Emotional disconnection is a poor life strategy, and yet this is what we often require of boys. In his book, How To Raise A Boy, Michael C. Reichert, Ph.D. says, “With masculine conventions still policed vigorously, most boys learn to keep their feelings private and to suppress and override them. With the exception of anger, boys often lose touch with how they feel. Cold showers, hazing rituals, bullying, and tests of courage have historically reinforced emotional disconnection.”
Suppressing emotions has a devastating effect on mental and physical health. Research published in the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research shows that patients with difficulties in managing their emotions subject their health and well-being to gross negligence, and as a result, are more likely to display a history of substance abuse, disordered eating, lack of exercise, abnormal sleep patterns, poor compliance with medical interventions and behaviors that are injurious to oneself.
And while suppressing emotions can lead to depression and anxiety for all, men are at a higher risk of suicide. In 2019, men died by suicide 3.63x more often than women. The bottom line is that forcing boys to repress their emotions is quite literally killing them, and it’s up to us to change the tide.
According to Bridgett Miller, facilitator at the Neufeld Institute, a leading voice in child development, and the author of What Young Children Need You to Know, “When we consider that boys and girls have the very same emotional systems, it’s mind-boggling to think they would need to be treated differently. Being able to feel their sadness is what moves young children to have tears. Tears are meant to signal to us they’re upset and in need of our comfort. By the time a child cries tears of sadness, loss, or disappointment, they have already experienced the emotional hurt of things not going their way.”
Reichert echoes this in his book, saying, “Boys and girls begin life with equal capacities for expressing their hearts. Conditioning accounts for the difference.”
As a society, we’ve begun the hard work of challenging some of the biases against girls, and we’ve made some progress, yet, we seem collectively less inclined to free our boys from old, outdated misconceptions when it comes to emotions.
Children and Mental Health
San Diego University psychologist Jean Twenge has tracked an alarming rise in unhappiness in young people and warns us that we arse in the middle of “the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.” She notes a dramatic spike in depression, loneliness, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with life that boys are reporting.
According to Reichert, recent surveys show that young men today are more invested in taking care of their mental health than their physical well-being than ever before. As he describes it, they are tired of experiencing "an epidemic of anguish.”
Any time we shame, ignore, or punish a young child for crying, we are circumventing nature’s brilliant process of brain adaptation. A young child who is repeatedly dismissed or treated harshly for expressing their vulnerability will, over time, begin to suppress their feelings to try and stop their tears from coming.
This doesn’t mean these boys have learned to stop their feelings of hurt or sadness. Their emotional pain will still be present, but instead of being processed through tears and the expression of sadness, these suppressed and denied feelings are more likely to be expressed as aggression.
According to Miller, boys who are encouraged to share their tears and emotions will naturally grow into men who allow themselves to feel vulnerable and express themselves in socially acceptable ways. As they mature, they will gain self-control and become less likely to physically act out on their frustration. Knowing this, there is no longer cause for us to fear our boys’ tears.
Psychologist Ronald Levant of the University of Akron has suggested that “no words for feelings” characterizes the emotional condition of many males, making the naming of emotions a good place to start when it comes to social-emotional learning.
Here are some tips to guide you in this process:
- Model the act of naming feelings. Practice labeling the feelings you see your son experiencing. “I see that you’re feeling frustrated about…” or “I understand that you are feeling sad because…”. And if your child resists this, practice labeling feelings together in the stories you read or the shows you watch together.
- Practice positive instead of punitive discipline. Replacing time-outs with time-ins using the Time-In ToolKit helps children learn to name, feel, and heal their emotions with the use of feelings posters, mantra cards, and connection-based activities. During a time-in, parents regulate with their children (aka co-regulate), helping them process what happened, how they feel about what happened, calming strategies for future experiences, and making amends as needed.
- Validate and accept your child’s emotions while setting empathetic boundaries. For example, it’s okay to feel angry; it’s not okay to hit someone. You may need to hold space for your son while he cries or processes heavy emotions, and this is done by simply being witness to his feelings while you remain warm, open, consistent, and present.
- Give alternatives to inappropriate expressions. Reframing undesired behaviors into more acceptable ones not only teaches and reinforces healthy social-emotional skills, but it can allow for a much-needed physical release. When my son was younger, he had a tendency to hit others when he was angry, so I started keeping a small box of pre-filled balloons in our calming corner. He loved to pop them when he was dysregulated and this became his go-to release instead of hitting. Other ideas include tearing paper, doing exercises like wall push-ups, jumping, and/or any other sort of heavy lifting or movement your child enjoys as the addition of weight or "load bearing" into large joints (like hips and shoulders) has a calming effect on the central nervous system.
Raising a generation of emotionally healthy men starts when we change the way society views and (dare I say) encourages emotional expression. And this change begins with us, the adults of today, when we make it safe for children to feel.