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From Boys to Men: When A Rite of Passage Goes Wrong

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CARY — Parents are doing their best to raise happy, healthy boys, but many are growing more and more frustrated with their teenagers.

Some psychologists say boys in this country are in crisis, that the recent school shootings, violence and drug abuse are all evidence of the seriousness of the problem. One Cary family lived through their own crisis, and offers their story as a cautionary tale.

Teenage boys often look big and powerful, but psychologists say they are in fact very needy, even terrified. The statistics are frightening:
  • Adolescent boys are five times more likely to commit suicide than adolescent girls.
  • Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disorders and behavioral problems than girls.
  • Boys commit violent crime at a higher rate than adults.
  • How does it all begin? "Mark was the sweetest kid. He was ideal. At the age of six, you couldn't have found a kid who was more open to things, and so full of life," says Roger Holton.

    By the end of Middle School, Holton was using other words to describe his son.

    "There was the lack of performance in school and the lack of interest really in doing anything developmental or constructive," he says.

    In fact, he says, Mark's behavior becamedestructive.

    "The thing that really got me involved was when one of his friends, out of love for him, called me and shared with me [that] he was into drugs," Holton says.

    Desperate and frustrated, he confronted his son.

    Mark Holton explains his reaction at the time. "You just think they're crazy and don't know what they're talking about," he says. "You just wish they'd leave you alone and let you live your life. And that's the way I felt."

    Mark is 16-years-old now, in 11th grade, and speaks calmly and freely with his father.

    Roger Holton credits family therapist Dr. Joe Tooley with the transformation. "Joe helped me to see some things...that eventually gave us a lot of hope for the situation," Holton says.

    Tooley offers some guidelines for when to involve a professional. "If the fights go on too long and too hard, and they get too intense, get help," he says.

    "The rule is when this system, when your family system, isn't working -- the three, four, 10 of you, whatever it is -- expand the system," Tooley says. "Pull some fresh air in. Pull some other thinking in. Pull a different viewpoint in."

    When this family pulled Tooley in, one of the first things he taught dad was a new way to talk with his son.

    Tooley suggested using short, simple, direct sentences, one or two at a time.

    He says using "I" messages, instead of you messages, helps everyone understand their responsibilities. "Instead of 'Why don't you shape up?' type of question, a different question would be 'When you do that, I have to ask myself what am I going to do with you? And I have to ground you,'" Tooley says.

    "I learned from Dr. Tooley that Mark was not going to succeed on my terms," Holton says. "He's going to do it on his terms. It's really his responsibility. I can help him. I can enable him, but I can't do it for him."

    And what about Mark? "My worst days now are about as good as my happier days then."

    No single idea, philosophy or piece of wisdom works the same way twice; that is one of the reasons "successful" techniques do not always succeed with your child. The important thing to do as a parent is try, and then ask for help if you need it.