Effective Pastoral Care for Boys: Why won’t boys ask for help?

Holistic pastoral care in schools can foster an environment for motivation, effort, resilience in the face of setback and, ultimately, achievement. We need boys, as well as girls to access that.

Sometime ago a young man walked into my office, shoulders sagging, eyes down, clearly burdened by something yet unnamed. Despite some gentle questioning he could not bring himself to express what he was feeling. I have long since learnt that teenage boys do not make an appointment to ask for help unless it is serious, so I didn’t want to leave it. “I know there is something wrong“, I said, “can’t you tell me what it is?” After a silence that lasted well over a minute he looked up and replied, “I can’t, it’s just too hard to say.”

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With my next appointment waiting outside I had to bring our interaction to an end unresolved. I know that for boys and men, putting a feeling into words can take a long time, often days. With that in mind all I could do was suggest that he come back later in the week and then cross my fingers.

Beyond academic

Caring for boys presents challenges; especially considering the societal pressure around masculinity and a reluctance to admit to fear or weakness. This in turn leads to a brittle-kind of strength that educators of boys will be familiar with.

This is not merely an academic issue with no import in the real world. According to the American Psychological Association, men’s fragility impacts not only their mental and physical health but also public health (violence, substance abuse and incarceration) and issues relating to quality of life such as relational problems and family well-being.

It matters for all these reasons but also it matters for educators because it holds boys back in what is the core business of schools, academics. Boys in the UK for example, when compared to girls, are less likely to study for a degree, then if they do they are less likely to complete it and, if they do complete it, they are less likely get a 2:1 or above. This has been the case since the mid 1990’s.

This is merely a continuation of what we see at school, where girls do better at GCSE level and significantly more girls than boys do A Levels. In South Africa in 2019 there were 61,744 more girls than boys who enrolled for the National Senior Certificate examinations, and 57,579 more girls than boys who actually wrote. 63.8% of the 156,884 distinctions were attained by female candidates.  

We can’t be certain why this is. We can be certain the reason won’t be simple. We do know that students who access academic and pastoral support report that it helps, and we know that males don’t access this support to the extent that females do.

To use a motoring analogy, when girls are struggling the lights on the dashboard start flashing, giving both a clue to the problem and a chance to get to the garage. For boys it can appear that the car is humming along fine. Then the engine just blows up.

Dashboard indicators

Research by Dr Ruth Woodfield at the University of Sussex provides some fascinating insight into gender difference when it comes to seeking help. Her work revealed that while female students more often report experiencing anxiety while at university and are more likely to express thoughts of leaving university, it is their male counterparts who are more likely to actually quit.  

This tells us something important. It seems we get early warning signals from females when they experience emotional distress. To use a motoring analogy, when girls are struggling the lights on the dashboard start flashing, giving both a clue to the problem and a chance to get to the garage. For boys it can appear that the car is humming along fine. Then the engine just blows up.

The focus on the bodywork at the expense of a labouring engine does not serve boys well. Men have got the memo that masculinity is achieved through an outward toughness marked by a reluctance to talk about anything that might make them seem less than others.  The script about how to be male includes it seems, unhelpful direction on how to manage emotional pain.  

Real men don’t ask for direction

In 2018, the American Psychological Association published specific guidelines for dealing specifically with males for the first time. The guidelines are a significant acknowledgement that providing psychological and emotional support might look different for different genders. The document concludes that, due to rigid gender expectations and narrow ideas about how men should suffer, men are less likely to seek help than women. “Men struggle with acknowledging issues that they believe might cause them to be perceived as vulnerable or unable to manage.”

None of this will be likely be a surprise to the half of the population who has been a daughter to, a sister of, wedded with or given birth to, a male. It probably isn’t a shock to most men themselves, although it may be less obvious.

The script about how to be male includes it seems, unhelpful direction on how to manage emotional pain.

If men and boys are working on the assumption that to ask for help is somehow at odds with being a male (and many are) then this must necessitate a difference in the way we provide care for boys.

Emotional courage

Back to my story. A few days later as I was clearing my desk at the end of the day thee was a knock at my door. Looking up I saw the young man who had visited be earlier standing there. Mentally uncrossing my fingers again, I invited him in. In halting words, he was able to hesitantly articulate his struggle. It seems he was reluctant to admit, even to himself, that he wasn’t coping. The man code around not showing vulnerability really is that strong. As the result of his courage we were then able to give him the support he needed and, although it wasn’t easy, he was able to complete his year.

Not every boy is able to do this. The script that steers men away from admitting weakness and asking for help is a powerful one. The easier we can make it for boys to be emotionally courageous, the better for everyone. Fortunately, as we will see in the next post, there are effective ways to do this.

This is Part 1 of a series on effective pastoral care for boys. Read Part 2 here.


Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, American Psychological Association 2018

Male Access and Success in Higher Education, The Higher Education Academy 2011

Male Students: Engagement with Academic and Pastoral Support Services, Equality Challenge Unit 2012


  1. Great article and something every parent and every person that deals with boys and young men should read.
    It is difficult for women to understand this reluctance to address emotional matters, and we need to remind ourselves that it they are not being difficult but that they need more support to enable and empower them


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