Boys brains are different, therefore approaches to help boys need to be tailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses. For some this may seem self-evident, but there has been a trend in society to treat boys and girls the same. The problem is they are not the same, they have unique biological differences and if we understand those we can help them better. There is a wide range of neural diversity among boys and among girls, but on average the differences between boys and girls hold true. These differences are a result of physical development that is guided by genes and hormones like testosterone.
Research shows on average women and men have equal intelligence, but how their brains work are different. That beings said, some boys and girls have a brain more typical of the opposite sex. As you read you may notice that your son behaves in a way that may indicate his brain is more female typical and that’s ok. What are some of the brain differences between boys and girls?
Structural Brain Differences
On average girls brains have 10x more white matter and boys brains have 6.5x more grey matter. White matter is related to connections between different regions of the brain, and grey matter is related to information processing. This means that girls are generally better at verbal and emotional processing. It also means they are often better at connecting different idea’s and remembering details. Boys’ brains are more compartmentalized meaning that they’re good at being focused on doing or thinking about one thing at a time.
Quick Tip – If your son is doing something and you want to communicate with him, get his attention by getting into his field of vision and offering a friendly touch. Remember, if he’s not focused on you, he’s not hearing you.
My Experience – As a man I fall prey to this trap often. I get very focused on the thing that I’m doing and sometime my wife will have to yell to get my attention. I’m not ignoring her but she usually thinks that I am. I often encourage her to give me a tap on the shoulder, and this gets my attention every time.
brain Blood Flow Differences
When boys are in a rest state their brain has much less activity than girls. So if your son is watching TV, zoning out, or bored his ability to think and communicate will be very low. As a counsellor I’ve seen this phenomena in action. When boys come into my office and are sitting in a chair they often can’t think of much to say. On the other hand girls find it much easier to express themselves verbally while being sedentary. The picture below compares a girls brain (left) and a boys brain (right) when in a resting state. You can see how the boys brain doesn’t have nearly as much activity.
Quick Tip – If you want to talk to your son about something that requires more mental energy, do an activity with him while you talk. Walk side by side, pass a ball back and forth, or play a game while you chat. In my work as a counsellor I always play games with my clients to get them moving and active. Remember, if his body is inactive, his brain is inactive.
My Experience – When I’m on walks with my wife I find we have the most engaging discussions. When my legs are moving blood is pumping to my brain, and I feel more alive and excited. During dinner however I often zone out and stare at my plate while eating. It’s not that I don’t want to talk, but I find it much harder to communicate while being inactive.
Developmental brain Differences
Boys brain development lags behind girls. Girls brain size peaks at age 10, whereas for boys it peaks at age 14. This means that boys ability to process complex and abstract concepts and integrate their learning is lower than girls the younger they are. Strengths that boys have is that they have better visual-mechanical skills. However, our school system prizes rote memorization and writing and downplays physical/mechanical intelligence. This can make boys feel “dumb” if they aren’t up to speed on the rote methods of learning.
Quick Tip – Respond to boys at their developmental age. If they’re not able to do things at the same level of girls or even boys their age don’t get frustrated. Meet them where they’re at and highlight what they ARE good at. Highlight and encourage his other forms of intelligence. Remember, girls are more advanced cognitively and boys are more advanced in hands on learning.
My Experience – I wasn’t cognitively behind growing up, but I listened to a great podcast about a guy who was. His name’s Rick Ackerly and he couldn’t read very well at all as a youngster. He later went on to attend Harvard and become an educator. So if you know a boys who is behind now, be patient, he’ll likely catch up.
hormonal differences – Testosterone
Boys have much higher levels of testosterone than girls, and by puberty is as much as 15 times greater. Testosterone is a hormone that is important for healthy functioning in men, and it also makes boys more aggressive. This means that when boys are emotionally distressed the emotion often expresses itself as anger. As mentioned previously, less white matter (brain connections) reduce their verbal emotional capacity. This means they have a double handi-cap when trying to express emotions. When they are upset they are more likely to act out their emotions resulting in getting in trouble, and they are less likely to be able to articulate what is going on inside. Check out my article on How To Get Your Son to Open Up for more tips on helping him express himself.
Quick Tip – When your son is angry or acting out assume their are other emotions underneath. Don’t talk about it in the moment but give him brief direction/instruction. Give him ample time to process what happened, at least a couple hours, and then help him articulate what happened. If he’s having a hard time expressing himself use visual cues (like the one below) to help him to label his emotions. Remember, boys’ have a range of emotions but they are often expressed as aggression and anger.
- Boy’s attention is single focused – Get his attention with physical touch
- Boy’s brains can easily become blank – Keep his body moving to activate his brain
- Boys are behind girls cognitively but ahead physically – Highlight and facilitate his strengths
- Testosterone increases aggression – After allowing ample process time help boys express emotions underneath their aggressive behaviour