The number of boys calling the UK child telephone helpline ChildLine is starting to increase. Historically boys have only represented 20% of calls to the service but this has increased over the last 5 years to 33%.

The most common concerns of boys calling ChildLine in 2007/8 were:

  1. Bullying (12 568 calls).
  2. Physical abuse (6 403 calls).
  3. Family problems (6 016 calls).
  4. Facts of Life (5 362 calls).
  5. Sexual Abuse (4 780 calls).
  6. Sexuality (3 510 calls).
  7. Loneliness (1 817 calls).
  8. Rape (1 803 calls).

Although it is clear that boys are starting to call ChildLine more, the raw facts are still disturbing. On first appearance, it seems that even as children, boys feel less able to seek help for their problems compared to girls. Even now, twice as many girls phone the ChildLine service than boys. Why is this?

One reason might be that as girls hit puberty, there unfolds a biological process whereby girls network with other girls and women. The evolutionary reason for this is that such talk builds a social network to help with child rearing. Boys at puberty, on the other hand, are faced with a different task, namely to establish themselves on a dominance hierarchy of other boys and men. The evolutionary reason for this is to secure the best sexual partners with the best genes. Talking about problems to other boys and adults may be seen by boys as incompatible with their social expectations ‘to compete’.

Evolutionary theory may account for why boys are less likely to talk about their problems than girls, but does not imply that we should be content with the status quo. What is needed is greater imagination by ChildLine and others who offer services to boys, to engage with them and their problems. Boys, like men, need a different approach to engage with services.

In adult mental health work there are some interesting and creative ways in which services reach out to men. One includes positioning mental health nurses within football clubs, another involves marketing services to men only groups (men are more likely to open up in single sex groups), and marketing services in a non threatening or stigmatising way, for example by offering workshops on ‘building self confidence’ rather than ‘coping with depression’.

Of course such initiatives in men’s mental health are welcome but they are still rare. It seems to me if ChildLine and other services want boys to engage more equally with girls, then they are going to have to learn some lessons from these projects. It’s simply not good enough to stand by and not engage with boys because the services on offer meet the needs of girls better. ‘Blaming’ boys for not responding to the existing models of intervention is also simply not good enough.

Engaging with boys, however, is not just the responsibility of voluntary and statutory services. As men we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the boys in our lives, should they have a problem. Simply contracting with boys that you are available if there is a problem is often enough to help boys feel supported in their lives. This is important if you are a father to a boy, but also for uncles, godparents and friends of the family. Though simple, it’s something that I think many adults simply forget to do with boys. The result is our boys battle through childhood on their own with problems that would have been easy to solve in the hands of a sympathetic adult.

Boys need our help, our task is to make it easy for them to do so.

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