For generations, boys have been raised with stern messages about what it is to be a man: “Boys don’t cry.” “Man up.” “Stop acting like a little girl.”
Psychologists and sociologists say these messages reflect a culture that teaches that “being a real man” means repressing feelings and consistently demonstrating strength and dominance.
As a result, far too many men didn’t learn how to cope with their feelings and emotions in healthy ways. This can lead to depression, substance abuse and difficulty in relationships.
In extreme but all-too-common cases, it can also result in death: 98 percent of mass shooters are male. About 8 in 10 people who die from heroin overdoses and suicide are boys and men, too.
What can parents do to help their sons manage emotions and develop healthy coping skills? UNC Health Care pediatrician Ty Bristol, MD, MPH, and child clinical psychologist Adam Bryant Miller, PhD, offer this advice.
Be Aware of Your Own Coping Skills
Parents have to be mindful of their conscious and subconscious behaviors. Try to pinpoint how you learned to cope, and if you want to see a different coping response from your child, practice responding the way you want your child to respond.
“Parents often think parenting is in the genes, but parenting is actually very skills-based, and you can help your child by practicing the skills and responses you want your child to learn,” Dr. Bristol says. “For example, if your son is about to get a shot, he’s afraid he’s going to get hurt, and it’s perfectly fine for him to cry. So you can tell your son that before he gets a shot or experiences a situation where it is normal to cry.”
But what if you didn’t react that way when your child cried in the past?
Dr. Bristol says you don’t have to say you made a mistake, but you can react differently going forward. For example, say, “It’s OK to cry, you’re upset, and here’s a tissue.”
It is important to continue to model positive coping behavior when your son transitions into adolescence, Dr. Miller says.
“There’s a lot of evidence that shows that families mirror each other’s emotions throughout development; parents should continue to model healthy behaviors when their sons get older,” Dr. Miller says.
Consistency is Key
Everyone caring for your child needs to be on the same page, but Dr. Bristol says this is sometimes easier said than done.
“You could have grandparents from a different generation who may not react the way you would, but it’s OK for you to tell them that you are teaching your sons to show their emotions,” Dr. Bristol says.
However, if that feels uncomfortable or will hurt your relationship with them, Dr. Bristol says you can talk to your son about it when the grandparents are not around.
“You can say, ‘I know Grandpa said boys don’t cry when you fell off the swing, but Mommy and Daddy think it’s OK for you to cry when you fall.’ So instead of pointing out that Grandpa is wrong, you’re letting your son know it’s OK to show emotion,” Dr. Bristol says.
And what about the messages your son gets outside of the family, such as at school or on TV?
“There are a lot of unhealthy messages from all over the place about pain and emotions, and we’re not always in control of those messages,” Dr. Bristol says. “Your son will interact with boys who may be raised differently, so sometimes we have to redirect.”
If your son says something about how boys should behave that you know he did not learn at home, address it right away. If your child is old enough, have a gentle, simple conversation about it. If they are younger, model the behavior you want.
For example, if your 3-year-old comes home from day care and says Band-Aids are for girls, Dad should wear a Band-Aid.
“If Dad wore a Band-Aid on his hand every day just for the fun of it, that boy would change his mind because children often mirror what they see at home,” Dr. Bristol says.
Label Your Emotions
Dr. Miller encourages parents to help their sons identify and label their emotions and then find productive ways to handle them. Instead of telling your son he is angry or upset, ask him to use, “I feel” statements.
“When your child is starting to show signs of being upset, help him label that emotion and what is causing it, such as, ‘I feel frustrated I can’t go out and play because I have to eat dinner,’” Dr. Miller says.
It’s not always easy for children to express their feelings, especially when they are upset. But if a child learns how to confront an issue by expressing his or her feelings, it becomes easier, Dr. Miller explains.
Listen to Your Body
While labeling your emotions may work at home, a teenager is unlikely to use an, “I feel” statement with his peers. Instead, Dr. Miller encourages teens to listen to their bodies.
“During adolescence, both girls and boys become biologically sensitized to social feedback, so they’re biologically primed to be more reactive to social stress,” Dr. Miller says. “When you get upset, everything in your body constricts. Blood floods to the middle of your body, your heart rate increases and your body prepares to fight or take flight. So boys can pay attention to the signals their body gives off when they’re starting to feel angry, anxious or bad and respond in healthy ways before they lose control.”
Dr. Miller suggests teaching teens to take a deep breath.
“Deep breathing comes from the belly and causes physiological changes in the body,” he says. “You’re increasing the amount of oxygen in your blood, which then feeds your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms your body down.”
Another technique he recommends is progressive muscle relaxation.
“A lot of kids who have difficulties with emotions are walking around with different parts of their bodies completely tensed at all times,” Dr. Miller says. “So if they suddenly tense and then release each muscle in the body starting with the feet and working their way up the body, they can try to counteract the body’s response.”
Parents can help children practice these techniques until they become habit, Dr. Miller says. If your son notices he is getting tense before a test or game, have him practice deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques. That helps him then and also next time he’s in an emotional crisis.
Know What’s Normal
When parents know what is normal developmentally, it helps them know how to help their sons in times of crisis, Dr. Bristol says. It is especially important to know what is normal for your child.
“If your teenager starts acting weird or strange, you need to know what is just him being a teenager as opposed to something more serious,” Dr. Bristol says.
For example, if your son usually hugs you when he comes home from school and grabs an orange before starting his homework but then one day just comes home and goes straight to his room, give him five minutes and then go talk to him.
“The first time you ignore that, you have a problem. Instead, say, ‘you usually grab an orange when you come home and give me a hug, but today, you just went straight to your room; did something happen at school?’ You can always be forgiven if it turns out to be nothing, but it’s really hard to forgive yourself if you ignore a clue that later turns out to be something more serious, like he was bullied or something inappropriate happened,” Dr. Bristol says.
It’s A Marathon, Not a Sprint
It’s important to think about how you want your son to be when he is an adult, Dr. Bristol says.
“You are not just caring for your 9-year-old or your 15-year-old. As a parent, you need to think about what you want your child to be like when he’s 30,” he says. “Plant the seeds when he is young so he grows into a healthy adult who can cope with his emotions in a healthful manner.”
If you are concerned about your son’s emotional health, talk to your pediatrician. If you do not have one, find one near you.