Toxic masculinity and its harmful effects on mental health have been the subject of much research and discussion. Michael Flood defines toxic masculinity as "emphasising the worst aspects of stereotypically masculine attributes" and characterises it primarily by "violence, dominance, emotional illiteracy, sexual entitlement, and hostility to femininity" (Flood, 2022).
Adherence to the values of toxic masculinity has been found to correlate with a greater risk of depression (Parent et al., 2019), suicidal ideation (Walther et al., 2022), and alcoholism (Todd et al., 2022).
Additionally, poor mental health is often worsened by the fact that men who adhere to toxic masculinity and its value system are much less likely to seek help for any problems they have (O. de Visser et al., 2022).
In a cultural landscape that has slowly but surely shifted towards values such as equality, compassion, collaboration and greater emotional literacy, it is clear that the values of toxic masculinity are no longer a useful mode of existence, and thus it is of crucial importance that we educate our teenage boys - who are at their most vulnerable stage in terms of absorbing societal values and modes of behaviour - in a manner that encourages them to place greater emphasis on compassion and equality, and to see women and others as fundamentally equal human beings. The importance of this simply cannot be overstated.
Dr Laura Kastner, writing for ParentMap.com, explains how the negative values of toxic masculinity strangle the emotional life of teenage boys:
"The pressure to be constantly strong means that boys learn to wall-off feelings. Because a huge part of life experience is hurt, sadness, disappointment and other forms of vulnerable feelings, boys lose the opportunity to develop their emotional intelligence"
With this in mind, parents who are reading might wonder how to help educate their son so that he avoids the pitfalls and negative consequences that come with enacting toxic masculinity.
Here are some ways this can be achieved:
Encourage your son to talk about his feelings and do not tell him to 'man up' or 'get over it'. It is vital that your son grows into an adult knowing full well the importance of reflecting on his emotional state.
Educate your son. Teach him to view others as fundamentally equal to himself. This will help him grow up with respect for the full spectrum of humanity and not feel threatened by others with identities that aren't in line with his own.
Be vigilant with respect to your son's digital life. Has he recently been saying things or behaving in a manner that seems sexist, racist or prejudiced in some other way? There are many toxic online influences - the most recent example being Andrew Tate - that promote a deeply misogynistic and harmful value system that will only hurt your son should he be taken in by this content.
Teach your son to fully respect the principle of consent. Do not encourage a sense of entitlement that tells your son that the permission required by another human being - be it for sexual relationships, financial transactions or anything else - is of no value.
Parents, it is important to remember you aren't alone. Let's fight these incredibly harmful behaviours together. We all deserve to live in a safe and inclusive world, that respects our autonomy and honours each of our contributions. Educating our young men into a worldview that values the collective over the 'rugged individual' ideal, collaboration over power, and emotional intelligence over stoic hardness, will prepare them better for the world that lies ahead, and will help make the world a safer and less threatening place for everyone.
O. de Visser, R., Mushtaq, M., & Naz, F. (2022). Masculinity beliefs and willingness to seek help among young men in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 27(5), 1052-106
Parent, M. C., Gobble, T. D., & Rochlen, A. (2019). Social media behavior, toxic masculinity, and depression. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 20(3), 277.
Todd, K. P., Thornburgh, S., Pitter, R., Gamarel, K. E., & Peitzmeier, S. (2022). Masculine identity development and health behaviors in transmasculine individuals: A theory of gender and health. SSM-Qualitative Research in Health, 100186.
Walther, A., Grub, J., Tsar, S., Ehlert, U., Heald, A., Perrin, R., ... & Eggenberger, L. (2022). Status loss due to COVID-19, traditional masculinity, and their association with recent suicide attempts and suicidal ideation. Psychology of Men & Masculinities.