Boys and Hormones

Understanding the transitional years of puberty.

Little boys regularly visit my office clutching superhero figurines and "flying" through the waiting room with arms outstretched and capes streaming. The next heroic stage often involves army games around the neighborhood or intense wrestling matches with friends. Fast forward a few more years, and toss in some testosterone. Those now-teenage boys begin proving themselves by driving fast, destroying the world in epic online video games, or competing for athletic trophies and academic achievements.

Boys ultimately are seeking to know if they have what it takes to "be a man." In fact, I believe the questions "Do I have what it takes?" and "Am I loved?" are innately hardwired, whether boys like to admit it or not.

The task of reassuring the inner-superhero of his true potential becomes especially difficult during the transitional years of puberty, when hormones rage and a boy grows into a man. Oftentimes, girls get the bad rap about becoming hormonal teens, but males and females both undergo emotional and physical changes — they just display the inner turmoil differently.

Teenage boys often experience heightened moodiness and aggression, and they may become introverted. It's normal for a teenage boy to jump between feeling pleasant and being upset or difficult to handle. An increased desire for autonomy and growing social priorities are also normal. On the other hand, negative changes in school performance, trouble with the law or drug abuse are not normal behaviors, and warrant professional attention.

During puberty, which generally begins between ages 11 and 15, a boy's testosterone levels soar. The increase in hormones transforms muscle mass, body odor, acne, vocal range, aggression, sexual desires, the desire to be in authority and other characteristics that distinguish males from females.

Research shows that men have 10-20 times more testosterone than women. One study of 700 male prison inmates revealed that those with higher testosterone levels were most likely to be in trouble with authorities and most often engaged in unprovoked violence. Testosterone is one powerful hormone.

Testosterone is a lot like money, fame or authority: it's not inherently evil, but it's what you do with it that counts. As parents, it's our job to steer young boys to become men of character who offer value to society and genuinely care about others, and that can lead the next generation.

Parents have almost two decades to prepare and coach their children. During that time, it's vital to play defense against negative influences in society by setting boundaries and play offense by being involved in children's worlds and showing tangible love.

Following are a few suggestions of how parents can help coach teenage boys.

Get to know them.
Know their friends, interests and trials — not to judge, but to show authentic concern.

Share physical affection.
It may feel strange for a parent to think their 6-foot-tall, 15-year-old has emotional needs, but he does (regardless of his size). Moms and dads should give their teen hugs and kisses. If it's foreign, it may take extra effort, but it's worth the payoff.

Protect against pornography.
Online pornography consumes male teens' and men's minds at an alarming rate. The average age of first exposure to pornographic images for boys is 11. Keep computer access in public areas of the house, like the kitchen, and use Internet filters. Remember, portable wireless devices, cell phones and gaming systems can also access pornographic websites. Get educated about the good and bad side of technology, and establish family rules.

Set boundaries.
Most youth claim they dislike parental involvement and boundaries, but for those lacking parental attention, too much freedom often leaves them looking for love in the wrong places. Set curfews, limitations and habitually check in.

Keep them active.
Provide outlets for stress, aggression and spiked competitiveness. Not only do hobbies develop life skills, they decrease time for trouble.

"Bringing up Boys," by Dr. James Dobson, is an excellent resource for how to deal with boys throughout childhood, especially in teenage years. Puberty doesn't last forever. Most temperamental and argumentative teenagers hit a magical age in their 20s and become pleasant, even charming. While riding the waves of teenage hormones, take advantage of the opportunity to assure those superheroes-in-the-making that they are unconditionally loved and they do have what it takes to be extraordinary.

Scott Spies, MD, is a pediatrician at Matthews Children's Clinic and has worked as a pediatrician for 15 years. He has four children, and his oldest is a teenage boy.