Eternal Adolescence: Young Men & The Need For Mentorship
Updated: Oct 10
In the latest Therapy For Guys episode, I asked James Derkits what worries him about our current world. He responded that young men's extended adolescence and the lack of mentors were troubling for him. This comment resonated with me as a therapist who specializes in teens and young men. It's not the first time this reality has come up on the podcast. David Martin LPC-S spoke on young men's struggle to grow up and transition into adulthood. This is a complicated phenomenon with multiple sources.
John G. Cottone points out that while adolescents are on par with adults at a cognitive level, their emotional development and executive functioning are not. Dr. Cottone argues that 25 may be the new 18 for young men. In what follows, I'd like to explore some of the struggles I see working with extended adolescence and offer a few ideas for how to address it.
Where Are The Rites of Passage into Adulthood?
James Hollis reflects on why many young men struggle transitioning into adulthood in his book The Broken Mirror: Refracted Versions of Ourselves. He points out that in the past, societies did a better job helping young boys develop into adult men. While each culture differed from another, there are some common patterns we could highlight. Hollis refers to these as rites of passage. The first step or rite of passage Hollis labels departure. In the departure stage, the young boy was temporarily removed from the tribe. After the removal from the tribe, the boy was confronted with symbolic figures from the tribe that challenged his youthful identity. The next step or rite of passage Hollis calls death.
In this stage, a ritual is performed that symbolized the psychological death of the boy's immature ego. The function of the ritual was to help the boy loosen his grip on his youthful identity. The next step or rite of passage Hollis calls the ordeal. In this step, the young man was exposed to hardship, survival and endurance and often a form of ritual wounding. As Hollis writes,
This last we might consider child abuse but was symbolic of the necessary quid pro quo of life: to get something, you also have to sacrifice something.
The next stage that Hollis mentions is the teaching phase. This phase involves a process of passing on the tribe's secrets, teachings and ethical practices. The last phase, according to Hollis, is the return. This is the point where the boy returns to the tribe as an initiated adult man.
On the one hand, I agree with Hollis and others who lament the modern situation and the absence of these rites of passage. Without a clear sense of how to transition into adulthood, many young men that I work with feel lost. On the other hand, I'm nervous about romanticizing the past. Ancient cultures had values and practices that many of us in the modern world would find atrocious and problematic. I have yet to read a modern account of someone who laments the loss of these rites of passage who also offers a credible and realistic alternative. I fear that it becomes a way to diagnose the problem (which I agree with in part) without offering an adequate solution.
One of my favorite graduate courses was on mentorship. The word mentor derives from the character in Homer's The Odyssey. Mentor is the old man that Athena commissions to help guide Telemachus on his journey. For the sake of this blog and my therapeutic speciality, I'll focus on mentorship between men.
A mentor is someone who helps a younger person develop. The mentor has knowledge, experience and skills the mentee does not. In a mentoring relationship, the mentor and mentee engage in informal communication to assess what the mentee needs and how the mentor can help. Depending on the situation and needs, the mentor may walk alongside the mentee and help him acquire the knowledge and develop the skills he needs to develop as a person.
If ancient rites of passage are unrealistic in the modern world, I wonder if more intentional mentoring between older men and younger boys could help with the crisis of extended adolescence.
Therapy: Mentoring Boys into Men
There is a sense in which I understand my work as a therapist to be a form of helping mentor boys into men. Many of the adolescents (18-24) I see are stuck in childhood and don't have a clue what being an adult man looks like. They are in a state of arrested development and face many issues including anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
The first step in therapy as mentorship is the establishment of a therapeutic relationship. The client has to feel like I have his best interests in mind. He also has to trust me and believe that we will work together to improve his situation. Part of the relationship building process is establishing my knowledge, experience and skills in the realm of becoming an adult man. The client needs to know that I am not just making shit up. He has to believe that I have been where he is and successfully navigated the transition from boyhood to manhood.
The second step is clarifying what adulthood should look like. I don't present a monolithic account of what being an adult male looks like. I think there's lots of room for difference and diversity. That said, I tend to emphasize several core aspects of what manhood entails:
Accountability to your best self: Without defining what this means for males, I challenge my clients to pursue a life where they are being the best version of themselves. Justin Copeland and I spoke about this in our episode on male excellence.
Pursuit of a vocation: Some of my clients are capable of full-time work while others have cognitive and emotional disabilities that prevent them from prolonged employment. Regardless of capability, I think it's important for males to find meaningful work in the world.
Emotional intelligence: Growing as a man means navigating the emotional world in a healthy manner. I help males identify what they are feeling and learn how to express it in constructive ways.
Healthy interdependence: Adult men have to learn how to balance independence from their parents while also learning to stay connected to friends, family and their larger community.
The third step is working with the client to navigate the obstacles in the way of becoming an adult. Many guys I work with struggle with lack of motivation, low confidence and addiction. I often notice a vicious cycle with my clients who are stuck in adolescence.
They are governed by fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of letting go of a childlike existence devoid of responsibility. This fear results in a retreat from life, procrastination and a litany of excuses. Fear leads to inaction which results in more intense feelings of self-rejection.
Breaking the cycle entails facing the root of the fear. Young men need to be encouraged to face their fear and take courageous steps in the direction of taking responsibility for their excellence.
Katy Counseling for Men: Counselors Who Specialize in Men's Therapy in Katy, TX & Houston
You don't need to be stuck in adolescence forever. Extended adolescence prevents you from moving forward . Once you get unstuck, you can be free to build stronger relationships, and find greater fulfillment in work and life.
If you are ready to start building a stronger future together, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps: