Too often, boys are raised with the belief that showing feelings of hurt or sadness makes them weak. Because meaningful adult relationships require people to be comfortable with vulnerability, parenting that fails to model and educate boys to recognize, label and express emotions, places boys at risk of becoming men without the resource of emotional intelligence.
While there are many brave men who confront combat or physically dangerous activities without hesitation, they are less comfortable with accepting emotional vulnerability as a necessity for healthy intimate relationships, self-esteem and overall resilience.
The benefits of teaching young boys to express sadness and hurt are considerable. In the earlier years, school age boys who express feelings are less likely to act out physically.
As adults, men who accept vulnerable feelings, (such as rejection or disappointment) as a normal part of functioning, are less likely to struggle when coping with complex emotional situations such as marital difficulties, mental health or trauma. Those men who are comfortable with vulnerability are better able to go the distance with the resource of emotional intelligence on their side.
Here are some ways to parent boys to become men who go the distance:
1. Teach children to label feelings. Too often parents see that their children are unhappy or sad but move too quickly to helping them feel better. Instead, help the child label what he is feeling. “I can see that you feel sad when your toy broke. That’s okay to feel sad”.
2. Help boys break the anger bubble. Some boys seem caught between two categories of emotion. If everything is going well, they are happy. If something is displeasing, they are angry. These boys require help to look at what the anger bubble is capturing. Help boys label feelings other than anger. “I can see that you are expressing anger but do you think that you may be experiencing something else; maybe disappointment or frustration?”
3. Encourage adult men to model appropriate expression of feelings. Many adult men who have difficulty with accepting and expressing feelings, lacked an emotionally intelligent male role model as a child. For example, many of them never saw their own father express anything other than happiness, annoyance or anger. Allowing children to observe feelings as more complex than two or three labels, gives them more to work with when they are dealing with complex emotions.
4. Realize that emotional intelligence is key to career success and personal happiness. Some parents worry that, if they over-emphasize emotion, their boys will grow up without the mental toughness required of real men. This is false. Emotional intelligence allows people to regulate and express their own emotions while responding appropriately and empathetically to the needs of others. Parenting boys in a way that they have understanding rooted in their childhood learning equips them for success as men.
5. Talk openly about feelings. Appreciate that, while your teen boy may not want to talk with you about what he is experiencing with peers or in intimate relationships, it is to his benefit to do so. While teenage girls are more likely to attempt suicide, teenage boys are at higher risk of dying by suicide. They are less likely to reach out for help.
6. Talking about emotions benefits mental, physical, and relationship health. It is more difficult to learn new behaviors as adults. However, if you are an adult male who was not parented with emotional intelligence, it is not too late. Work with a mental health professional and the insight and skills will develop. If you are a parent of a boy, teach emotional health early on.
If you want to raise your son to be a man who expresses emotions, start with teaching him to recognize and label feelings. Model healthy expression of feelings as something that makes men, not weak, but powerful.
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