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 wellbeing 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 their 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.” I feel that, as a society, we’ve challenged a lot of the biases against girls, and we’ve made good progress. Yet, we seem collectively less inclined to free our boys from old, outdated misconceptions.
San Diego University psychologist Jean Twenge has tracked an alarming rise in unhappiness in young people and warns 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. Boys are ready for a change. According to Reichert, a number of recent surveys have shown that young men today are more invested in taking care of their mental health than their physical well-being and are tired of experiencing an “epidemic of anguish.”
Any time we shame, ignore or punish a young child for crying, we’re circumventing nature’s brilliant process of brain adaption. A young child who is repeatedly dismissed or treated harshly for expressing their vulnerability will begin, over time, to suppress their feelings to try and stop their tears from coming. This doesn’t mean they learn to stop feeling the hurt. Their emotional hurt will still be present, but instead of it being processed through tears of sadness, it may be expressed as aggression.
Allowing Safe Expression Of Emotions
According to Miller, boys who are encouraged to share their tears and emotions will naturally grow into men who feel their vulnerability 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’s no reason 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. So, a good place to start is with social-emotional learning. Here are some tips:
- Give names to the feelings you see your son experiencing. “I see that you’re feeling frustrated about…” or “I understand that you feel sad because…”
- Replace time-outs with time-ins using the Time-In ToolKit which helps children 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 placing empathetic boundaries on behavior. 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, and loving.
- Give alternatives to inappropriate expressions, reframing the undesired behavior to more acceptable behavior that allows for the physical release. For example, when my son was younger, he had a tendency to hit others when he was angry. I started keeping a small box of pre-filled balloons in our calming corner. He loved to pop them when he was dysregulated and so it became his go-to release instead of hitting. Other ideas include tearing paper, doing body or isometric exercises like wall push-ups or jumping, or yelling in a pillow.
Boys are emotional beings, and we can raise a generation of emotionally healthy men by changing the way we view and accept emotional expression in boys. The boys of today become the men of tomorrow, so it starts with us as their parents to advocate for them and to teach and guide them, making it safe to be who they are - fully.