Feature

Ricky was a brilliant trombone player, teased by popular kids who called him names like "wuss" and "band fag." One day in his school parking lot, a group of football players smashed the bell of his trombone, repeatedly punched him in the stomach, spat on him and then warned him not to tell on them.

Too afraid and ashamed to tell his parents, Ricky told them he had dropped his trombone on the ground. His parents, who had no way of knowing the truth, set down a stiff punishment. But Ricky took the punishment because it was better than another possible attack if he had told them about the other boys.

It's a true story--one that happens far too often in American high schools, says William Pollack, PhD. Ricky's story is part of Pollack's new book, "Real Boys' Voices," which contains first-person accounts of boys' feelings about bullying, drugs, sports, sex, friends, parents and more.

During his invited address at APA's Annual Convention, Pollack will discuss how to help teens and their families avoid situations like Ricky's. The key, he says, is to understand the experiences and feelings of boys and girls--and for adults to use that knowledge to make better connections with them.

"My own theory is that the kind of connection or disconnection that goes on between kids and adults, especially in family systems, makes for the difference between healthy and happy personal environments as well as society environments or dysfunctional, negative personal experiences--as well as a dangerous rending of our social fabric," he says.

Where is the disconnection? It starts with what Pollack calls the Boy Code--social rules that make boys feel ashamed about expressing weakness or vulnerability. Although boys want to talk about their feelings, they refrain because they fear teasing, bullying and worse.

"They won't talk about their pain, often, until it is too late," explains Pollack. "But when they do [talk to an adult], they're not responded to in a way they feel taken seriously."

For example, the U.S. Secret Service's Safe School Initiative, for which Pollack is a consulting psychologist, has found that many Columbine-style school shooters told other peers or adults about their intentions, but in almost every case, no one acted on that knowledge.

And the isolation that many school shooters report isn't uncommon; Pollack has found the same feelings in hundreds of typical boys he has interviewed as part of his Listening to Boys project.

"We can have all of the programs in the world aimed at ending violence, but they will all fail unless you understand the genuine experience of connection and the meaning it provides to kids and parents," says Pollack. "Research shows it's the connection to adults that makes a difference." He adds that one family can't do it alone; groups of families need to work with each other.

"When I talk about families being a nexus of change, it's not to blame them," Pollack cautions, "but to give them back a kind of authority, possibility and opportunity."