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Why Doesn't He Talk to Me? - Helping boys cross the communication divide

Vol.22, No.5, May 2006
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Why Doesn't He Talk to Me? - Helping boys cross the communication divide
By Adam J. Cox, Ph.D.

When my son was born, the first time I held him he returned my gaze and grasped my finger with his hand. It felt like a miracle, yet it's an experience known to millions of parents, signaling that a lifetime of communication between parent and child has begun. Especially in a boy's earliest years, we listen to him closely, trusting that his words are a barometer of his psychological and social development. Through communication, families form the deep, reciprocal relationships that are life's reward.

But what are we supposed to think about boys who are less than enthusiastic about communication and attempts to build connection? For example:

Jeremy, 5 years old, is a small, busy boy with dark hair and a mischievous expression. He's very interested in superheroes and race car drivers. Despite his energy and enthusiasm, he's struggling to adjust to kindergarten. Jeremy's teacher can't get his attention and he resists joining group activities. During his first month of school, he pushed another child three times. When his teacher asked him why, he would only repeat, defiantly, "It's not my fault." When his parents made similar inquiries, he "put on his storm face," as his father calls it, refusing to answer.

Aaron is a thin, serious 8-year-old with extraordinary intellectual gifts. Because he reads science fiction voraciously and has a good vocabulary for things related to astronomy or the parts of a "cyborg," his father calls him "the little professor." Despite his strengths, he often seems lost in his own world. His parents wonder if he notices other people and if they notice him. Aaron rarely talks to peers and complains that no one likes him. He looks puzzled when asked to explain the difference between sadness and anger. "He's like the 'invisible' boy. He'll share his thoughts, but not his heart," explained his mother.

Morgan, a tall, heavy-set 11-year-old, is passionate about fantasy computer games, especially when he can play with someone else. However, his parents complain that other kids don't want to visit because Morgan gets so caught up in the game he starts "giving orders," insisting that his peers play as he says. When the other kids resist or get bored, Morgan becomes unreasonably frustrated. Sometimes he acts out, blurring the distinction between the characters in game scenarios and his companions. His mother quietly admits that at times even she feels a little afraid of Morgan.

Boys like this can, and should, concern us. Many mental health practitioners may see signs of pathology, such as Asperger's Syndrome, in the behaviors described above. Yet is that interpretation fair when such behavior is increasingly common among boys everywhere? Is it possible that the social communication challenges of boys are better understood within a developmental and social context?

Although boys today may have better vocabularies for things and procedures, and more varied social opportunities than generations ago, the communication difficulties of boys are more noticeable than ever. Simply put, the societal demand to communicate is growing faster than the communication skills of boys are developing. This discrepancy highlights the communication divide, the evolving gap between many boys' current social abilities and the skills required for full participation in relationships, work, and even recreation, in the 21st century.

Neurological differences
Boys are more vulnerable than girls (about 4-5:1) to a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders, including learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and variants of these syndromes. Interestingly, all of these syndromes typically encompass some type of problem with communication. Several theories address this phenomenon, including differences in brain anatomy, prenatal effects of testosterone, qualitative differences in how the genders are socialized and taught, and overexposure to electronic media. All may hold some truth, although no single explanation is widely accepted as the definitive answer. Scientists have noted strong genetic links for some of these syndromes, but the causes continue to be debated.

Communication depends on a complex combination of activities in the brain. When it comes to receiving communication, our ability to detect visual cues can be just as important as what we hear. Consider how people's body language - their expression or hand movements - helps you understand their feelings or intentions. In fact, brains process large amounts of visual information much more efficiently than auditory information. (For example, while driving you can attend to signals, signs, passing cars, and pedestrians, aware of your speedometer and fuel gauge; but if two people talk to you at the same time, you probably become confused or irritable.) Effective social communication requires boys to make connections between what they hear and see.

Generally, girls are better communicators, using a much larger part of their brain for processing language. Brain imaging studies show that boys process language almost exclusively with their left hemisphere, while girls can more effectively engage both hemispheres. Also, the corpus callosum, which is the bridge that transfers information between hemispheres, is consistently more bulbous in girls, resulting in a more efficient exchange of information - just like a wider bridge moves traffic more quickly.

Although the right hemisphere of a boy's brain might work well for many spatial tasks - helping them to do quite well in games - it is notoriously under-active when it comes to interpersonal communication. The bottom line is that boys miss many of the nonverbal cues so essential to social interaction and the development of empathy.

This is not to say that all boys can't or don't have good right-hemisphere skills. Still, if, as research continues to suggest, boys use less of their brains in processing language, they have some disadvantages, particularly in social communication. Boys also tend to take a left-hemisphere (systematizing) approach to problem solving. While a systematic thinking orientation may help males be goal-directed problem solvers, it tends to inhibit awareness of the more subtle information that enriches social perception and communication.

Think of this example: A friend tells you that her dog died last week. Your left hemisphere hears the facts; you had a dog, it died, and it happened last week. Ah, but your right hemisphere sees and hears additional, important information such as the expression on your friend's face, the subtle changes in her voice, and her body language. The corpus callosum shares these right hemisphere perceptions with the factual content being processed in the left hemisphere to give you a much more complete and meaningful understanding of what your friend has said. Most of us can imagine how valuable these right hemisphere perceptions are to responding effectively to a friend in this situation.

Important to consider is that the differences we note between boys and girls at home and in the classroom are often described in terms of maturity, character, interest and motivation, rather than different orientations to learning and communication. Do you know a boy who wants to touch everything - learning through his fingertips - or who immediately wanders off to "map" a new place by investigating its perimeter? Chances are, he's a kinesthetic learner relying on movement and touch to process and learn new information. He may be able to describe all the parts of a motorcycle, but can't tell you what's bothering him, notice when his friend's annoyed, or successfully transition to the academic demands of fourth or fifth grades, when assignments become more abstract. This kind of boy is often misunderstood when his strengths and challenges aren't recognized. Appreciating the potential causes and liabilities of a communication deficit is the first step to helping boys across the communication divide.

Psychological factors
Beyond neurological differences, psychological factors may influence a boy's reluctance to communicate. Shyness and social anxiety are common.

Another potential cause that often looks like anxiety is self-absorption. Extremely bright boys are often self-absorbed, captivated by their thoughts and pursuits to the neglect of others (as opposed to self-centered feelings of superiority). Other boys have as much emotion as others, but lack the words to express themselves, or have trouble with pragmatic (practical) communication. Silence can be a way of exerting control or expressing anger.

Boys with a strong will toward autonomy, difficulty accepting authority, or who are uncomfortable showing vulnerability also avoid expressive communication.

Boys will be boys?
If a boy's communication challenges are rooted in biology, or shaped by the larger forces of society, should we accept the status quo? Should we say, "Boys will be boys," down-shifting our expectations for their academic, social and emotional development?

I believe most parents and teachers find that boys are ready and able to communicate and connect if we reach out to them in ways that build on their strengths, develop their potential, and respect their desire to diminish vulnerability and achieve mastery.

When we build boys' communication skills, we're teaching them how to connect with others and create the relationships that support psychological resilience for life. Giving boys the help and permission needed to be expressive is a major contribution to their emotional well-being. While a review of effective strategies is beyond the scope of this article, hopefully those caring for boys will learn more about the challenges they face and the opportunities we all have to help.

Even when boys are affected by syndromes as serious and complex as an autism-spectrum disorder, they will do better with thoughtful, strategic guidance. Building social communication skills during boyhood provides lifelong benefits - improving the odds for academic (and career) success, healthy relationships, and community leadership.

Three questions to begin with:
1) Has poor communication become a liability for social and emotional development?
Does he become uneasy when asked opinions or thought-provoking questions? Does he dread "opportunities" for self-expression? Does he use anger to deflect personal inquiries?
2) Are his communication challenges adversely affecting family life?
Is he indifferent to the thoughts and feelings of other family members? Does he isolate himself from other family members?
3) Does he lack the communication skills needed to succeed in school?
Does he avoid answering questions in class? Does he ever act out aggressively to compensate for poor verbal problem-solving skills? Is he often ostracized by other students because he "doesn't get it"?

For complete checklists that may be a useful starting point in assessing whether a boy's communication problems warrant further attention, visit http://www.dradamcox.com.

Adam J. Cox, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Emmaus, PA. He is the author of Boys of Few Words:
Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect (Guilford, 2006), and the forthcoming No Mind Left Behind:
Understanding and Improving Your Child's Executive Brain (Penguin, 2007).

The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, May 2006
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