Teenage Boys Are Afraid

Teenage boys are afraid.

Now this really surprises grown ups . . .

I admire the irony of the bumper sticker I see on boys’ cars and trucks: “no fear.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Probably the greatest secret teenage boys keep is that they’re scared. They don’t act like it, but that is it: it’s an act. Despite all the bravado, prancing and preening, cool postures, and reckless behavior, the fact is they are afraid. It just happens to be the last thing they’re going to admit . . . and the most important thing that they cover up.

How are they afraid? I focus on four areas . . .

First of all, teenage boys don’t have a clue as to who they are and where they stand. Their boy identity won’t hold in the cutthroat competitive culture of teenage boys. Who they are in relation to their peers is as unstable as can be: even “good friends” can turn on you at the drop of a hat. There are constant ups and downs in the teenage boy world. He may be popular one minute, not the next, in with one group of friends, then he doesn’t belong. Friends are friends one day, but quite possibly not the next week.

Now, as I said, teenage boys refuse to act afraid. They resort to all kinds of shenanigans including acting absolutely obnoxious, super-cool, butt-kissing, and the cutup clown to fill a role. For many, it is fit in at all costs. For others, it is find a quiet niche where no one will bother you. And there are always some who make their stand by not fitting in at all.

I’ve worked with boys who recoiled at the constant competition for nothing and took on a persona to keep people away. They’d take on a social manner and/or dress pretty much guaranteed to ostracize themselves from the other kids. It was a painful form of self-protection: they were frightened to the point of self imposed exclusion.

The second is teenage boys are afraid of girls. Most boys are absolutely lost in knowing who they are in relation to girls. Watching their show will mislead you. Whether they’re first-rates flirts or way-behind wallflowers, their self-concept and image is fraught with fantasy and peril. They’re plain scared.

A very bright and articulate thirteen year old I saw had a well-established reputation as a smart, geeky nerd. He was very comfortable with it. His position was secure in his opposition to the “popular” kids and identification with the other smart nerds. This boy exuded self-importance and confidence. One problem. Girls paid no attention to him whatsoever and the role of a smart, geeky nerd gave him next to no chances to talk with girls. Plain and simple, he was as awkward as a fish climbing a tree when it came to girls and, like most thirteen year old boys, he wanted a girlfriend.

One day, after I asked him what was on his mind, he sheepishly answered, “how do I learn about girls?” He was terrified.

Even the so-called cocky, self-assured studs are scared. They put on a great show and tell to try and score, really for the other boys because the girls could care less, but they are lost dogs either after they've "won" and/or in trying to relate in any personal, meaningful way.

Why should they be scared of girls? Because girls have feelings, because girls elicit feelings in the boys which they are embarrassed and confused about, because girls relate to and act on their feelings entirely differently than boys, and because girls are interested in relating and boys are interested in winning. They’re lost and scared. So they do what boys do when their scared: act cool, tough, nonchalant, withdraw, and disinterested. It’s an act. They’re scared.

Thirdly . . . and profoundly important . . . teenage boys are afraid of becoming men. I'll repeat that: dragons are afraid of becoming men. It scares them silly. They do not like the idea of becoming a man at all: it looks boring, no fun, difficult, and depressing. They're afraid they don't have what it takes to be successful. They are afraid of what the future has in store for them and the rest of humanity. They’re afraid: feeling alone, inadequate, and unprepared. They do not want to grow up and become men. This is not small potatoes: it is profound and significant.

A high school senior told me right after he turned eighteen, “I’m not interested in growing up. I’m going to play for as long as I can.” When I asked him when he thought he would be ready, he answered, “oh, maybe when I turn 26 or something. I don’t really want to be a grown man. What fun is that going to be?”

Another eighteen year old boasted “I should be able to do whatever I want. I’m eighteen and I should be able to make my own decisions, go wherever I want, whenever I want and not have to answer to anybody. Why should I have to listen to his [father’s] rules.”

I looked him straight in the eye and said, “well why don’t you do that? You're eighteen. Why don’t you just go live your life as you want?”

He became very quiet, leaned forward in his chair and returning my look said quietly, “I’m scared.”

I softly answered, “I’ll bet you are.”

“I don’t know how I’d support myself? What am I going to do, work at Mc Donald’s? How will I live. I’m used to having a really good life.”

Even a thirteen year old told me, “I want to stop things at seventeen or eighteen. Just before high school graduation. That would be perfect. I can drive, go wherever I want, be around my friends, but not have to be responsible for anything. Not have to work and support myself. That would suck.”

It’s not just that they don’t like the image of being a man (which most of them don’t), it’s that their afraid of it. They aren’t confident they can do it, they’re scared of the “responsibilities” and afraid of the “boredom.”

It’s not limited to young men who may be challenged academically or struggling socially. It’s pervasive, including the bright, talented, and socially active ones. And it will be the absolutely last thing they are going to show adults, especially their parents. They put on a fool’s parade.

Finally, and critically important: teenage boys are afraid of having more emotional power than their parents. Don’t believe me? Surprise! It’s a half-truth that they revel in being disrespectful and humiliating their parents. It’s a game. One with very high stakes. And it’s one the grown-ups play unwittingly and, from the boy’s point-of-view, lose with remarkable frequency to everyone’s disadvantage.

Consider this common family scene: he has not met some family expectation or has done something wrong - and he defends, provokes, argues, rationalizes, calls them names, swears or what have you OR acts nonchalant, like he doesn’t care, it’s no big deal, what are they upset about . . . whatever . . . and Mom or Dad just goes ballistic . . . he’s “pushed their buttons.”

Now, the parents, before they lost it, are simply asking their son to comply with what they consider are reasonable expectations and getting upset when he’s defiant. For the boy, when they lose it, he thinks, “Ha! They aren’t acting any more grown up than I am. They can’t handle their feelings any better than I can. In fact, worse because I can push them around. This is being an adult? This is it, the end of the maturity train? Great, so what have I got to look forward to? This isn’t right. I don’t like it. That’s scary!”

Teenage boys will do everything they can to steer the grownups clear of the fact that their scared. All the bluster, obnoxiousness, withdrawal, and claims to independence distract the adults from recognizing the truth: the boys are afraid.

©2012 Ted Braude

Related: Issues, Books

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Youth is wholly experimental. - Robert Louis Stevenson


Ted Braude is an expert on boys: known as “the dragon tamer” and the “boy whisperer.” A mentor, a martial artist, a musician, a writer and a counselor, he brings boys into young manhood. No small feat. He serves their interests, goals and desires, helping them become who they want to be. He’s kind of a “dream wizard.” As a mentor/counselor, he’s served boys in their quest for manhood for 30 years. As a martial artist, he is a second degree black belt in the Japanese martial art Aikido, training with the internationally known Ki master Katsumi Niikura Sensei. As a musician, he has been a professional and amateur multi-instrumentalist and singer since he was six years old. As a writer, he is a former columnist for The Detroit Free Press and The Daily Tribune newspapers and a host of journals & publications. He is the local point man for Boys to Men Mentoring Network in Michigan, a remarkable program that joins boys and men together in a community bringing the boys into young manhood and he is the Director of the BoysWork Project. Royal Oak, Michigan. Contact Ted at E-Mail or or 586-825-6483. An audio version of this column is available at

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