It has happened to all of us. Words have left our mouths that we regret. Or maybe we have done something that affected others in a way we did not intend. There are reasons why boys can be especially prone to this. If we understand why, we can give them tools to avoid and handle mistakes.
I remember once in my early teens when I was at a formal gathering. It was an anniversary celebration for our church. I felt pretty special to be included with all the adults walking around dressed in their fancy clothes.
There was a guy present who had been our music director but had moved a year or two previous. I was excited to see him since I looked up to him and he seemed to like me, which is important for 14-year-olds. I gradually got closer to where he was standing and he greeted me warmly, “Hi Joshua. Wow! You sure have grown.”
“Hi,” I said back, and not wanting to seem like a stupid kid I tried to think of something else to say. I decided to return the compliment. I blurted out, “So have you!”
He paused and forced a laugh with a look on his face that seemed to say, “You little ____.” I guess he wasn’t happy about the extra 50 pounds he had put on.
While that situation was harmless, many boys get far more sever consequences when they say stupid things, especially if they do or say something that can be understood as threatening violence or sexually suggestive. Zero tolerance policies at many schools are often ruthlessly enforced and very destructive for boys.
Here are a few of the reasons boys sometimes say stupid things:
1) Language and emotional processing happen in different parts of the brain and those parts aren’t as efficiently linked as in girls. This makes for slower processing and more difficulty getting the words out right.
2) Stressful situations derail the connection between the emotional processing part of the brain (limbic system) and the critical thinking part of the brain (frontal cortex). That means in a situation where stress and threat are present (social situations, conflict, being called a name), they’re not thinking as much as they are reacting from their gut or practiced responses.
3) Testosterone encourages impulsive reactions and linear thinking. Testosterone’s effects are complex, but it does make a difference and boys do have more of it. Impulsive means blurting and having NO filter (even if they know better than to insult food at a guest’s house). Linear thinking means they may only be able to think of one thing to say instead of all the various responses available.
4) When teenage hormones are involved, studies show that boys frequently mis-read emotional cues and respond very differently than they would have otherwise. They often feel very ashamed and regret what they have said and done. Of course, this is magnified when parents and the opposite sex are involved.
Here are a few things we can do to help:
1) Allow for “do-overs.” When something comes off wrong or a conversations spirals out of control in the wrong direction, it’s okay to press the rewind button. I often say to my son, “Let’s stop here. I’ll give you some time. You decide if you want to revise anything you just said.”
2) Practice different responses. In any given situation, there are many different things we can say or NOT say. It can be very helpful for boys if we help them think through what might have gone differently if something else had been said. It can also help them hone their personal style to think about what different responses look like to others.
3) Role play situations and scenarios. While it may sound corny, boys learn through doing, and there’s a much better chance they will succeed in real life if they have a chance to run through a situation within the safety of the family.
When we’re young, the feeling of embarrassment is magnified and frightening. It can make you want to run and hide. It sometimes causes tears, which is incredibly embarrassing for boys. Remember to provide a safe shelter and support for them when they have those “I can’t believe I said that” moments.