My oldest son is seventeen. He’s been really quiet lately. One minute he seems pretty happy and like himself; then the next, he shuts down and slams doors. As his mom, I know why: this is all about a girl he likes who seems to be jerking him around. They’ll be FaceTiming and everything is seemingly fine. Then before I know it, his cheeks are red and he won’t talk to anyone and he’s mad at the world.
He thinks I don’t see what’s happening here, but I do. He doesn’t think he can express his emotions or talk about how this is making him feel despite my constant asking him to talk to me.
This burying his emotions comes out as anger. He doesn’t feel he can talk to his own mother and he sure as hell doesn’t feel like he can talk to his friends. He’s learned that anger is an acceptable emotion for a male to have, but sadness isn’t.
Society has made him think this is the way he’s supposed to be, and he has paid more attention to those messages than he has to my messages about how emotions and feelings are totally normal and shouldn’t be suppressed.
It doesn’t come from his father, either. He’s a sensitive man who isn’t hyper-masculine and has always shown how much he loves him. He has no problem crying in front of his kids and always encourages them to talk.
When my son was six, he heard his uncle say eating spicy stuff was hard, but if you were a man, you’d do it and not complain.
He repeated that phrase and dumped sriracha hot sauce on everything for a year.
My father told him “real men don’t cry.”
I told my father that was ridiculous and not how we ran things at our house, and the fact he thinks there are “men” and then “real men” isn’t a conversation I’d tolerate around my children.
But what my father said to him stuck out way beyond all I had shown my son who used to like to play Barbies and wear his sister’s barrettes.
The problem is, for many boys all it takes is one time— one sentence from someone they look up to— to wire their brain into thinking being emotional or talking about your feelings isn’t acceptable by any means. I know for my son, it feels like there’s no turning off that switch off no matter how hard I try.
The two of us were listening to a morning radio show the other day and the topic of men asking for help came up.
The hosts (one was a gay man, the other a straight woman) were discussing it and taking calls on the subject.
The gay man was explaining how he’s been conditioned his whole life to “man up” and not act like a “baby” and how crying just isn’t acceptable for a man.
The woman chimed in, saying, “It’s fine when a man cries, just not too much.” Her cohost called her out and said she was part of the problem, and I agree.
Psychology Today reports, “Society encourages men to express their feelings, but when they do, their partners are often petrified, if not horrified. Women, they may believe, want their partners to show their feelings, but only certain feelings, and only in doses they can handle.”
I told my son that was the reason why so many kids his age feel the need to keep all their emotions inside and how much healthier it is to just talk to someone you trust and drop the act. But his back immediately got tense and his response was, “Shhhh,” which is his polite way of saying, “Be quiet, because you aren’t going to get me to talk about this.”
Daphne Rose Kingma, author of the book The Men We Never Knew, explains: “We’ve dismissed men as the feelingless gender—we’ve given up on them. Because of the way boys are socialized, their ability to deal with emotions has been systematically undermined. Men are taught, point-by-point, not to feel, not to cry, and not to find words to express themselves.”
As a woman, I know every time I try to suppress my emotions — whether it’s because I think it will benefit my kids, or the voice inside me says I’m being too “extra” and I need to back it up — it always comes out in other ways: anger, sleeplessness, weakened immune system, or just an explosive episode down the road. And I’m someone who lets my feelings fly.
Now imagine trying to live your life that way because you’ve been taught that’s how you are supposed to act, even when it feels so wrong. You’ll eventually get good at hiding real feelings and triggers, only to have them leak through other parts of your life.
Teen boys are emotional. They are sensitive. They do need to talk, and to know they have a safe, trusting place to go, even if it’s for a second. Believe me, I have two of them and I see it every day.
I refuse to put my head in the sand and think they have nothing tumultuous going on in their life, or feel sad for no reason, simply because they aren’t coming to me to talk.
It’s our job as their parents to be persistent and tell anyone who sends messages about “manning up” or what it means to be a “real man” to fuck off — even if it’s your own father. And then encourage our boys to feel and express their very normal emotions, because “real men” are human too.