Raising emotionally healthy boys

In Australia, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. It makes a bleak sense considering it’s estimated that 80% of men have a mild to severe form of alexithymia: the difficulty to identify and express emotions. Because of the traditional gender stereotype that boys are tougher than girls, it means they often receive less emotional nurturing from their parents. Boys quickly learn from media and the world around them to be ‘strong’ and emotionless (unless that emotion is anger), and even as parents, we can unconsciously teach them to avoid expressing sadness, vulnerability and weakness. These days, there’s a lot of talk about how misogyny and gender stereotyping harms women – which is important – but often the damage these do to men and boys can be left off the agenda. So, what can we do as parents and caregivers to combat harmful gender stereotypes and raise happy, emotionally healthy boys?

Build their emotional vocabulary 
Talk about feelings, and talk often. This is just great practice for children anyway. Go through the names for different emotions and what physical or bodily sensations might be linked to them. Try to use a wide variety of words when talking about your own emotions; you’re their main learning source for language.

Provide good emotional role models 
Show them through your own actions how to healthily express emotion; be vulnerable with others in situations where your sons can see. Show them what empathy, love and connection looks like. But you also don’t need to be their only role model. Watch movies and read books with them, seek out narratives that show men and boys being emotionally vulnerable and expressive, and talk about it afterwards. You might also like to invite the men in your life who you trust and are close with to come and spend time with you and your child together. 

Check in often
Ask them how they feel when something good, bad, exciting, scary and so on happens to them. Check in at the end of the day about how their day was and encourage them to put a word to it, even just one is good. Don’t forget to share your highs and lows with them as well; talking about your feelings also gives them permission to feel and to express their own emotions.

Talk less, listen more
Listen to what they have to say about how they’re feeling without judgement. Ask follow-up questions and repeat back what they’ve told you. Be empathetic, and provide responses such as ‘that sounds nice/difficult/scary/fun,’ rather than trying to offer solutions or fill in silences. It’s so tempting, we know, to try and fix the problems our children are having, but we can’t ‘fix’ their emotions. We also sometimes find it difficult to sit with silence for a while and can tend to rush in and talk, which takes away the opportunity for them to fill the space. The best thing we can do is listen. 

Don’t discourage crying
When they’re upset, ask them if they feel like crying and tell them that it’s okay if they do. Let them know grown ups cry too and it can help to make sadness pass quicker. If they ever do express hurt or sadness, don’t tell them to ‘toughen up’ or to wipe their tears away. Explain that crying releases tension and helps with sad or bad feelings; that people really do feel better afterwards. Look up the research of crying and share what you find with them; it makes for interesting reading.

Find healthy outlets for their anger
There’s a line of thought that girls are taught to feel and express every emotion but anger, whereas for boys it’s the reverse. We don’t want to discourage their expressions of anger when they do feel angry, but we can help them find healthy channels. Encourage them to go for a run, shoot some hoops or read a book when they’re wound up. Listening to or playing music can be another good release. Let them know that anger is acceptable, but hurting other people or things is not. It’s not good to yell at people, but if they need a release, screaming into a pillow can be helpful. Ask them what they think are some good ideas for managing and expressing anger and come up with a plan together for when they do get angry in the future. For some people, talking about problems and worries help, whereas for others it doesn’t, and they prefer alone time. Try not to be judgemental about how your young person feels their way with this because we all have different strategies that work.

Talk about gender stereotypes and the harm they can do
Ask your son what they think it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘boy’. If they come up with any of the usual stereotypes, ask them why they think that and where they learned it. Talk about gender stereotypes when consuming media, such as starting a chat after watching an action movie with macho protagonists. Ask them questions like whether they think it’s okay for a boys or men to cry or want to wear some makeup or wear a dress. Talk about the ‘ideal man’ and whether they think all the cliched attributes that come with that are healthy. Talk about what gender stereotypes might be and where they came from, and direct their attention to how they’re starting to change and that it’s a good thing. Ask them what sort of man they want to be when they grow up, what sorts of qualities and characteristics do they value in the men they admire, and how you can both help them get there.