As a parent with a degree in psychology and education, I envisioned a relationship with my teenagers that involved open conversations about their feelings and beliefs. Now that I actually have 2 teenagers, here is a more typical conversation with my son:
Me: “How was your day?”
Me: “What did you do?”
Yes, I have tried asking specific questions, talking in the car, talking while walking, talking in the morning, talking at night, on a boat with a goat (you get the drift).
My son is a great kid — smart, funny, insightful and sensitive — but I worry about him because he keeps everything inside. Unfortunately, this is true for so many teenage boys. Not all of them turn to guns or violence, but many of them turn to drugs, alcohol, and other dangerous coping mechanisms to deal with their feelings. So how do we help boys open up about their feelings and give them the social emotional tools they need to live happy, healthy lives?
Get rid of gender stereotypes! The outdated notion that boys are supposed to be strong and powerful and not be vulnerable or show emotions needs to be re-written. Our culture has done a lot of work in the last decade to let girls know that they can be brave and strong (there is still work to be done), but for boys the message is still loud and clear that being sensitive is a feminine quality. To show feelings is a sign of weakness. A boy who cries on the playground might be called “a sissy” or “a baby.” Even well-meaning parents treat boys differently when they fall down or get hurt with messages like “you’ll be fine” or “brush it off.”
As parents, we can’t change society overnight, but we can do our part to help boys open up about their feelings. Here are 5 ways to get started:
1. Encourage boys to play with toys and read books that promote “nurturing” and build empathy.
You can still buy your boys trucks and Legos but make sure they also have access to dolls, stuffed animals, and cooking supplies. Your son will also need to know how to cook and rock a baby to sleep someday. Build bridges with your daughter and play tea party with your son. Encourage your son to read books with female characters as the main character. Reading is one of the best ways to build empathy and by connecting with both male and female characters, they can explore both their masculine and feminine side.
2. Allow boys to see grown men being vulnerable.
It is important for boys to see fathers, grandfathers, and other men in the child’s life being vulnerable. They need to see that men have all the same emotions as women and they don’t need to hide them. Books are another great way for boys to see strong male characters being vulnerable.
3. Starting at a young age, talk about feelings and emotions.
Allow them to feel both positive and negative emotions. Give them the vocabulary to identify and communicate their emotions. Help them put words to their feelings. Sometimes adults even need help with this. Show them appropriate ways to express their emotions. Anger is a very normal human emotion, but instead of hitting your brother, what are some other things you can do to release your anger (punch a pillow, go into your room and scream, etc.)? It is much better to release the anger than keep it bottled up inside.
4. It is okay to ask for help.
Boys are often taught at an early age that they don’t need help. How many grown men won’t ask for directions or read the manual first? They are taught that real men can figure it out for themselves, but sometimes we all need some help. Let your boys know it is okay to ask for help and who they can go to when needed.
5. Practice Mindfulness.
By helping your son practice mindfulness, you can help him navigate these difficult feelings. Mindfulness is a method of shifting your attention inward to observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions without interpretation or judgment. Start practicing mindfulness as a family when he is young and it will become part of his daily routine, like brushing his teeth. There are great apps for this including: Calm and Headspace by Amazon. Being able to take a moment to reflect on his thoughts and feelings without reacting will help him throughout life.
We may still only get a “good” at the dinner table when we ask about their day, but at least we will know it is actually true.