How to raise emotionally healthy young men
By Michelle Kelley
Society has changed in a way that supports girls in breaking free from gender-role stereotyping. Girls finally have more power to be true to themselves. But what about boys? They still face their own different set of gender-role challenges too.
Is society’s support of traditional male characteristics of being strong and tough and not showing emotions having a negative effect on our boys, much as society’s support of traditional female gender characteristics did not serve to help girls attain their full potential?
Society supports boys being raised with conventional expectations about manhood and masculinity. You know what I’m talking about—encouraging boys to pull away from their mothers earlier than girls, or telling them to “suck it up” and deal with their hurts and disappointments silently. They are not encouraged to express or acknowledge their feelings. This can be emotionally unhealthy, and not many parents may be aware of this, or know what to do to help their sons.
Boys who do not learn to accept and express emotions may grow up to be men who have problems in adulthood with relationships and marriage. Men are just as human and just as emotional as women, but men who can’t acknowledge and express emotions may have a difficult time relating to women, who generally can. When discord develops in marriages, many times it is because the man is not able to comprehend their partner’s feelings.
Emotional disconnect can also lead to depression. While girls are perceived to be more prone to depression and anxiety, boys can be affected too. The difference is in how those feelings are expressed: girls’ depression manifests covertly with sadness, crying, or other symptoms, while males usually act out their feelings and tend to get in trouble, still silently suffering with their emotional pain. Counseling can be very valuable, but difficult for men to accept. Females will seek counseling because they are hurting. Males will generally obtain counseling only when they are in trouble, a big difference. In my practice, girls far outnumber boys.
While we want our boys to be self-sufficient and able to make their way in this world, we also want them to connect in healthy and appropriate ways with girls and with their own emotional selves. Can boys break out of traditional stereotypes of toughness without being called a sissy, a girl, a wimp, or worse? Yes. The question is how to go about doing this.
Parents can make a difference! Parenting style matters. The Authoritarian Parenting Style focuses on the power dynamic and the parent being in charge. Parents may get cooperation but they will not get respect, which is a key element of a healthy relationship. The Connection Parenting Style focuses on the relationship; children will cooperate because they value the relationship.
When boys are raised with authentic connection, emotional validation and accountability (behavioral and emotional), they grow up to be men who are not afraid to acknowledge emotions and difficulties in their lives and relationships, and are not afraid to ask for help. The greatest human need is a deep and authentic connection with another human being.
A big difference is how we go about seeking connection. Girls are encouraged to seek connection through relationships and communication. Alternatively, boys are encouraged to be less connected and be more emotionally self-sufficient. Boys need to be raised to believe it is okay and healthy for us to learn to rely on others for support, guidance and validation. It is important for males to develop emotional savvy and true confidence (not just an inflated ego) to prepare them to deal with life and relationships.
What is important for boys to learn?
- How to connect in relationships – with their family, friends and themselves.
- How to embrace empathy and compassion (and all emotions).
- How to deal with conflict or any strong emotion in a non-violent way.
Message to Parents:
I know you love your boys, so by all means connect with them. Here are some ideas:
- Go ahead and play ball, fish, hike (or dance) with them. In your time together include the language of connection: I love you, I treasure our time together, I can see you’re hurting, etc.
- Show them how to authentically connect to and respect their mother and other women (sisters included) in their lives.
- Be in their presence and be quiet. Much connection occurs through the non-verbal.
- Show affection, and don’t stop when they become teens.
- At the very least SHOW UP. Be there — even when they are in their rooms with the door shut. No child ever truly wants to shut out a parent; it is a last resort option. They want to feel heard and feel connected; it’s your job to help them.
I always say it’s a great time to be a girl. Let’s make it a great time to be a boy! The next frontier of change will be for the boys.
Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack & Mary Pipher
The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein & Beth Rashbaum
Michelle Kelley, LCSW is owner of Warrenton Women’s Counseling Center (aka Girls Stand Strong) located in downtown Warrenton. For more information visit www.WarrentonWomensCounselingCenter.com or call 540.316.6362