Teach boys to express their feelings

  • By Jennifer Kogan Special to The Washington Post
  • Friday, June 1, 2012 6:37pm
  • Life

A sad thing happened at my son’s baseball game a few weeks ago. Picture this: A 13-year-old boy strikes out at bat. As he walks off the field you can tell by his drooping posture that he is upset. My heart aches as I watch tears start to spill over.

As he trudges toward the dugout, a shrill “No!” comes from the crowd. His mother gives him a stern glare. He catches her eye and responds to her clear direction.

There would be no tears during this game.

I was shaken. This child was learning that he’d better hide his emotions because big boys don’t cry. This is not a judgment against a well-meaning mom who has obviously absorbed this strong cultural message. Rather, it is a plea to parents to wonder if it is right to assume teenage boys should stop expressing their strong feelings.

A 2010 study of 426 boys showed that as boys progressed through adolescence they tended to further embrace hyper-masculine stereotypes. But boys who remained close to their mothers did not act as tough and were more emotionally available.

The research, conducted by Arizona State University professor Carlos Santos, showed that closeness to fathers did not seem to have the same effect.

This detail is important because male suicide rates reportedly start to rise by age 16. In addition to combating depression it seems evident that boys who stay connected to their feelings will be able to express their anger in healthier ways.

Here are a few ways to help boys learn how to deal with their feelings:

1. Teach and talk about feelings at home. From a very young age, read stories about feelings with your son.

2. Have a deck of feelings flash cards for kids to help them develop their feelings vocabulary.

3. Be ready and available to listen to your son without asking questions or offering a lot of advice. Kids often will open up when parents say less and listen more.

4. Develop family rituals such as a regular time to check in with each other about the day. This can be anytime that works for both of you: after school, over dinner or at bedtime. These can be adapted as your son grows.

Kogan is a clinical social worker in Washington, D.C., who works with parents.

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