“Don’t cry. Stop crying. Big boys don’t cry.”
I overheard these commands in a recent exchange between a young boy and caregiver. The child was having a hard time and for his caregiver, this was unacceptable. He wiped his eyes and became stoic, clearly repressing his emotions.
While I don’t know what caused this child to feel upset, I know that in that moment he was coached to conceal his emotions and silence himself. He was taught that his feelings were invalid and needed to be quelled. He learned that showing emotion is weakness.
“Real men are strong. Real men are apathetic. Real men are tough. Real men are aggressive and show dominance via violence.”
We know all of these things to be untrue. So why do we perpetuate these ideas for our boys?
This is toxic masculinity. These are the dangerous conclusions boys are drawing about themselves and the way they should interact with others.
“Denying boys the opportunity to express themselves and experience their full range of emotion can have everlasting effects on their emotional and mental health.”
In the age of the all important MeToo movement and focus on female empowerment, it’s easy to overlook our boys, and how important it is to nurture their emotional needs in order to create a place for them to thrive in our ever-changing society.
Denying boys the opportunity to express themselves and experience their full range of emotion can have everlasting effects on their emotional and mental health. By teaching them that emotion is weakness, we stifle their emotional intelligence and impact the success of their personal relationships and happiness. They begin to adopt the belief that emotional beings are lesser or inferior, which in turn, distorts the way they view their female counterparts.
I am a mother of boys. I recognize the challenges they face. I’m doing this work for them. And my hope is that in sharing 5 Tips for Raising Emotionally Healthy boys, I can impact the young men who will grow up alongside them. Let’s create a safe space for our children to share, to feel, and to be open with one another.
Be Mindful of the Ways You May be Contributing to Toxic Masculinity
Let’s first define toxic masculinity as traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society. Overall, this concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition.
Being mindful of the ways we contribute to toxic masculinity can be uncomfortable, but reflecting on our upbringing and the old-fashioned ideals we carry around can help curb tendencies to perpetuate it. Some examples of this are:
- Feminizing males as a means of insulting them
- Shaming males for displaying affection
- Asserting the notion that men are superior to women
Toxic masculinity can also be evident in the way we communicate with one another.
Common phrases (and those similar to these) that discourage emotional health:
- “Man up.”
- “Boys don’t cry.”
- “Thats a female trait.”
Parents, let him cry. Teach him that crying is human and a healthy way to express sadness, frustration, and anger. Firmly establish the idea that showing emotion is not feminine or weak, but rather a normal form of emotional expression.
Create a Safe Environment for Emotional Expression
Subsequent to the point above, cultivating an emotionally friendly environment in which sharing feelings is not only normal but encouraged, is essential to raising emotionally healthy boys. Never shutdown an emotionally charged conversation. Rather, calmly discuss anger and frustrations and allow kids to express themselves safely.
Teach him to identify his feelings and validate them. The practice of “taking an emotional temperature” is a great one to implement with your child. Describe each feeling (sad, angry, surprised, embarrassed, etc) and have him choose the one that best describes his current “emotional temperature.” Then contemplate what could be triggering these feelings and devise healthy practices for working through them.
Monitor the Media Your Child Consumes
Violence is a major theme in most of the media young boys consume including television, movies, and video games. Try to lead them towards nonviolent shows and games. Teach them that conflict does not have to be resolved with aggression or violence.
Additionally, exposure to movies or books with female leads or heroes is a good way to bridge the gender gap.
Model Emotionally Healthy Behaviors
The American Psychological Association warns that “traditional masculinity ideology” is associated with negative effects on mental and physical health. Men who adhere to traditionally masculine cultural norms, experience increased risk of psychological problems such as depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse, and poor social functioning.
To eliminate the negative effects toxic masculinity plays on mental and physical health, model emotional responsibility and lead by example.
When a car cuts you off in traffic, try to refrain from aggressive reactions such as tailgating, inappropriate gestures, name-calling, etc. Take a deep breath and assess why this action is affecting you in a such a way. Is it something going on at work? An underlying anger? By practicing emotional responsibility in front of our children, it becomes a natural way of reaction for them as well.
Encourage Them to Set Healthy Boundaries
Emotional health requires boundaries and does not include powerless or pushover behavior. Teach assertiveness, strength, and confidence. Remember – we want kids to condemn disrespectful behavior and to stick up for others. We need them to show courage in the face of injustice.
Encourage him to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards him, and how to respond when someone passes those limits.
To teach healthy boundaries, ask your kids to play what-if scenarios. Ask them what they would say in certain situations and listen to their responses. Then, offer them several phrases they can use to self-advocate, and remind them to use their words and that violence is never the answer.