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Masculinity in the Midst of Mindfulness: Exploring the Gendered Experiences of At-risk Adolescent Boys

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Abstract

Teenage boys are a source of considerable concern in society, with generally poorer health, educational, and social outcomes than their female counterparts. Of particular concern are “at-risk” adolescents, who by definition are liable to poorer outcomes than peers not deemed at-risk. However, there are indications that activities such as mindfulness may offer opportunities for such adolescents to negotiate more positive constructions of masculinity. This study piloted a new four-week mindfulness-based intervention, created specifically for a group of eight at-risk adolescent boys at a school in London. In-depth, semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with participants before and after the intervention and analyzed using grounded theory. The data revealed an overarching theme of “pressure control.” Participants depicted themselves as facing multiple pressures, many of which related to making the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. However, the context of the intervention enabled them to generate a masculine construction in which they were able to reclaim agency and self-control. Notably, such control was often exercised in the direction of facilitating emotional connection and agility, thus subverting traditional masculine expectations. The results show that at-risk adolescent boys are capable of more nuanced and skilled emotional competencies than they are often given credit for.
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Masculinity in the midst of mindfulness: Exploring the gendered experiences of at-risk
adolescent boys
Men and Masculinities
Tim Lomas, Ellie Garraway, Chloe Stanton, Itai Ivtzan
___________________________
T. Lomas
Department of Psychology, University of East London, Water Lane, London, E15 4LZ
e-mail: t.lomas@uel.ac.uk
E. Garraway
Department of Psychology, University of East London, Water Lane, London, E15 4LZ
C. Stanton
Department of Psychology, University of East London, Water Lane, London, E15 4LZ
I. Ivtzan
Department of Psychology, University of East London, Water Lane, London, E15 4LZ
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Abstract
Teenage boys are a source of considerable concern in society, with poorer health, educational
and social outcomes than their female counterparts. Of particular concern are ‘at-risk’
adolescents, who by definition are liable to poorer outcomes. However, there are indications
that activities such as mindfulness may offer opportunities for such adolescents to negotiate
more positive constructions of masculinity. This study piloted a new four-week mindfulness-
based intervention, created specifically for a group of eight at-risk adolescent boys at a school
in London. In-depth semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with participants
before and after the intervention, and analysed using grounded theory. The data revealed an
overarching theme of pressure control.’ Participants depicted themselves as facing multiple
pressures, many of which related to making the difficult transition from childhood to
adulthood. However, the context of the intervention enabled them to forge a masculine
performance in which they were able to reclaim agency and self-control. Notably, such
control was often exercised in the direction of facilitating emotional connection and agility,
thus subverting traditional masculine expectations. The results show that at-risk adolescent
boys are capable of far more nuanced and skilled emotional performances than they are often
given credit for.
Keywords: mindfulness; intervention; at-risk; adolescence; masculinity
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Males in crisis
Men and boys are often regarded as a source of concern in society, seen as troubled or
deficient relative to their female counterparts. Whilst many men and boys are of course
flourishing and successful, males on the whole (i.e., as a statistical generalisation) fare poorly
in terms of health, with higher mortality rates, partly attributed to men being more likely to
engage in health risk behaviours, such as alcohol abuse (Office for National Statistics [ONS],
2012a). Men have equally problematic outcomes in mental health, accounting for three-
quarters of all suicide deaths (ONS, 2012b), and 67% of those detained under the mental
health act (The National Health Service information centre, 2011). Men are much more likely
to perpetrate violent or antisocial behaviour, constituting 95% of the United Kingdom (UK)
prison population (Ministry of Justice [MoJ], 2012). Finally, in education, boys are
outperformed by girls at all ages (Economic and Social Research Council [ESRC], 2011).
Such is the prevalence and gravity of these issues that males are frequently asserted to be ‘in
crisis,’ with a ‘widespread popular and academic agreement that something is troubling men’
(McDowell, 2000, p.201).
The reasons for poorer outcomes for males are complex and multifaceted (Stoddard,
Henly, Sieving, & Bolland, 2011). However, recent theorising has attributed at least some of
the blame for such outcomes to masculinity, and the prevalence of masculinity norms that can
have deleterious effects (Courtenay, 2000). Encompassed in a framework of social learning
theory, it is argued that males’ gendered behaviour is shaped by societal expectations, which
are held at least partly responsible for the poor outcomes above, as men demonstrate
masculinity by engaging in behaviours that can be maladaptive, from health risk behaviours
like drinking (de Visser & Smith, 2007) to aggression (Mosher & Tomkins, 1988). More
complex causal links are also proposed. For example, norms around emotional toughness are
linked to tendencies towards ‘restrictive emotionality’ in men, i.e., detachment or
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disconnection from emotions, to the extent that Levant (1998) refers to ‘normative male
alexithymia. This disconnection is seen as contributing to affect dysregulation, i.e.,
difficulties managing one’s emotions (Addis, 2008), meaning that males are more likely to
‘externalise’ their distress in often destructive ways, including anger, aggression, risk-taking,
substance/alcohol use, over-work and suicide (Pollack, 1998)
At-risk youth
Thus, masculinity is widely viewed in the literature as a ‘risk factor’ for poor health and
social outcomes (Gough, 2006). Moreover, some males fare far worse than others on these
indices, as highlighted by the intersectionality paradigm (Hankivsky & Christoffersen, 2008).
Intersectionality refers to the way in which the multiple identity categories to which a person
belongs such as gender, ethnicity, and class interact in complex ways. For instance, in
terms of mental health, gender-related outcomes are complicated by socioeconomic status,
whereby men in the poorest 5th of the UK population are almost three times more likely to
suffer a common mental disorder than men in the richest 5th (ESRC, 2011). So, while males
generally are a concern, particular subsets are regarded as warranting especial attention. One
such subset is ‘at-risk’ youth, defined as ‘adolescents who face disadvantage or adversity
narrowly or broadly defined’ (Swahn & Bossarte, 2009, p.225), such as living in an area
characterised by high crime and poverty. At-risk youth are a significant issue: on one metric
supervision by a Youth Offending Team there are over 85,000 in the UK alone, almost 80%
of whom are male (MoJ, 2012b). Almost by definition, at-risk youth have poorer health and
social outcomes (Swahn & Bossarte, 2009).
The reasons why at-risk youth are more liable to poorer outcomes are again complex
and multifaceted. Some reasons are non-gender specific: for example, compared to non-at-
risk youth, those at risk (of both sexes) are more exposed to risk-factors for behavioural and
mental disorder, from peer delinquency to exposure to violence (Youngstrom, Weist, &
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Albus, 2003). Some reasons are gender specific, where it is argued that the ‘masculinity as
risk-factor’ thesis is exacerbated by social factors such as socioeconomic status, since males
from disadvantaged backgrounds are reportedly more likely to assert their masculinity
through behaviours like aggression (Seale & Charteris-Black, 2008). One explanation is that
asserting power is a marker of masculine status. Men with structural power e.g.,
occupational influence can draw on their social standing as a way of demonstrating power
(Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). This option is foreclosed to males with less standing, who
may resort to cruder means of assertion, like violence, referred to as compensatory ‘hyper-
masculine’ behaviours (i.e., traditional masculine performances taken to extremes) (Mosher
& Tomkins, 1988). At-risk male youth are especially liable to such ‘hyper-masculinity,’
leading to even worse health and social outcomes than for males generally (Varano, Huebner,
& Bynum, 2011).
Adolescence as a critical juncture
In considering the challenges faced by at-risk youth, of particular relevance is the idea that
this age is a critical juncture in the inculcation and adoption of gender-based performances
(Barrett & White, 2002, p.451). Of course, gender socialisation occurs throughout childhood,
with boys subject to gendered messages that shape behaviour in line with masculinity norms,
perhaps best encapsulated in the exhortation that ‘boys don’t cry’ (Mejía, 2005). These kind
of ‘shaming’ messages serve to curtail the emotional expressiveness of boys. For example,
Chaplin, Cole, and Zahn-Waxler (2005) found that boys’ expressions of emotionality
decreased 50% from pre- to early school, influenced mainly by parental discouragement of
emotional expression. However, adolescence (e.g., from 11 onwards) is really the time when
such gendered pressures (e.g., via shaming) really come to the fore in shaping behaviour
(Mejía, 2005).
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The significance of adolescence in this regard was shown by Lomas, Cartwright,
Edginton, and Ridge (2013), who analysed narratives of men who had taken up meditation,
and found that most reported suddenly crossing a ‘threshold’ into adulthood around age 12-
13, at which they experienced pressures to ‘be a man’ including being emotionally tough
that had not been present earlier in childhood. This pressure can be enforced in various ways,
such as bullying of behaviour regarded as ‘feminine.’ For example, homophobic bullying is
related to increased risk of suicidal ideation and behaviour, with LGBT boys between 2 and
12 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual boys (Saewyc et al., 2008). It is
particularly at this ‘threshold’ in adolescence that boys are liable to adopt forms of masculine
behaviour that later may prove harmful, like emotional toughness. These behavioural changes
range from ‘laddishness,’ alcohol consumption, and disruptive behaviour (Francis, 1999,
p.357), to adopting a ‘cool pose’ of bravado, concealing vulnerability by erecting an
‘impenetrable wall of toughness’ (Pollack, 2006, p.191).
Moreover, this imperative to adopt masculine behaviours associated with adulthood
might be particularly acutely felt by at-risk youth. Jones (2002) analysed transitions into
adulthood, and observed a ‘slow track’ and a ‘fast track.’ The former describes a process of
crossing and re-crossing boundaries between childhood and adulthood in a series of partial
transitions between dependence and independence. This ‘track’ relies on parental support
until the youth acquires social/cultural capital, mainly through educational attainments. In
contrast, the fast track involves a sudden transition, characterised by negative physical and
emotional experiences as the youth is thrust, somewhat unprepared, into adulthood. It is
precisely at-risk youth who are more liable to this fast track, with all the adverse
consequences that can ensue.
Critiquing the crisis narrative
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However, despite the negative appraisal of males and masculinity depicted above the
‘males in crisis’ narrative – many gender theorists have begun to argue that such outcomes
are neither necessary nor inevitable (Courtenay, 2000). Such theorists articulate a more
nuanced, constructionist reading of gender, in which the potential for adaptive change is
recognised both for males themselves (e.g., males can learn to take on behaviours that are
more conducive to wellbeing), and for masculinity (i.e., it is possible for societies to evolve
more enlightened gender expectations). Indeed, in Lomas et al.’s (2013) research with male
meditators, they found that participants had been able to negotiate more adaptive forms of
masculinity characterised by features like emotional expressiveness and abstinence from
alcohol which were beneficial to their wellbeing. Lomas (2013) summarised these findings
under the rubric ‘critical positive masculinity: positive in the sense of conducive to
wellbeing; critical in the sense that these men were challenging or circumventing traditional
masculine norms.
Moreover, the research uncovered the complicated social dynamics that upheld these
positive changes. For instance, most participants had been supported in their efforts to enact a
more adaptive masculinity by a ‘Community of Practice’ (CoP; Lave & Wenger, 1991),
based around a meditation centre. Using Connell’s (1995) notion of hegemonic masculinity,
Lomas, Cartwright, Edginton, and Ridge (2015) suggested that these CoP offered an
alternative system of hegemonic norms that was relatively positive (i.e., beneficial to the
health and wellbeing of most members). Yet, reflecting Gramsci’s (1971) recognition that
hegemony inevitably involves power dynamics that leave some people marginalised, even
these ‘positive’ norms had the potential to cause harm to certain members. For instance, some
participants reported forms of ostracism based on their unwillingness to accede to norms such
as engagement in religious rituals. Nevertheless, the research did show the potential for men
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to negotiate more ‘adaptive’ masculine performances, in their case through involvement with
a meditation-based CoP.
Meditation with at-risk adolescents
In light of Lomas et al.’s (2013, 2015) findings e.g., the potential for meditation-based
contexts to offer opportunities for alternative masculine performances it would seem of
interest to enquire into the possibilities for at-risk adolescent boys in this regard. Indeed, there
has already been much research on the benefits of meditation for adolescent boys. Meditation
can be defined broadly as a method of ‘training attention and awareness in order to bring
mental processes under greater voluntary control’ (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006, pp. 228-229).
More specifically, most research has been on mindfulness, defined as ‘the awareness that
arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally to
the unfolding of experience moment by moment’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p.145). One can see,
theoretically, how this type of attention training might be useful to young people, e.g.,
helping them develop cognitive and emotional skills. Indeed, there is a burgeoning literature
on the use of mindfulness with young people. For instance, a meta-analysis by Zenner,
Herrnleben-Kurz, and Walach (2014) obtained 24 relevant studies (19 featuring a controlled
design); significant between-group effect sizes were found for cognitive performance
(Hedge’s g = 0.80), stress (g = 0.39), and resilience (g = 0.36). Similarly, in the context of
youth more generally (up to age 18), a meta-analysis by Zoogman, Goldberg, Hoyt, and
Miller (2014) identified 20 relevant studies, and concluded that mindfulness had a significant
beneficial effect on ‘psychological symptoms’ (e.g., depression and anxiety).
However, as valuable as such statistical analyses are, there have so far been no studies
focusing on the implications of mindfulness practice for at-risk adolescent boys specifically,
and particularly in terms of their gendered performance. That is, one might wonder, what
types of masculinity are hindered or facilitated by engagement in mindfulness-related
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activities. We have already noted above the potential for critiquing the ‘males in crisis’
narrative, highlighting the fact that males are capable of negotiating more constructive (e.g.,
beneficial to wellbeing) performances of masculinity. Indeed, Lomas et al. (2013, 2015)
already demonstrated that meditation can be helpful in this regard, for adult men at least. As
such, it is of interest to see whether meditation can be similarly useful for at-risk adolescent
boys. To this end, this study reports on the exploratory piloting of a new mindfulness-based
intervention created specifically for a cohort of at-risk adolescent boys. Our interest here is
not whether this programme was ‘effective’ per se (e.g., in engendering emotional
wellbeing), since the methodological approach is not such that effectiveness can genuinely be
assessed. Rather, the research sought to explore the following questions:
How do at-risk adolescent boys perform masculinity in the context of a
mindfulness-based activity?
Can their performances be considered ‘positive’ e.g., beneficial to wellbeing
thereby challenging the ‘males in crisis’ narrative?
Methods
Participants
Eight adolescent males aged 13-14 were recruited to the study through an inner-city
comprehensive school in East London. An appropriate ethical protocol was developed in
conjunction with the school, and was approved by the University of East London (School of
Psychology ethics committee). Inclusion criteria were: (a) at-risk (as defined and identified
by the school); (b) male; (c) aged 13-14; and (d) able to understand English. The exclusion
criterion was having been identified as currently suffering from a clinical mental health
condition. The participants were judged by the school to be at risk of under-achievement
and/or exclusion from school, and were approached by the school lead on student wellbeing
(who also attended sessions, as outlined below), and invited to participate. It was emphasised
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that participation was non-compulsory, but was an activity they might find “helpful or
rewarding.” An information sheet, written specifically for this age group, was given to
participants. A similar information sheet, written for adults, was given to their parents. Two
separate consent forms were also created, one for participants and one for parents. The
participant and one of their parents had to sign their respective consent forms before
participation. All eight students who were initially approached gave their informed consent,
as did their parents. Seven participants were born in London, and one moved to London from
Europe aged 3. Seven participants were from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and
one was white. For context, the school is an ‘all-through’ (age 4-18) school in one of the most
socio-economically deprived boroughs in London. However, while state-funded, it is one of
the first generation of Free Schools, a status which gives schools significant freedom,
removed from national strictures, in their curriculum design and pedagogical approach. In
this school, efforts have been made to put wellbeing at the core of the school values, for
instance through coaching groups. It is thus an atypical urban comprehensive, which
obviously has some bearing on the results.
The intervention
Participants undertook a pilot mindfulness intervention, namely a four-week programme,
featuring one 1-hour session per week. Sessions were on school premises, during the school
day (just before lunchtime). Sessions were conducted by three of the research team. The
mindfulness practices were led by Itai Ivtzan (II), a trained and accredited mindfulness
teacher (and teacher trainer), who spent two years in China and India in a number of different
Ashrams, studying mindfulness with a variety of spiritual teachers, and subsequently spent
the next 20 years teaching mindfulness while updating his knowledge and teaching through
courses such as the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and the MSC (Mindful Self
Compassion). II has extensive experience of teaching across diverse age groups (including
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children), both in secular and non-secular contexts (though the intervention was presented as
secular), and who adheres to the UK Good Practice Guidelines for teaching mindfulness.
Helping the fourth author facilitate group discussions within the sessions was Ellie Garraway
(EG, who works professionally with at-risk youth), and Tim Lomas (TL, a scholar with
expertise in masculinity and gender studies, who was the lead researcher on the study).
Whilst not being mindfulness teachers (and hence not leading the mindfulness practices),
both EG and TL have practiced mindfulness regularly for a number of years, and EG is in the
process of undergoing teacher training.
The schools lead teacher on student wellbeing was present at all sessions (but did not
actively participate); as per the ethics protocol, he was on hand to ensure student wellbeing
during and after sessions, and to maintain order in the event of any behavioural trouble
(which, in the event, did not arise). The ethics protocol also had other protocols in place to
ensure participants’ wellbeing over the course of the intervention. For instance, teachers
monitored the participants in classes in between sessions, and were instructed to alert the
school’s lead teacher on wellbeing if they had any concerns. Likewise, the parents of the
participants were also encouraged to get in touch with the school if they had any concerns. In
the event, no such issues arose. It might also be noted that there was a 2:1 ratio of adults to
participants in the sessions (4 facilitators and 8 boys), which is obviously a far closer ratio
than typical mindfulness interventions. This likely had some impact on participants, e.g.,
potentially imposing some degree of pressure (or encouragement, looked at more
benevolently) to participate in activities that may have been attenuated with a larger ratio.
The sessions were designed to introduce participants to a range of mindfulness
practices that might be helpful in the context of their lives. This design was created by the
research team, based on their professional experience and expertise, over several stages that
unfolded over two sessions of intervention planning. First, II generated a list of common
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practices used across many mindfulness-based interventions (e.g., breathing meditation), as
well as a list of teaching activities and metaphors which he felt had worked well in teaching
mindfulness to children and adolescents (e.g., describing the mind as if populated by different
animals, such as the ‘monkey mind’). Then, drawing on her experience of working with at-
risk youth, EG provided input on which of these practices and activities would be most suited
to this population. The team also followed the guidance of scholars who have used
mindfulness with children (e.g., Burke, 2010), such as keeping practices to around 5-10
minutes, thereby ensuring that these were concise enough to retain participants’ attention. EG
also drew up a list of other developmental activities which she had used with at-risk youth,
such as goal-setting sessions and sharing circles, which could potentially augment the
mindfulness practices.
The research team then agreed on a list of activities, and a schedule for these. This
protocol was consequently presented to the school’s lead teacher on wellbeing, to check that
he was satisfied with the content and structure, which he was. It should be noted that although
the intervention was created specifically for these participants, the intervention should not be
regarded as being exclusive and specific to at-risk boys. The intervention comprised fairly
standard mindfulness practices, adapted in a relatively conventional way for young people
(e.g., as per Burke, 2010). As such, the originality of the intervention mainly consisted in the
fact that it was specifically being tried out with a sample of at-risk boys.
Data collection
Two semi-structured interviews were undertaken with each participant, one pre-intervention
(around one week before the first session) and one post-intervention (around one week after
the last session). Interviews took place on school premises, and were one-to-one, involving
the participant and EG. Interviews were conducted in a sensitive way, with participants
encouraged to share their views honestly. Interviews lasted around 30 minutes, guided by a
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pre-prepared schedule, and were tape-recorded (and later transcribed). The aim of the pre-
intervention interview was to get a general ‘baseline’ sense of the participants’ wellbeing, and
of life generally, i.e., before being introduced to mindfulness. It included questions such as:
which aspects of life are going well; which aspects of life aren’t going so well; what do you
do if you’re feeling unhappy or stressed; and do you have to act in particular ways because
you’re a boy? Post-intervention interviews then attempted to ascertain whether the boys had
experienced or perceived any changes in their wellbeing, or life more generally, since
participating in the intervention. This included questions like: what do you think of
mindfulness; did you find it hard to practice; and what effect did taking part have on your
life?
Data analysis
Interview transcripts were analysed using a version of grounded theory (GT), a process of
inductive analysis created by Glaser and Strauss (1967), in which emergent themes are
identified, allowing theory to be generated. Not all steps of conventional grounded theory
were followed here; we did not engage in theoretical sampling, nor were we guided by
saturation. However, in practice, GT has come to represent a rather broad label,
encompassing diverse approaches that have adapted the initial methodology in various ways
(Cutcliffe, 2005). As such, given that we followed the central coding sequence of
open/substantive, selective, and then theoretical coding, we are comfortable retaining the
term GT to describe our analysis. The data analysis was mainly conducted by the TL and
Chloe Stanton (CS). In the first stage of open/substantive coding, CS read the pre-
intervention transcripts closely line-by-line, looking for emergent codes, which generated 82
codes. Once post-intervention interviews had been transcribed, these were also read through,
looking for additional codes, which generated a further 65 codes, thus creating almost 150
codes across the two sets of interviews.
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Then, together, TL and CS refined the list of codes (e.g., some codes were conflated),
producing a final list of just over 90 codes. In the next stage of selective coding also
conducted conjointly by TL and CS codes were compared with each other in a process of
constant comparison, and were aggregated into themes based on conceptual similarity. This
produced around 20 themes, each formed of 4 or 5 codes. For instance, in relation to
mindfulness were several codes pertaining to concentration, including ‘focusing,’
‘concentrating,’ ‘paying attention,’ and ‘controlling the mind.’ These were all aggregated into
a theme of ‘developing concentration.’ In the final stage of theoretical coding (also involving
TL and CS), the themes were then aggregated into meta-themes, again based on conceptual
similarity, producing two overarching meta-themes: pressure and self-control. These meta-
themes were examined for a master theme which could serve as a theoretical explanation for
the data, namely pressure control, as elucidated below. The coding framework was then
shared with the rest of the research team, particularly EG (who conducted the interviews), to
gain their approval (e.g., in terms of whether it tallied with their own appraisals of the boys’
experiences of the intervention), which both granted. TL then wrote up the results, as featured
below; this was also shared with the whole research team, and all concurred with the analysis
presented.
Results
One overarching master theme emerged from the data, which was ‘pressure control.’ Under
this were two interlinked meta-themes: pressure and self-control. These will be discussed in
turn, with select quotes provided for the confirmability of the themes (Drisko, 1997). To
preserve anonymity, participants are identified using letters A-H.
Pressure
In appraising their lives, participants almost uniformly portrayed these as beset by multiple
pressures. These included pressures relating to their particular life-stage (adolescence), to
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being ‘at-risk,’ and to gender. In many ways, these findings recapitulate themes that have
already been uncovered in the literature. However, they become particularly interesting when
framed in the light of the second meta-theme of self-control, as shall be seen below.
Firstly, in terms of pressures relating to life-stage, participants corroborated the notion
even if they did not directly articulate it themselves that adolescence can represent a
difficult ‘threshold’ period between childhood and adulthood, echoing the findings of Jones
(2002) and Mac an Ghaill and Haywood (2012). Looking backwards, some pupils conveyed a
sense of childhood being a relatively pleasant time, compared to the strains of the present.
For instance, B had difficulty identifying what made him happy, but when prompted further,
he suggested “primary school.” Likewise, G, who described feeling “depressed,” said
movingly that “when I was younger, I was kind of happy.” Childhood was generally
portrayed as a time when the boys were able to have “fun,” relatively unburdened by
pressures (in comparison to the pressures they were now feeling). Indeed, many still reported
a lingering attachment to the activities that had provided such enjoyment in childhood, like
playing sports and video games. As B put it, “most of the time I like playing with my
console… and just like having fun.”
And yet, their current age was depicted as a time of transition. There was the sense of
both trying to grasp what adulthood would be like (e.g., what it would require of them), and
also already starting to move into these newer patterns of behaviour. Although some of these
looming demands were presented as daunting (e.g., pressures to find gainful employment, as
explored further below), the boys also gave a sense of enjoying exploring their new roles.
Many articulated themes of freedom and independence; e.g., G said he just wanted to be
independent with my friends, doing like, what we want to do.And yet, exacerbating the
difficulties of transition was the feeling that the boys were in some ways being held back by
authority figures, such as parents, who still treated them like children in many respects. For
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instance, asked what he’d like to change most about his life, C exclaimed: “I wanna change it
out, I wanna explore, explore the world basically.” Thus, despite the anxieties of impending
adulthood, many participants did seem keen to make this transition into being a man. And
yet, when envisioning the type of masculine performance that would be required of them in
adulthood, the boys did not necessarily fall back on conventional tropes. For example, when
questioned on what feelings he’d like to have more of, B said he wanted to be a “friendly,
loving, caring guy.” When asked why, he said:
Cause it shows a way of maturing, and like I’m ready for the future, cause in the
future you’re gonna have to get married one day, and like, you’re gonna have to care.
However, any excitement or positivity the participants felt about impending manhood was
tempered by the second main source of pressure, which pertained to being at-risk. More
specifically, it transpired that when the school selected these participants as being at-risk,
they did so on the basis of the boys principally being at risk of failing academically and/or
being excluded. (The researchers had simply asked the school to select boys ‘at-risk’ who
they felt would benefit from the intervention, without specifying the nature of the risk).
Whether the boys themselves knew they were specifically deemed to be ‘at-risk’ is unclear
(and they were not addressed as being ‘at-risk’ by the research team); however, all seemed to
be aware that they were generally being offered additional help to improve their performance
at school. Indeed, this appears to be the basis on which the teachers verbally encouraged the
students to take part in this study.
Thus, the students were generally aware that they were perceived as underperforming,
by staff and/or family members. D described falling short of teacher’s expectations: “My
exams... they're alright but they're kind of low, like the teachers expect more of me.”
Alternatively, G highlighted the burden of his family “think[ing] of you as clever, and
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hardworking” and yet “you can't meet their expectations.” Some pupils felt this pressure was
unfair, particularly because all kinds of factors can hinder test performance, including this
pressure itself. C described feeling overwhelmed in test situations: “When I'm doing, like,
tests, lots of things are going in my head.” He struggled to label this feeling, and following
further questioning described it as “confusion.” Most pupils articulated negative emotions in
relation to this pressure. When asked which feeling he has most of, G replied:
Sadness, well like, kind of like depressed…because in all the subjects we have to
do…the teachers keep saying “work hard, work hard.”
This academic pressure then became entwined in problematic ways with the first set of
pressures noted above, namely negotiating the transition to adulthood. Even at their relatively
young age, the boys were in the habit of appraising their potential life outcomes, and
reflecting on the pressure to attain markers of a successful adulthood (such as a good career).
Many seemed to have internalised or at least been influenced by the message that life
outcomes were dependent on academic success. When asked, “What would you like to
change most about your life?” B replied, my grades, in terms of, like GCSE, that's what's
gonna like control my life.” Similarly, F referred to “so much pressure” in relation to school
performance, and likewise articulated the sense that this will shape his life:
You have to do GCSEs and if you do well than you can get a good job and go to
University but if you don’t do well, [you] won’t be able to do much…
While many of the themes outlined above could be regarded as gendered i.e., pertaining to
how the boys felt they needed to act as males gender was mostly an implicit rather than an
explicit concern within the interviews. However, at points, the interviewer did ask whether
the participants felt any explicit sense of gendered pressure. Here the results were mixed,
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
18
with some pupils denying that they experienced any specific gendered pressures. When
asked, “do you ever feel expected to behave in a particular way because of being a boy?” two
simply said, “er…no,” while a third said, “I don’t see a difference in how people speak to me
and to a girl.” However, the remaining pupils did convey a sense of gendered expectations,
which introduced a further layer of pressure (compounding any pressure pertaining to
adolescence and being at-risk). Four boys specifically referred to the pressure to be tough and
strong, or at least to act like it. As B put it:
You’re not supposed to kind of like be wet, you’re not supposed to be like “aww,”
you’re not supposed to act kind of like weird and girly, you’re supposed to act tough.
Most participants gave a sense of being constrained by these expectations, such as the need to
conceal their distress rather than expressing it and showing their vulnerability (see Addis and
Mahalik, 2003, for discussion around emotional concealment related to masculinity). Even
boys who did not explicitly connect this pressure to gendered expectations nevertheless
seemed to have internalised norms that could be regarded as ‘traditionally’ masculine, such as
stoicism. For instance, when asked what he did if he felt “unhappy or stressed,” F echoed
others in saying, “I just stay quiet, and try not to talk to anyone.” Finally, D gave a revealing
and somewhat unsettling insight into how these gender norms were upheld, indicating that the
pressure to be ‘masculine’ could be enforced through social coercion, and explaining how he
sought to avoid being “judged” for seeming “feminine.
Everyone in the school, like, they expect you to be, erm, masculine, but there’s other
boys out there, they are a bit like feminine, and people judge them. There was one
boy, like everyone judges, everyone stays away from because he’s a certain type of
person, and that’s what I don’t like, like if people judge you, that’s not good.
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
19
Self-control
We’ve seen that participants described having to negotiate a complex set of pressures, many
of which appear to relate to making the difficult transition from boyhood to manhood. So far,
the themes align with existing literature in this area, which has tended to present adolescence
as a challenging period of change (e.g., in terms of biology, identity, social relationships).
However, when we consider the boys’ reports of engaging with the mindfulness intervention,
the results take us into some interesting new territory. In particular, participants tended to
depict the intervention as allowing them to (re)gain control over important aspects of their
life, from school performance to personal relationships. Now, as will be discussed below, it is
beyond the scope of this study to ascertain whether participants ‘really’ did develop self-
control in the ways they described (though we must not necessarily rule it out either).
Nevertheless, it remains significant that nearly all boys did articulate a narrative based around
this notion of developing self-control. This was not uniformly true. One boy did remain
disengaged throughout the course as he apparently also often does in class and reported
that it didn’t really, like, make a difference to me.” However, his explicit detachment made
the enthusiasm of the remaining seven all the more noticeable.
Nearly all boys presented a narrative of progress (as did the male meditators in
Lomas, Cartwright, Edginton, and Ridge, 2014). Half the participants reported finding
mindfulness hard at first; F was typical in experiencing it as quite difficult to focus.
However, after practising it at home, many suggested that they got the hang of it” (C), and
even found it “actually pretty easy” (B). Thus, there was a narrative of skill acquisition, of
cultivating and attaining a certain level of mastery. Of course, as noted above, we could not
ascertain the extent to which participants genuinely were developing proficiency at
mindfulness. Indeed, in the literature, mindfulness is regarded as a difficult skill to develop,
with most clinical interventions deeming a minimum of eight weeks intensive training
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
20
necessary to develop just a basic level of familiarity and skill (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale,
2002). As such, we must treat the participants’ accounts here with caution. But this does not
alter the fact that most boys reported themselves as developing proficiency, asserting their
ability to deploy mindfulness instrumentally.
More specifically, the boys portrayed themselves as gaining a greater sense of self-
control and mastery over various aspects of life through learning mindfulness. For a start,
boys spoke about being able to control their mind, such as their focus and attention. As G
said, “At first, I didn’t really understand it, so it was like, ‘What’s the point of this?’... But
gradually it made sense, cause it was like to help your mind focus.’” Similarly, A was drawn
to the idea of “controlling your mind better,” and B to the thought of “improving your brain.”
This was then presented as a solution to some of the pressures outlined above, such as their
difficulties with regard to studying, and their poor performance at school. For instance, B
echoed several other boys in describing himself as having developed his concentration skills
as a result of the intervention, suggesting that this had impacted positively on his studies:
Maths is still like kind of tricky, but I think I’ve improved. Now like, I can focus more.
When asked why, he said, “I think I’ve used the mindfulness stuff.” Similarly, D said it had
helped him with reading in class:
When I keep calm and relaxed and just clear my mind, then I can get all the words in
and understand what happens in my book.
In a related way, the boys spoke about cultivating greater emotional control; not in the
reductive sense of ‘eliminating’ emotions, but more along the lines of concepts like emotional
intelligence (Mayer & Salovey, 1997), involving capacities such as emotional awareness and
management. For instance, a number of participants spoke about recent situations in which
feelings of anger arose, and in which they recognised these feelings welling up, and so used
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
21
various mindfulness techniques to relax. For instance, D reported that often got “stressed
because of his brothers “shouting and fighting,” but he had “used the meditation to calm me
down and feel more relaxed so I don’t overact, and just keep on my feet.” Likewise, E used
mindfulness during communal gaming. Previously, he said that “If my team’s doing bad,
normally I’d shout at them through the mic and show a lot of anger.” However, since starting
the course, he said would try to “take the mic and controller out of my hands and put them on
the bed, and I’d do the mindfulness and it will make me feel better.” Similarly, participants
portrayed themselves as likely to deploy mindfulness exercises in future to help them deal
with difficult situations. A spoke about an upcoming exam, and said he was “gonna do the
[breathing] meditation… and even when I revise just do that before it to just try and calm
myself down.” Similarly, D said he would use it to stop reacting to provocation in class,
which had previously led to behavioural problems (e.g., fighting):
[Other students] say mean words to me, and I used to take it really serious, but know
I know the meditation, I need to like get on with what I’m doing… I’m growing up and
need to take more responsibility and stop overreacting if they’re just doing something
to disturb me.
Indeed, most participants described their intention to continue with mindfulness with an
enthusiasm which was surprising to the researchers. For example, E suggested that the course
had been very helpful to him, and that other people had noticed a difference too: “Cause I
notice more people around me, I’ve got like complements from people saying I’m a very
caring person now and stuff.” Indeed, he had generally “gained loads of confidence,” which
was one of the outcomes he had initially hoped to get from participating, since “I wanna be a
leader, and I think I’ve been leading in sessions.” As such, he said, “I think [mindfulness] is
amazing. I’m gonna go deep into it in the future, like when I’m an adult I’m gonna teach my
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
22
family about it.” Such sentiments were echoed by most participants, who would all
recommend mindfulness to other students. (Even the one participant who was generally
disengaged in the course said he would still recommend it to his friends, although he said “it
depends on different people. If they like it then yeah, people who wanna relax more and take
their mind off stuff.”). More specifically, the participants suggested it would be good for
people that are a bit struggling” (A), “people who need maybe to calm down and control
themselves” (C), and “people that are finding it hard to concentrate and are feeling stressed
(E). Most movingly, D said, “Yeah, I would recommend it to people who are suffering of
similar things like me.
Discussion
The results here offer a moving portrayal of the emotional lives of a group of at-risk
adolescent boys. This is a population that, for multiple reasons by virtue of being
adolescent, and/or male, and/or at-risk are often portrayed as being emotionally
disconnected, stunted, or illiterate (Levant, 1998). Yet, the participants here revealed
themselves to be capable of discussing their emotional dynamics, and personal lives more
generally, with real insight and candour.
Before delving into the details of the findings, it is important to first reflect upon the
nature of the findings, to articulate our epistemological position. Clearly, a range of positions
are available, so other scholars might well interpret these findings in alternative ways. So, in
the spirit of reflexivity, our preference is for a stance of ‘critical realism’ (Layder, 1993). This
means that, while we are alert to the performative nature of qualitative data that participants
are constructing a narrative/position for the ‘benefit’ of an audience we do not treat it
merely as a performance. After all, as Connell (1995, p.91) put it, treating interview data as
‘fiction’ to be ‘read’ for narrative devices risks ‘spurning the effort respondents themselves
make to speak the truth.’ As such, we endeavoured to approach the data in the spirit of
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
23
Ricoeur’s (1981) ideal of a double hermeneutics (‘willingness to suspect, willingness to
listen’) – a hermeneutics of both faith (hence the realism) and suspicion (hence the critical).
As such, we remain open to the possibility that the intervention did have a positive
effect in the ways reported by participants. Of course, this possibility was not tested
empirically, and can only be inferred from participants’ testimonies. And, although the
hermeneutics of faith means we do not discount these testimonies, the hermeneutics of
suspicion also renders these somewhat problematic, as discussed further below. Nevertheless,
the notion that the intervention may have had a positive impact corroborates other work
which has linked mindfulness to various beneficial outcomes for young people, such as
improved concentration and attention (Hong & Cho, 2012), calmness (Broderick & Metz,
2009), social competence (Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010), and emotional resiliency
(Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller, 2010). Indeed, these themes were present in the testimonies of
nearly all participants here (seven out of eight). Moreover, that these outcomes were reported
by a group of at-risk adolescent males a group which until now has not specifically been
studied in relation to mindfulness is especially striking.
Furthermore, the qualitative nature of the data offers a unique insight into the way
these boys purportedly tried to use mindfulness skills in ‘real-life,’ such as defusing anger in
social settings. Here the findings augment the work of Singh et al. (2007), who found that
mindfulness helped adolescents with conduct disorder to curtail their aggressive and/or
disruptive behaviour. The findings also echo Singh, Wahler, Adkins, and Myers (2003) in
highlighting the benefit of mindfulness practices that focus on concrete, physical body parts.
Whereas Singh et al. (2003) taught a patient with mental and behavioural problems to focus
on the soles of his feet, our participants seemed to particularly appreciate a breathing exercise
in which they used their index finger to trace the outline of their other hand. This physical
activity seemed to anchor their attention, whereas a more cognitive activity (e.g., simply
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
24
asking them to ‘watch’ their breath) may have left them rather unmoored. Thus, the findings
potentially offer revealing clues as to how newcomers to mindfulness and adolescent boys
specifically might try to utilise it in their lives.
That said, we acknowledge that readers who lean more towards a hermeneutics of
suspicion may regard these positive testimonies (about the efficacy of the intervention) with a
degree of scepticism. Indeed, as noted above, the mindfulness literature is fairly consistent in
suggesting that four weeks of training is insufficient for developing proficiency (Segal et al.,
2002). However, even if the interviews were entirely discounted as evidence in favour of the
intervention or of mindfulness generally they would still be very revealing in many ways.
For a start, they belie the notion that adolescent males are incapable of introspective insight,
self-awareness, and emotional literacy. Participants here spoke movingly and revealingly
about the challenges in their lives, about their hopes, fears and joys. It possibly helped that
the interviews were conducted 1:1 with an empathic female researcher. For instance, in
conducting focus groups with young men, Allen (2005) found that participants often engaged
in identity work by putting up a front of bravado in the presence of their co-participants.
However, Allen also noted that, beneath this bravado, emotional vulnerability and openness
would sometimes emerge. Thus, the 1:1 interviews in the present study possibly helped the
boys let down any such shield of bravado. Then again, one could easily make the alternative
case that participants would seek to impress a female researcher by showing how tough and
self-sufficient they were, which is a common masculine trope (Addis & Mahalik, 2003). In
any case, it would not be fair to position their openness simply as a function of the female
interviewer: even in the intervention sessions, in front of other boys (and the two male
researchers and male staff member), most boys were certainly willing and capable of offering
emotional insights.
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
25
Moreover, beyond the sheer fact of these boys’ emotional openness, the data are
revealing in terms of participants constructions of masculinity at least within the context of
the research. That is, performative theories of masculinity hold that gender is actively
constructed within the dynamic parameters of specific social situations (Butler, 1990;
Connell, 1995). As such, it is entirely possible indeed, highly likely that the boys here
would negotiate alternative gendered performances away from this kind of research setting
(e.g., when playing with their mates). Nevertheless, even within this limited research context
a mindfulness-based intervention, and accompanying interviews the boys offered an
interesting picture of how masculinity is negotiated for this particular population (namely,
adolescent boys deemed at-risk of academic failure and/or exclusion). Specifically, for these
participants, there appeared to be an overriding need, desire and intent to claim agency, and
to exert self-control. Whatever psychological and social effects the intervention may have
‘actually’ had, much of the interview data regarding the intervention can be read in terms of
participants striving to articulate a position of agency and self-control.
Participants presented themselves as having to manage multiple pressures related to
their life phase, i.e., negotiating a difficult transition between childhood and adulthood, as
noted above. As per Mac an Ghaill and Haywood (2012), participants’ interview data
revealed a tension between competing types of gendered performance. Looking back,
boyhood tended to be associated with relatively carefree fun, and particularly activities such
as playing sports and computer games (see e.g., Cherney & London, 2006). And yet, the boys
also seemed pre-occupied with the demands of impending adulthood, which was both
suddenly very present (e.g., in their concern with forging a career) and yet frustratingly
elusive (e.g., in being treated like a child by their parents, and thus being denied the freedom
they coveted). Moreover, there was an ambiguous sense of anticipation about this impending
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
26
manhood, seeming both feared (e.g., in terms of its burdens and responsibilities) and craved
(e.g., in terms of its possibilities).
It was in this context, then, that the participants’ responses to mindfulness were so
revealing. The intervention appeared to allow or encourage the boys to enact a masculine
performance based around (re)claiming agency and self-control (i.e., through mindfulness).
However, although exerting self-control can often be regarded as a traditional hegemonic
masculine norm (Mahalik, Talmadge, Locke, & Scott, 2005), the boys here seemed to deploy
it in ways that challenged traditional masculine performances. Specifically, participants
presented their newfound agency and self-control as facilitating emotional awareness and
engagement, which are qualities not conventionally associated with masculinity (Levant,
1998). There are perhaps parallels here with studies on masculine performances in
professions traditionally perceived as feminine, such as nursing. For instance, Pullen and
Simpson (2009) found that although male nurses expanded their construction of masculinity
to include attributes such as caring and compassion, they nevertheless reframed their
discourses of care to priviledge traditional masculine qualities, such as describing their
emotion work as ‘more rational.’ Thus, such nurses appeared to be both enacting traditional
hegemonic masculinity and adopting ‘feminine’ qualities, with masculinity thus partly
subverted and partly maintained.
It is possible that something similar was happening in the present study, in which the
boys were using discourses of control provided by the context of a mindfulness-based
intervention to legitimise a non-conventional masculine performance involving emotional
connection and agility. If so, this is in stark contrast with the kind of essentialist perspective
that views males generally and at-risk adolescents in particular as inherently troubled and
emotionally disconnected/illiterate. Rather, the results here align with recent constructionist
theorising that emphasises the ability of males to refashion their way of ‘doing’ masculinity
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
27
in more adaptive ways, as highlighted in the ‘critical positive masculinity’ paradigm (Lomas,
2013). Moreover, the results are particularly noteworthy, given that the specific male
population studied here is generally regarded as especially vulnerable and/or challenging.
There are, as always, limitations to the study, and thus with our results,
interpretations, and conclusions. Arguably the biggest limitation is the relative lack of
contextual data on the participants or their engagement with the course. It was unfortunately
beyond the scope of the study to collect anything more than the most cursory demographic or
personal details about the participants, with these being limited to facts such as age, ethnicity,
and their ‘diagnosis’ of being at-risk. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have
gathered more personal information about their background and current life circumstances
not only through more extensive interviews with the boys themselves, but also with
significant others in their lives (e.g., family members and teachers). Without such detail, it is
much harder to draw conclusions about their gendered performance in the context of the
research. For instance, our interest was of course piqued by the one participant who did not
appear to find the intervention interesting and rewarding. However, other than being told by
the school representative that he can often be somewhat disengaged in school generally, we
did not have any real context for making sense of his reaction. Similarly, it would have been
instructive to gather more detail on participants engagement with mindfulness during the
course of the intervention (e.g., monitoring their home practice through diaries). This would
have helped us to assess the extent to which participants really did attempt to practice
mindfulness over the four weeks (as they reported doing). That said, mindfulness research
has generally been poor at tracking participation outside of formal sessions (i.e., engagement
with ‘homework’ activities) (Vettese, Toneatto, Stea, Nguyen, & Wang, 2009), so our study
is not unusual in that regard.
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
28
Thus, future work on this topic i.e., the impact of mindfulness on the gendered
performance of adolescent boys would benefit from more extensive data collection. It
would also be instructive to investigate this topic with different ‘categories’ of at-risk boys.
In the current study, having been asked to simply select a cohort of ‘at-risk’ boys, the school
chose boys who were primarily at risk of failing academically and/or exclusion (although one
could reasonably speculate that at least some of the group were at-risk in other ways too). It
later transpired that the school had selected this particular group out of a concern that other
‘types’ of at-risk boys e.g., boys with issues around aggression might have proved too
problematic for the intervention. However, mindfulness has been successfully used with
youths with these kinds of behavioural difficulties (e.g., Singh et al., 2007). As such, future
studies in this area might do well to consider more behaviourally challenging or vulnerable
groups of at-risk boys in future. Nevertheless, the findings, limited as they are, still give an
interesting insight into the potential for adolescent boys to construct alternative gendered
performances i.e., in contrast to more conventional teenage performances (e.g., being
‘laddish’) that may be more beneficial to themselves and others.
Running head: MASCULINITY IN THE MIDST OF MINDFULNESS
29
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... Psychologists Lomas et al. (2018) set up a mindfulness-based intervention along with interviews of adolescent boys at risk of academic failure and studied how they negotiated masculinity with mindfulness. The authors first point out that the boys had an "overriding need, desire and intent" to claim agency and exert self-control, which they describe as a "traditional hegemonic masculine norm". ...
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