my then-14-year-old son came home in tears because a local shopkeeper had accused him of planning to steal something. Of course he wasn’t planning to steal anything – he was simply trying to choose something to eat – and so I marched up to the shop with my son at my heels and demanded he be given an apology. He got the apology, but the damage had already been done.
It isn’t just the media who must be called to account on the issue. In fact, the real work must start with our education system by encouraging male-mentor programs and other positive initiatives to help support and nurture the transition process. At the very least I believe that adolescent ‘young men’ should be taught ways in which to address and cope with the range of powerful emotions that can rise up and engulf them during this hormonally charged time. Often these emotions are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and without any real tools for management, they quickly manifest as anger. It is when this anger leaks outward toward the wider community or inward toward the self that we as a society feel the implications on our roads and on our streets, in our prisons and in our hospitals, and in our escalating mental health and suicide statistics.
It is no coincidence that the highest suicide rates in this country are accounted for by men. In Australia in 2009, 1,633 men committed suicide compared with 499 women. Twenty-two per cent of all those deaths occurred with men aged 15–24.
When I see these figures in black and white, I am overcome with anger and regret at the way in which we as a society continue to ignore the serious issues facing young men in the community today. And it isn’t just suicide that is extinguishing young male lives. Young men are dying in droves on our roads (particularly on country roads) and the message around speed and drink driving just isn’t getting through to the young male peer-group mentality.
In so many ways, young men simply lack the emotional maturity to navigate through the world of adult behaviour – particularly risk-taking behaviour – and in this sense I think we are failing our young men by not providing them with the positive support systems necessary to transition from good boys into good men.
I love my son as much now at 17 as I did when he was a little boy; in fact I love him more. I know that he needed to pull away from me in order to assert his independence, and I know that I have done my job as a mother to the best of my ability in raising him from a good boy into a good man. What happens next isn’t up to me and that is the hardest part above all other parts about being a parent – realising that the time has come when you have no choice but to let go.
Realising that you can no longer control all the outside elements and protect them from the world is terrifying but it is all part of the mammoth job of being a parent. Letting go and trusting that you have done your job means trusting that he will make good choices. Right now, that is the best that we can hope for.