Boys at Risk

By Betsy Stalcup, founder and executive director of Healing Center International


I find the work of Allan N. Schore, M.D. riveting, both because he is brilliant but also because he pulls together a vast quantity of scientific literature from a wide range of fields to come up with his conclusions. This is a huge deal in the world of science. Most scientists labor away in their specific fields, which is why we find so much disagreement from one field to another. Each one is looking at a different part of the elephant!

I find that Schore’s research is underreported by the press. It is not what people want to hear and it can be very hard to understand. Yet, his work is so fascinating that I am going to try to attempt to summarize this one talk using everyday language. Here we go!

I am going to summarize Schore’s keynote address in Oslo, Norway in November of 2017. His topic was All Our Sons: The Neurobiology and Neuroendocrinology of Boys at Risk. In this talk (which can be watched on YouTube) Schore says, in a nutshell that baby boys are born with less mature nervous systems than baby girls. Why does this matter? If boys are less mature, then they are more vulnerable, more impacted by stress. They need more nurture, more support, from their mothers to fully mature. What happens during these first few years of life impact them not only when they are infants, but for the rest of their lives!

Because our culture sees boys as tougher than girls, we tend to expect more from them than from their sisters. Sadly their lack of maturity makes interacting with them less satisfying for the people around them, especially their mothers. On average, boys are less expressive emotionally, smile less and grimace more, display more irritability and cry more. They are not as able to maintain eye contact, and struggle to learn to regulate their emotions, something Schore considers the main task of childhood.

I am afraid at this point that some of us will begin to get snarky, me included, and think, So that is what is wrong with men! Let’s remember, that this information is intended to make us more compassionate, more tender with baby boys, as well as males of all ages. Baby boys need more help from their mothers, especially help regulating their emotions. They need mothers who know how to help them return to joy from distress. Schore reassures parents that “None of this is abnormal behavior. One might think, this looks like an early insecure behavior. That is not the case. It is simply slower maturation.”

I wanted to keep this short, so I’m putting a summary of the some of the actual data that brought Schore to this conclusion. The data are from numerous studies across the disciplines. If you want more details, go to Schore’s talk on YouTube.

  • Baby boys and girls are not the same. Researchers have long noted that girls mature more rapidly than boys. Even in utero, scientists have detected differences between male and female brains.

  • Gender differences in social responsiveness have been documented within hours of delivery. Male newborns are less responsive to sound and social stimuli and less able to maintain eye contact than female newborns. Male infants smile less than female infants and display more irritability, crying, grimacing, and rapid, exaggerated changes in mood.

  • Male newborns also show a more rapid buildup of emotional arousal and a quicker peak of excitement . . . male newborns engage in less self-comforting, a behavior that functions to regulate periods of arousal, tension, excitement, or distress.

  • Schore believes this begins in the womb and that boys are born with less mature nervous systems than girls. These deficits all begin before the baby is born during the third trimester of pregnancy when the brain begins to sexual differentiate.

  • Tronick (2007) observed the same differences at six months. He found that at six months of age "boys were more emotionally reactive than girls during face-to-face social interactions with their mothers. Boys were more likely than girls to show facial expressions and anger, to fuss and to cry, to want to be picked up, and to attempt to get away or distance themselves from their mothers by arching their backs and turning or twisting in their infant seats.” He concludes that boys have more trouble regulating their emotions, and so they must rely more on their mothers to help them do so.

  • Girls are more emotionally expressive and better at regulating their emotions during early infancy.

  • Boys are more vulnerable than girls. Because boys have less maturity than girls to cope with stresses, boys are more adversely impacted by early environmental stress than females.

  • Boys have much higher rates of mental illness than girls. Four boys for every one girl have schizophrenia and autism. Boys have higher rates of ADHD when compared to girls. Girls on the other hand, are more likely to have major depressive disorders (two to one) and much higher rates of anorexia nervosa (13 to one).

  • Males exhibit more antisocial behavior. Most alcoholics and drug addicts are male. Even suicide has a gender bias. Females make more attempts; males are more successful.

  • Males have higher rates of conduct disorders, which are characterized by physical aggression, stealing, lying, and destruction of property. Adolescent males have the highest rates.

  • Men tend to externalize unhappiness through “physical behavior” such as “drinking, drug abuse, and violence, whereas women are more likely to internalize their unhappiness leading to depression and disorders such as anorexia.”

  • Schore says that scientists can now tell if a child is susceptible to developing psychiatric disorders later in life when they are just a toddler, or even younger! If they did not get what they needed when their brain was developing early in life, they are more susceptible to externalizing disorders.[i]

  • Many in our culture have moved away from treating boys and girls differently, but that is risky. There are real differences. Girls and boys may not have different mental skills but there are real differences between the sexes in terms of mental illness and disorders.

  • Because they are less mature, boys are more demanding social partners, have a more difficult time regulating their emotions, and may need more support from their mothers to help them regulate their emotions. This increased demandingness affects the infant boys’ interactions with his mother or primary caregiver. Because he can’t auto regulate as fast, he need the mother there to be able to help him return to joy from his distress.

  • Girls on the other hand seem less vulnerable to interactive stresses. Boys place more regulatory demands on their mothers than do girls.

  • Because of their slower maturation, mothers have to work harder with their sons than with their daughters.

  • The rate of development of the brain (frontal cortex, caudate, and temporal lobes) in girls is considerably faster than in boys.

  • It takes longer for males to learn to read their mother’s facial expression—a right brain activity—and to respond socially. Females have an advantage in reading facial expression in infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

  • Schore believes that the right hemisphere, which is dominant for processing faces and regulating emotions, develops more slowly in male than female infants.

  • Because cerebral maturation is more rapid in girls, boys are at risk for a longer time—they have a less mature brain for a longer period of time. Abuse and neglect affect boys more. They are slower to regulate stressful negative emotions.

  • During the perinatal (right after birth) period, the infant’s brain is “exquisitely sensitive to stress hormones, nurture or maternal depression."

  • A male’s slowly maturing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which regulates stress as well as other systems in the body, is more susceptible than a female’s to both external environmental stressors, such as separation, maternal depression, as well as to internal hormonal alterations that accompany these social stressors.

I know this is a lot! Let me know if you have questions or comments and I will try to answer as best I can. Bless you all as we engage with Jesus to build healthy relationships with God and each other!