The Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan provides a comprehensive selection of specialized programs offering individual and group counseling services for men of all ages, and programs designed for boys and the adults who care for them. An uptick among young adults in the phenomenon known as “failure to launch” led the Center to establish “Progressions,” its program for young men struggling to transition into adulthood. Otha Brown, principal therapist for the program, has devoted his professional life to shepherding and counseling adolescent males and young men in transition from boyhood to manhood. In this, his second appearance on the Revealing Men podcast, he and Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center discuss the type of young men the program benefits, the issues they face, and what’s needed to help them more fully develop and successfully transition into manhood. Highlights of the conversation are excerpted below (edited for length and clarity). You can hear the entire segment on the podcast.
What’s Causing “Failure to Launch?”
Flood: Let’s start by talking about this phenomenon that is growing in America. It’s called different things, such as “failure to launch,” … We’re noticing it at the Center here, hence the program [Progressions]. Nationally, according to one researcher, about 20% of emerging adults have trouble transitioning into their adult life. Another study says that about a third of young men are still living at home; a number that has doubled in the last 30 years. We know that there is a trend in this direction of these young men struggling to transition. … What’s contributing to this do you think?
Brown: To a large degree I hear men talking about their adolescent development and things that happened at home. More families are experiencing divorce and it’s almost becoming commonplace, but these types of things are disruptive to family life. And when we think about what’s happening with these young men who are arrested in their development and staying home, and not leaving home, not finding work, well, it’s for a number of different reasons, and family distortions contribute to that.
Unique Challenges for 21st Century Males
Flood: I think that some might say, well, there was substance abuse, dysfunctional families back in the 50s and so why are we seeing this today? I just think that there’s something about the evolution of gender roles, and more women in the workplace, and the empowerment and civil rights movement. There are different things that are going on like the increased cost of college education for young men, not enough emphasis on focusing on trades, the advent of video games and gaming where people are getting lost in the Internet world. I just wonder, what your thoughts are about that?
Brown: Our society is advancing and, like you said, we have kids that are spending an enormous amount of time playing video games and their peer group is so into video games. Whereas in former days we were thinking about “what are we going to do as we grow up?” many of these men are just thinking about “oh, I’m playing the latest video game.” And, ya know, back in earlier times we weren’t as open about smoking pot and not as many guys were doing it. But now it’s really accepted. Substance use disorders attribute a lot [to] this staying home and not moving on, not getting direction.
Flood: Right. If you have a young man who’s maybe struggling with ambition and then they develop a substance use disorder with cannabis and then they’re also addicted maybe to video games. You take that in tandem and it makes it really hard for them to launch.
Brown: Exactly! That’s a very important contributor to what we’re seeing with young men having trouble getting out of the house, leaving home. You mentioned the rising cost of education. Everyone knows you need an education to get along in this world and I’ve seen some guys who are just not even thinking about it; not pursuing getting enough financial aid or getting enough money to get into college. They’re not going for it.
Helping Young Men Find Their True North
Flood: There’s such an emphasis now on training young men in the trades. I just wonder if that’s seen as inferior to going to college, or is that too hard of work? Do you talk to young men about—if they don’t want to go to college—the whole idea of what else might you want to do?
Brown: That’s a smaller part. It’s not advertised and promoted as much. Men who have the tradesmen in their families well then, they would know about it. If you don’t have a tradesman in your family, you likely would not think about “hey, I could make it in a trade!” There’s a lot of support for guys going into the trades.
We have our discussions about employment and moving on and guys—when we make it a point in the group—can focus on it but when they’re at home or around family their minds are elsewhere and this doesn’t get considered. Usually the mind is on what’s happening in the family. That’s a big distraction.
The Importance of Mentoring
Flood: So, this becomes a positive male socialization process essentially and that’s why I think we like what we do in our group work with men. We find it effective in the different kinds of groups we run here and this one is similar in that when you get young men together and they might’ve gotten there for different reasons—one might’ve gotten kicked out of school, another one got in trouble with the law, and another one, ya know the parents are on them about getting out of the basement and getting out of the house and getting a job—but they come together and they find something in common even though what might’ve gotten them there is different.
Brown: Yup. And some of them have experienced failed relationships and of course having experiences with domestic violence in their own families. Getting together, I make the point that to survive you really do need a peer group. You need a peer group that’s oriented towards positive goals, positive aspirations. Someone to hear what your life has encountered and give you feedback. And you need to hear other people’s life stories and give feedback as well. [Flood: “Right.”] It’s an important part of our development as men.
Flood: Right. And you’re in the room as the Grand Poobah. [Both: laugh.] Right? And I think there’s a little bit of that missing in our culture. I think sometimes the whole tradition of male mentoring and elders coming into children’s lives—historically it could’ve been grandfathers, it could’ve been people from faith communities—there is somewhat of a disconnection that has taken place and the isolation that these young men feel of being alone. And to have the richness of being in the room with live peers—not chat rooms necessarily, [Brown: “Exactly.”]—not that there’s something inherently evil about Internet connections, but if that’s all you have, then there’s a sense of isolation that can grow. So being in the room with you as a male elder, talking to them, encouraging them, helping them to be accountable is pretty powerful for them.
Brown: Yeah. I’ve worked with this group and they’re still amazed to be able to spend time talking with someone of my age, okay? [Flood: Laughs.] Because I have a depth of history to my life and they like to hear how things came to be and what to expect. Not many guys have that in their own households nowadays. So, we get a big circle in terms of what we talk about. It really can go in many different ways because there are lots of interests in the rooms and the groups and guys find it supportive.
Moving Beyond the Notion of Bad Boys
Flood: Some of these guys come in because they’ve gotten into trouble for ‘sexting’, sending pictures or receiving pictures that maybe are inappropriate. They’ve gotten into trouble because—what we call—they’re under-socialized. They haven’t been popular, they haven’t had the girlfriend, they haven’t had the experience, so they’re kinda lost and wandering around as an 18-year-old or 19-year-old and all of a sudden they show up at a party and meet maybe what is a mature 15-year-old and then there’s not getting to know each other, there’s alcohol involved or whatever, and then there’s a sexual encounter and so now they’re in trouble. … Are these kids coming in through that?
Brown: Yeah. Guys that would not have a lot of experience making relationships, … relating to someone that they really don’t know. And, oftentimes, that does turn out to be wrong because that young lady has a family and that family is not happy that she’s having sex with an older guy. Next thing you know this guy is in court and may be surprised that he has been charged. But, nevertheless, he’s been charged because his experience and his approach to getting a relationship started was so lacking. [Flood: “Right.”]
And so, he comes into the group, he gets quickly educated in terms of what went wrong. And many times, these guys are coming in saying, “I will never do something like this again!” I say, “Okay! That’s good!” But now what will you do? Let’s talk about what you can do and how you can move yourself past this experience in life. It’s so unfortunate but the guys that make it into the group are glad that they did. They’re not happy about what happened to them to get them into the group, but then when they get there, they’re really glad, because we’re working on things that they really want to know about.
Young Men’s Emotional Development
Flood: I remember you and I having a conversation that it was hard to get the young men to talk to each other again. It’s kinda like the cool pose of you don’t want to let someone behind the mask or someone behind the curtain, so they go in there initially and don’t want to relate or talk or acknowledge mistakes. It takes a lot of effort on your part sometimes to grease the wheels!
Brown: Yeah it does. Ya know the social scene is that guys they’re cool, they don’t talk much, they don’t express much emotion. That’s because they’ve been socialized that way. But then, guys really do want to talk! They really do want to express what they’re feeling, and thinking, and going through! They need permission. They need help in getting past that socialization barrier, and opening up to each other. And man do they open up! I’m sometimes amazed by what they get into! Once they realize: “No, this is for real. You don’t have to pretend. This is an actual safe place where you can talk, you can experience other people’s experiences, and contribute.” It really winds up good.
Flood: Yeah. That kind of supports Niobe Way’s research—the developmental psychologist, who did that longitudinal study and followed kids from grade school, into middle school, high school, college. She found out at about middle school that boys will stop being intimate with their friends and they’ll start pursuing more sexual intimacy. And so, to give them permission that it’s not—to be open and be interested and care for another young man, a friend of yours—it’s not about sexual interest, it’s about caring for another human being. And opening up and talking about your life is not about weakness. It’s about sharing your humanity, and sharing what’s really going on and being honest about it.
Brown: We’re experiencing a lot of good things in our Progressions group therapy sessions and I’m really pleased with how it’s going.
Flood: If someone’s interested, … they what? They’re thrown right into the group? Do they see you first? How does that work?
Brown: Well, I do a thorough evaluation and assessment. We really talk over areas that the young man is interested in talking about. And more about what I want to know about his life. I spend about two sessions where we really get to know each other and that’s really helpful because throughout the group I’m able to help in areas that we’ve identified beforehand. And then, yeah, you’re scheduled into the group!
If you’d like more information about Progressions or other counseling services for young men, please contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call us at (616) 456-1178. If you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast, we’d like to hear from you.