One evening during a violent thunderstorm, I was tucking my six year old son into bed. I was about to turn off the light when he quietly asked, “Mummy, will you sleep with me tonight?” I smiled and gave him a reassuring hug. “I can’t, sweetheart. I’m sleeping with Daddy in the big bed tonight.” A long silence was broken at last by his shaky little voice, “The big wimp.”
I chuckled at the obvious faux-bravado, but his little protest made me think. How has he learnt that if someone can’t cope with a thunderstorm they’re ‘wimpy’? What’s wrong with admitting to feeling afraid?
It is often the case that men were never taught how to express their feelings. When they were younger, they may not have been encouraged to experience, express, and process their feelings, especially any negative ones.
In his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, Dr William Pollack states that many men grew up without emotionally available male role models and are therefore confused about the emotional nature of manhood. The confusion about expressing emotion leads to emotional problems. To survive this confusion, boys learn that to be a man one must pretend to ‘feel nothing’. Dr Pollack argues that in order to cope, boys funnel all their emotions: sadness, fear, anxiety and frustration into one emotion – anger.
We’re constantly asking boys to manage their anger – it is the most common emotion expressed by males – even though the true emotion being felt may be something else entirely. The anger is the cover-up of the more socially unacceptable ‘feminine’ emotion. What do we do about this? We can start by understanding emotions, asking our boys to express their real emotions, educating them on the full range of feelings and to destigmatise the ‘femininity’ associated with the full range of emotions. Put simply we need to demonstrate an acceptance of emotions in men and boys.
4 practical tips to help your son express his emotions:
- Look below the surface: When boys are angry it is important to check for underlying feelings of sadness and anxiety. A reassuring couple of sentences like “I can see you’re feeling pretty upset. It’s okay to feel angry and hurt. Perhaps take some time to be on your own and calm down and then we can get together and talk about it.” This will give him time to settle and then come back and be able to look below his reactive feelings. After calming down, if their real emotions are not obvious, a questioning technique works well – “I wonder whether you’re feeling a bit anxious/worried/sad?”
- Talk about feelings and emotions at home: Really listen to your son and encourage him to express feelings beyond the ‘top four’ of anger, sadness, happiness and fear.
- Give boys the ‘right tools for the job’: Actively discuss emotions every day and really pay attention when doing so. It doesn’t have to be the traditional ‘sit down and talk’ – try the ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ approach – perhaps when washing-up, playing a game or working on a project. Encourage your son to name his emotions and empathise with these feelings. Validate these feelings – tell him that it is normal and okay to feel this way.
- Show your son your own feelings: As parents, we need to live our lives openly, and model the full range of feelings. All feelings are valid and we need to be receptive to all emotions.
If we want to have men that express their emotions, we need to raise boys who can do that, and as parents, this might just start with training ourselves first.
Written by Alison Campbell, Year 3 Coordinator, The Scots College
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