3 Ways to Manage Aggression in Boys, According to a Pediatrician

boys and video games advice cat

Raising kids is never easy, but for moms of boys, it can often feel like life requires its own set of instructions. That’s why pediatrician and mom of two, Dr. Cara Natterson decided to write them. Her book, Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons, shares tips on how to navigate everything from puberty to bullying to open communication. She dropped by a recent episode of Mom Brain, the hit parenting podcast co-hosted by Hilaria Baldwin and Daphne Oz, to share her best advice.

1. Communicate With Boys the Way You’d Communicate With Girls

Hilaria Baldwin: I’m really excited to talk to you because I have three boys and Daphne has one boy and I am really scared about raising so many boys. Everything is penises and pulling their pants down and showing each other butts. Some of that my daughter does, too, but it’s different. I’m nervous as this gets more serious and about my role in finding a way to not shame them ever for what is natural because they do have penises and testosterone, but also not just saying: ‘Oh, well, they’re boys, so they can do that.’ 

Dr. Cara Natterson: One part of the problem is that parents don’t think their boys want to talk about any of this stuff. And as a result, they don’t have the conversations with their sons that they have with their daughters…Essentially, what happens is that when they go into puberty—which happens around 9 or 10 on average for most boys—they tend to get really quiet. They shut down a little bit. And as parents, we go: ‘Oh that’s so normal,’ and we let them shut down. They shut their door and we don’t do anything about it. We don’t talk to them.

If our girls ever did that, we’d be like, ‘No way!’ We’d open the door and we’d talk to them. We’d give them all this language and empower them, but we don’t do that with our boys. And in the world that we are raising them, which is fraught with a lot of complication, not having language skills and communication skills is a danger for them. With online porn and the #MeToo movement, how can we raise them with no language around these topics? If there’s one take-home message from my book (and it starts way before puberty), it’s this: Just raise your kids like kids. Raise your boys with the same language and intensity and intention and communication that you’re going to raise your girls with. Gender doesn’t matter.

2. Video Games Aren’t All Bad, But Boys Need to Understand that Violent Actions Have Consequences

Baldwin: Let’s talk about teaching boys how to manage their aggression. How do we do that?

Dr. Natterson: People tend to talk about this in the context of video gaming because they’re worried that gaming—where you’re shooting and killing and there’s all this violence—essentially blunts your response to violence and aggression. But then there’s all this data that says, no, that’s not the impact of video games. 

One of the things that we need to do as our boys are growing up is to be aware of the type of play that they’re involved in and talk to them about the consequences of that behavior. That might mean, if you walk in on a video game and it’s pretty violent and aggressive, you need to stop and have the conversation right then and there. Say, ‘This is why this bothers me.’ Don’t just say, ‘I don’t want you to play this.’ You have to explain the why.

In my house, when my kids were little, we would role play. Things like: what you would do if someone is in your play space with a gun where you don’t know if it’s real or if it’s fake. What do you do to get yourself to safety? Of course, when kids are young, the biggest risk is accidental homicide. It’s playing with a weapon and someone getting hurt unintentionally. As kids get older, the fear becomes about doing something intentional. But you have to start these conversations when they’re young because your kid’s pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of their brain that thinks consequentially and long-term, hasn’t fully developed yet, and while kids can think about consequences, they just can’t access that thinking as quickly. As parents, we have to teach them tools to access that thinking. For example, how to stop and count to 10 or take some deep breaths.

3. Explain the “Why” to Stop the Fighting

Baldwin: I know that we all deal with sibling rivalry, but there’s the play fighting and then there’s when they’re beating the crap out of each other, which is very common. I’ll make them stop, but I also want them to stand up for themselves. What’s the best way to approach this?

Dr. Natterson: The best parenting trick is to remember that the power lies in explaining the “why.” If you always give them a rationale for your rule, they can take that rationale and they can apply it to whatever is happening. So, you can’t hit your brother. But why? Really what you’re saying is: You can’t hit your brother because I don’t want him to get hurt. The consequences of him getting hurt are X, Y and Z. And it might be as simple as, well, it’s because I’ve got 20 things to do and I don’t have time for you guys to be hurt. That’s the why. Then, they’re able to modulate their behavior because they understand the why. And it’s not just a limit that my mom was putting there.

By the way, sharing the ‘why’ is going to extend all the way through the teenage years. ‘No, you can’t take the car,’ is really different than, ‘No, you can’t take the car because it’s late and you’re tired and I think you’re going to get in an accident.’

Oz: And when it comes to teaching them how to stand up for themselves?

What is the difference between standing up for yourself and meeting violence with violence? It’s going to look and feel different in every situation. But I do think that the concept of bullying has created a bit of a dilemma because, in theory, it makes one person in the interaction a victim. And we don’t want our kids to be victimized.

But sometimes what can help is changing the language around that. Sometimes there is a bully and a victim and that needs to be solved. But sometimes there’s bullying behavior and and then it’s up to you to choose not to be the victim. But what does that look like? With grammar school kids, I encourage parents to role play multiple scenarios multiple different ways, but let kids come up with the scenarios. The reason is that they will then tell you—without you having to ask—what dilemmas they’ve faced and you’ll have insight into the bullying scenarios that they’ve been a part of, and can see what you can do to help.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more from Dr. Cara Natterson, listen to her recent appearance on our podcast, ‘Mom Brain,’ with Hilaria Baldwin and Daphne Oz and subscribe now.

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