A few weeks ago my five year-old daughter and two year-old son were playing in the backyard with friends. On several occasions during their play, my two children came to me to inform me that they had been hurt.
All of the injuries were minor—a scrape here, a scrape there. It wasn’t the injury that needed attention. They wanted their father to pay attention to them. They wanted to know that I cared for and loved them. They wanted to know that I was there to give them comfort. Once I validated their injury and gave them a hug and kiss, they were instantly back at play, as if nothing had happened.
I’m guessing many of you have experienced the same scenario, either with your own kids or others’. You might even remember a story or two of your parents or other significant adults showing you the same care.
But I noticed something different that weekend about how I treated my daughter and son. Perhaps I noticed it because I have been on the lookout for it for a long time. Or perhaps I was aware of the difference because I have been asking my clients to pay close attention to the same thing.
The difference was this: when my daughter came to me for comfort, I was usually very caring in my tone and affection. I was gentle and affirming of her injury. I let her sit on my lap and stay in my embrace until she was confident the injury would be fine. And when she was ready, she went running off.
But with my son I noticed that when he came to me for comfort, I was more abrupt. It’s not that I wasn’t caring or affirming of his injury. It’s that I was less willing for him to stay in that emotional place too long. I wanted him to know he was okay, that he was tough, and rather than letting him sit in my lap a long time, I usually tried to encourage him to go off running. “You are such a big boy! Go get ‘em” is what you might have heard me say.
Sending Mixed Messages to our Boys
In I Don't Want to Talk About It, therapist and author Terrence Real talks about the difference between how we raise girls and boys in our culture. Research shows that boys begin life with as many feelings and emotions as girls, but at an early age many boys start hearing a different message about their expression of these feelings than their female counterparts 1. Fathers, mothers, teachers, coaches, youth workers, and friends often start telling boys things like:
“Be a man”
“Don’t be a wuss”
“Pick yourself up”
And these are just some of the messages that are suitable for me to write. The number of men who sit across from me in therapy and tell stories of how they remember their father, mother, or coach saying to them, “Stop crying” or “Boys don’t cry” is quite astounding. They might be 20, 30, or 60 years old, and yet that memory is often as fresh on their mind as if it happened yesterday.
Jan Hoffman writes for the New York Times about the work of Dr. Niobe Way 2 and her book Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. Citing Way’s research, the article states:
Despite stereotypes of teenage boys as grunting, emotionally tone-deaf creatures who bond over sports talk and risk-taking, [Way] said their need for intimate friendship is as potent as it is for girls. Boys in early adolescence would speak candidly about those friendships to Dr. Way and her researchers, acknowledging the importance of having a best friend who was both repository and guard for their most private feelings….Indeed, the shutting down of those relationships is part of what turns boys into taciturn, emotionally disconnected men. [Ibid.]
I affirm what Real writes, as I too have noticed in my son’s life his wide-ranging expression of feelings, and his desire to come to me with them. But he is only two years old and I am already communicating to him that his feelings are not valid. The more frequently that message is communicated to him, the more he is likely to realize it’s not safe for him to express how he feels.
And the more frequently he realizes it’s not safe, the more he may eventually learn to find more destructive outlets for those feelings. Psychologist and author Archibald Hart writes, “Being a man can be hazardous to your health, especially when you have to maintain your masculine identity at all costs." 3
So the question becomes, where do all these feelings go if boys aren’t regularly allowed to express them? If it’s not safe to tell mom and dad, or teacher and coach how you feel, what’s a boy to do? There are several options for a boy to choose how he expresses his feelings growing up. As I write in What it Means to be a Man, 4 I find in my work as a pastor and therapist that most boys choose roads of either passivity or aggression.
Boys who discover that it’s not safe to express their feelings often become passive, withdrawing and shutting down emotionally. Others can become aggressive, resorting to violence and anger as forms of expression. Both are means of escape, and they lead to all kinds of problems in boys’ lives and the lives of the people around them. Anger and violence, for example, are often a culturally-condoned form of expression for boys in our culture. We applaud them for their violence on the field or schoolyard, and we minimize concern about their fascination with violence on the screen through gaming and movies. “Boys will be boys” is something we might say in response. Another form of escape for older boys is pornography and various forms of sex addiction. These are often places where a boy expresses how he feels, and it feels safe because a computer screen demands nothing from you, nor do hook-ups or one-night stands.
When a boy learns that expression of feelings is not safe for him, he can become a boy who one day enters into dating or even marriage without knowing how to communicate in healthy ways. His wife might say something to me in therapy like, “I have no idea what is going on in his head. He never talks to me!” Or the husband sitting across from me might only know how to respond in anger by yelling, causing fear in his wife and children.
So how we communicate to boys about their feelings is not just an issue for that boy today, it is an issue for that boy later in life, potentially affecting his future relationships and endeavors.
Learning to Express Feelings
A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group in Dallas, Texas on this very topic—that how we raise our boys in regard to their feelings will have a profound effect on the type of relationships they have later in life. As I finished my talk, a lot of the mothers responded with a sense of anxiety, fearful that they were making mistakes in their parenting. They were wondering how to avoid sending their boys similar messages.
I quickly reminded them that none of us as parents or caregivers is perfect in how we raise and interact with boys, but that we can all practice being more aware in how we talk about feelings with them. And so as I talk about a few practices you can engage in, I want to similarly remind you that perfection is not the goal, but rather awareness that leads to change.
So where can you begin? Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, youth leader, or any other adult invested in the lives of boys, here are some tips to get started:
First, you can begin by modeling the expression of your own feelings in a healthy way as you engage boys. This will look different to each person, but it could simply look like this: “Man, today was just a hard day. I was feeling alone and unloved today. And when I feel those things, I just tend to be quiet around you.” In this practice, you aren’t asking anything of the boy, you are simply just modeling the healthy expression of feelings and what those feelings often lead you to do.
Second, you can begin by creating a safe place for a boy to express how he feels. This means communicating in some way that he can always come talk to you about anything. And that if he does, he knows he won’t be turned away, criticized, or made fun of. He won’t be told, “Grow up. Stop crying. Be a man!” Creating a safe place takes time, and he may not take advantage of it for years to come. But ask yourself this question: “Do people, specifically boys, feel safe expressing how they feel to me?”
Third, you can begin by helping a boy develop a vocabulary for how he feels. There are several ways to do this:
You can put a variety of feeling words in his mouth and see which one he identifies with. For example, I often say something like this to my son when he comes to me crying, “Do you feel real sad?” and often he acknowledges that is how he feels. He is only two, but as boys get older you can try on lots of words… “Do you feel alone today?” … “Do you feel like you can’t ever measure up to what your mom and I ask of you?” The older the boy, the more versatile their vocabulary.
You can use helpful tools to help a boy build his vocabulary. You can use a chart with feelings on it. Print it out and have it handy as a tool (maybe in the boy’s bedroom). Often in therapy with the men I work with, I hand them a list of feeling words to look at. It is amazing how easily men will begin to identify how they feel when they see words.
You can begin by helping a boy get the help he needs. I work with many men in therapy who have spent years not feeling safe to express how they feel. Often that denial of feelings has led to issues such as depression, anxiety, anger, pornography addictions, lack of intimacy and communication in marriage, and more. Help a boy learn how to express his feelings by letting him know that it’s okay to be vulnerable with others and share how you feel. Whether you schedule him time to speak with a youth pastor, therapist, or adult mentor, you are communicating to him that we can’t live life alone. And you are setting a precedent in his life at an early age that if he ever runs into trouble, he knows he can get help somewhere.
I love working with boys and men in my therapy practice, and it is amazing to see them access how they feel and confidently express it not only to others, but also to themselves. It’s a gift that will help them as they continue to grow, and it will also be a gift that they one day pass on to a future spouse, children and friends.
Consider your own understanding of what it means to “be a man,” and how emotions fit into that understanding. In what ways does your concept of manhood resonate with the perspective of this article, and in what ways does it seem to conflict?
As you read the article, who was the boy or boys that you were thinking about? Now that you have identified that boy(s), pick one of the action steps above that can help him begin to express his feelings.
What would it look like to commit to this boy that you will be a safe person for him to learn how to express his feelings?
For the next week, pay close attention to your response to your own feelings, and to your responses to the boys in your life. Then talk with a friend or spouse about what you notice, and ask for their insight.
1. Real, T. I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. New York, NY. Scribner, 1998. pp. 23-24.
3. Hart, A. Unmasking Male Depression: Recognizing the Root Cause to Many Problem Behaviors Such as Anger, Resentment, Abusiveness, Silence, Addictions, and Sexual Compulsiveness. Nashville, TN. Thomas Nelson, 2001. pp. 8.
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