Boys do cry – and so they should, writes Registered Psychologist and parenting expert Rachel Tomlinson. Here’s how to help your boys emotions thrive.
By Rachel Tomlinson
‘Big boys don’t cry’ is an unfortunate but common response when our boys express sadness or fear. It harks back to when men were expected to be emotionally hardened, and certain emotions were aligned to masculinity or femininity. Although we are becoming more accepting of both boys and girls experiencing a wide range of emotions, research continues to show that boys are not supported in equal measure to girls.
In fact, boys often experience a higher degree of emotions than girls. Yet conversations with boys centred around their emotions tend to focus on anger, with minimal focus on sadness and fear. This means we aren’t giving boys the same opportunity to harness and understand the full range of human emotion. And it makes our jobs harder than they need to be!
“GONE ARE THE DAYS WHERE BOYS NEED TO BE STOIC. MASCULINITY IS BECOMING LESS TIED TO EMOTIONAL REPRESSION, SO IT’S TIME TO SHIFT THE CONVERSATION, LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY.”
Babies aren’t born understanding their emotions, or how to manage them. Babies cry (loudly!) to get their point across; toddlers may lash out when they don’t get their way. But eventually our kids start learning how to manage their emotions in more healthy ways. This is in part because of increased maturity and language skills that allow them to express their needs clearly, but also because we educate them about their feelings and ways to cope.
Being able to monitor our own and others’ emotions, and then use this knowledge to adapt our thinking or actions, is called emotional intelligence (EQ).
Expressing a full range of emotions does not make your boy a wimp!
EQ is linked to important outcomes for our children. Those with a higher EQ are better at paying attention, they have more reciprocal and positive relationships, are more empathic, can regulate their emotions better and achieve higher educational and career attainment.
In fact, a study by Forbes indicates that 90% of top career performers have a high EQ and actually earn more (nearly 30K USD more!). This is thought to be because success in many fields is related to interpersonal relationships and social skills, which come from having a high EQ. So rather than making your boy a wimp, expressing sadness and fear – along with all of our other normal, human emotions – is actually going to set him up for success.
5 ways to help our boys manage their emotions
1. Name that feeling
When you see your boy grappling with a feeling…name it! ‘I wonder if you felt sad when your friend didn’t want to play?’ or ‘You seem worried about speaking at the school assembly.’
You can also narrate your own emotions and coping so they can see that a range of feelings are ok. ‘I’m feeling frustrated that I dropped the milk, so I’m going to take a deep breath.’ You can also ask them questions about the emotional state of characters in their favourite tv shows or games. This gets them thinking about how and why others might experience certain feelings.
2. Choose nurturing toys
Give them dress ups or props that allow them to get into character, namely caring professions. Things like vets, nurses, doctors, firefighters etc. And give them access to baby dolls or people figurines (yes, boys can enjoy these kinds of toys too). When kids play, they practice different roles. This gives them a chance play characters who typically access a wide range of emotions and compassion, or they can trial stepping into someone else’s shoes. This is the cornerstone for developing empathy.
3. Don’t rush their feelings
We often want to rush in and solve a problem so our kids don’t feel uncomfortable. But this accidentally sends the message that there are certain feelings we should avoid, or that our boys aren’t capable of managing their own emotions. Instead, empathise and name the feeling you see. Share that you see how tough things are right now. Empathising helps them feel understood and connected to you, without you having to fix the problem.
4. Give them a range of words
Provide them a vocabulary that matches how big their feelings are. For example, are they worried or terrified? Frustrated or enraged? Having a wide range of words allows them to better express themselves and then communicate their needs.
5. Brainstorm alternatives
So that your boy knows every kind of emotion is acceptable, ensure you spend time working through coping strategies. This will help them feel equally confident naming and managing a whole variety of feelings. You might set up a chart, or box assigned to each emotion (sad, angry, worried etc). Fill it with ideas or tips to help them understand and manage each unique feeling.
For example, write down or find pictures about what sad looks like or feels like. Write a list, or collect some bits and pieces that help them manage sad feelings. You could use a favourite teddy to hug, a picture of family, or a favourite place to help them feel good.
Gone are the days where boys need to be stoic. Masculinity is becoming less tied to emotional repression, so it’s time to shift the conversation, literally and figuratively. If we want our boys to become men who support their partners and children, who have strong, positive relationships and are successful grown-ups, we need to support our little boys right from the beginning.
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