Author and researcher Rosalind Wiseman calls herself a listener. Intimate conversations and interviews with hundreds of teen girls formed the basis for her hit book, "Queen Bees and Wannabes," about how to help teen girls survive the wild world of high school. The book, which was eventually turned into the blockbuster movie "Mean Girls," was lauded for its frighteningly accurate depiction of female bullying.

[rebelmouse-image 19530238 dam="1" original_size="408x230" caption="GIF from "Mean Girls."" expand=1]GIF from "Mean Girls."


By bringing an open mind to her research (she says she simply takes what young people say and translates it for adults), she exposed some important truths about the inner workings of "girl world" to parents everywhere. Since the success of "Queen Bees" and "Mean Girls," however, Wiseman has been doing work that she argues is even more exciting and important, and that's gotten far less attention: trying to understand adolescent and teenage boys.

It's work that's especially important as conversations around toxic masculinity and sexual harassment have become increasingly mainstream.

Wiseman says there are four key things she's learned in her conversations with hundreds of our country's future men about how we can better shape the next generation.

1. Listen to what young boys have to say.

It seems ironic, Wiseman says, to shout: "Hey, men need to have their voices heard!" After all, men's voices are heard almost everywhere. They quite literally get most of the speaking lines in movies (even movies about women), they hold over 80% of the seats in Congress, and in the business world, about 95% of CEO positions are filled by men. In the case of younger men, however, listening to what they have to say just might be the right thing to do.

"We think they talk a lot and take up a lot of space, but we don't often ask about their opinions," Wiseman explains. If we want to really make changes to the culture of masculinity as it pertains to boys, there's really no better way to make sure we're at least getting an accurate picture of how they see the world around them.

For her 2013 book, "Masterminds and Wingmen" (sort of the boy version of "Mean Girls"), Wiseman spoke in-depth with nearly 200 teenage boys. Contrary to expectations, Wiseman says she found many were more than eager for a chance to finally share their fears and insecurities.

There are plenty of problems with the way boys in our country are raised and problems with how we've defined what it means to "be a man." But figuring out how to fix things shouldn't be an adults-only conversation.

As Wiseman says: "It's absurd to me to tell boys what their lives are like without talking to them first."

2. Don't wait to have important conversations about what they should do if they see abuse happening around them.

[rebelmouse-image 19530239 dam="1" original_size="1200x634" caption="Photo by Dariusz Sankowski/Pixabay." expand=1]Photo by Dariusz Sankowski/Pixabay.

"There is a minority of boys and men that, for whatever reason, feel they have a right to abuse people," Wiseman explains. "Through a combination of social intelligence and privilege, they know the majority of boys and young men who don't like what they're doing are going to be silent."

Many parents refuse to even consider that their own son will eventually be faced with a challenging situation — hearing his buddies trading vulgar, sexist jokes, or seeing a teacher have inappropriate contact with a student. They certainly don't think he'd have no idea what to do or that he might be a perpetrator himself.

The majority of teens will witness some kind of abuse of power at some point, Wiseman says. We shouldn't wait until after the fact to let them know we expect them to stand up for what's right, even if it's hard.

"We have to look at them as partners in this," she says. "Tell them 'I just want you to be able to know where I stand and where my expectations are for you.'"

3. Now for the hard part  — parents and adults have to model upstanding behavior for boys to see.

Talking the talk is easy. But walking the walk is what truly matters.

Parents frequently reach out to Wiseman with the same problem: "What if I go to [holiday] dinner and Uncle Bob says some racist, homophobic comment?"

Let's face it: a lot of us freeze up, change the subject, or otherwise don't want to deal with a potential confrontation, so we laugh it off or brush it under the rug. (Billy Bush, anyone?) Then we're shocked when boys do the same thing around friends making racist or sexist or homophobic comments.

It's OK that we're not perfect parents or role models 100% of the time, but it's important to acknowledge those missteps to the boys who look up to us when they happen. Standing up for what's right in the moment is the right thing to do, but it sure can be easier to wait until the car ride home to tell your kids, "Hey, you know, what Uncle Bob said wasn't OK."

Don't let yourself off the hook though, Wiseman urges. When you tell your kid that what Uncle Bob did was wrong, own up to your own passiveness as well. Even a simple, "I didn't handle that the way I should have," can be enough.

"Just having that conversation makes it so much more likely that your son will come to you the next time he's in a tough situation," Wiseman advises.

4. Encourage them to expect better of themselves.

[rebelmouse-image 19530240 dam="1" original_size="4218x3290" caption="Photo by NatureAddict/Pixabay." expand=1]Photo by NatureAddict/Pixabay.

Wiseman says one of the inherent and tragic flaws in the way America has defined masculinity is that caring about, well, pretty much anything makes you weak. And if you're weak, you're not really a man.

Caring about something like feminism? Sexual harassment? Social justice? It can make a man an utter outcast in some social circles.

"That is a travesty," Wiseman laments. "I say to high school boys all the time … 'a man of honor is someone who shuts their mouth when horrible things are going on around you? How did that become the definition of what a man is?'"

"I wouldn't put up with that if I were you," she tells them. "You're better than this; you're stronger than this."

In response, she sees them sit up a little taller and stand a little prouder. It's something they don't hear enough.

13 years later, people are still talking about "Mean Girls" and what it says about how our society treats girls. Let's hope Wiseman's work on "boy world" has the same kind of effect.

Young men aren't always going to do the right thing. They'll fold under the pressure of having to stand up to their best friend. They'll laugh at an offensive joke. They'll make mistakes.

And so will we, as teachers, parents, and role models.

"We have to acknowledge that we suck," Wiseman concludes.

"We have to say to boys, 'Hey, I get that I'm holding you to a high standard. I understand that you don't have a lot of good role models.' It doesn't mean we're going to give up."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

TikTok about '80s childhood is a total Gen X flashback.

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