It was a hot afternoon and my husband and I decided to take my son to the zoo. As we were exiting, we heard a boy of not more than 3 years old having a tantrum. I will never forget how his father screamed at him, in front of everyone, “STOP #$%# CRYING LIKE A GIRL!!”
This man’s son at a young age was being exposed to the message that boys should not cry and furthermore, they should not act like girls, as if girls are the only ones allowed to show emotion. This little boy was being publicly shamed and screamed at for expressing a perfectly normal feeling. And doing this to a child has serious negative consequences.
Boys, girls, men and women cry. Crying is a natural emotional response. When boys are told not to cry or feel, they lose touch with all of their feelings and it has long term, lasting effects on their mental health and their relationships.
As a psychotherapist, my two specialties are anxiety and relationships. What stands out to me when counseling men is that much of their struggle with anxiety, depression and relational trouble has a connection to the inability to understand and process their feelings. This is largely to do with the messages that start in childhood, not only from the family but often from peers and the community. Issues of rage, anxiety, depression and unhealthy coping mechanisms like heavy drinking often manifest when men don’t understand their feelings or don’t give themselves permission to have them. Serious mental health issues are very prevalent in men. So much so that suicide rates are 4 times higher in men than in women.
I have witnessed adult men sobbing in my office because they couldn’t even begin to comprehend their feelings they had bottled up for so long. Helping adult men understand, process and communicate their feelings has been extremely helpful in improving their relationships and decreasing levels of anxiety and depression.
It’s never too late to help someone understand his feelings but it’s critical when a little boy is young to help him understand his own complex, internal emotional experience. As the activist, journalist and college professor, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill professed on his Twitter account: “One of the tragic elements of hegemonic masculinity is that we’re taught that expressing emotions other than anger is ‘unmanly.’ As men, we are taught early not to express feelings of desire (other than sexual), longing, hurt, or insecurity. It cripples us romantically. So much of our lives must be spent UNLEARNING the things that the world teaches us about manhood if we are to have healthy relationships. As a result, many men enter relationships completely unequipped to be honest, loving, emotionally available partners. I certainly was.”
Helping our boys understand their feelings while validating them is important because it will help them develop healthy self-awareness, self-esteem, boundaries and relationship skills. Someone who understands their own feelings and can articulate them has a good grasp on not only their own wants and needs but those of others. Being able to recognize and understand our own complex emotional landscape helps us empathize and understand the feelings in others. Men who are less emotionally inhibited fare better with their feelings of competence, happiness and mental and physical health.
Although we can’t always control the messages and experiences our boys face when they are at school or with friends, we can cultivate a place where emotions are heard and validated at home. Some ways you can do this at home:
Be mindful about the messages you send: Parents often unintentionally and innocently send messages to children that block them from experiencing emotions. The example of telling boys they shouldn’t cry is one, but there are also much subtler messages that prevent our children from fully experiencing their feelings. If emotions like anger or sadness make us uncomfortable we will try to minimize the experience of another person when they show those types of emotions. I have had adult clients who have trouble with feelings because when they expressed something in childhood they were told they were “too sensitive” or to “get over” something that felt really important to them. When a small child is hurting, we try to boost them up by telling them they are okay, but they don’t feel okay in that moment. Recently my toddler son had a very minor tumble and started crying hysterically. My first inclination was to tell him he was okay and to get back up but I stopped myself, consoled him and said, “That hurt! Is the ow-ie making you cry?” He nodded and eagerly said “uh huh!” through his tears and then carried on as if nothing had happened. The eagerness in his voice and change in his mood was because he felt his emotion was understood and validated.
Feelings charts: Feeling charts are helpful for all children (and even adults) who have trouble naming and understanding feelings. When a child is having a particular feeling, the chart helps them recognize and identify the emotion. Feelings charts also offer a wider range of emotions than the ones that we most often identify with, such as happy, sad, angry and scared. Here’s an example of one such chart.
Model empathy and validation: The example I gave with my son and his minor tumble was about validation and empathy. Validation is essentially saying that the person’s reaction makes sense in some way (even if it doesn’t make sense to you or can’t relate to it). Humans are different and react differently so acknowledging their experience and feelings as valid is very healing, and it’s good practice for your child.
Normalize feelings: Feelings are a normal, healthy part of the human experience. Normalizing a feeling is helpful in letting children know that their emotions are things that everyone experiences and there is no shame in having them. For example: “I get mad when someone takes something that is mine, too!”
Reading Books: Reading books with children is a good way to help them understand their feelings. There are children’s books that specifically deal with emotions but there are also themes of different feelings in the story line of many children’s books. You can discuss the themes and feelings of the characters in the books with your children. You can also look at pictures of characters experiencing different emotions and ask your children what they think the character might be feeling (this also encourages empathy).
Derhally is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and Imago relationship theory at the Imago Center in Washington D.C. She has two children