Inside: Learn three powerful (and surprising) ways for raising young boys to be strong men. Plus, science-based tips for raising boys in an era of anger and aggression.
From the moment he reached his limit, my son started wailing. It didn’t take long before his face turned crimson. At face value, he looked a lot like an angry child, but I could tell deep down it was sadness.
My husband and I took the kids to the playground; a couple of other boys were there, and each time my son tried to play with them, they said they did not want to play with him.
He tried again and again to connect so that he could join their play. He ran around in circles trying to engage them in a chasing game. He straight up asked them to play. He offered to share the toys he brought with them.
And yet, nothing worked.
I stood back waiting.
It’s hard to sit back and watch your kids struggle – painful even. You want to fix it and sort it out for the kids.
But studies show waiting and allowing the kids to work it out is a meaningful approach. It’s a way for kids to learn social skills and problem solve on their own (so long as everyone is safe and nothing totally out of line is happening).
Eventually the frustration started to build, and my son ran back to us and burst into tears. I said nothing, and instead, looked to my husband. My son sobbed into his chest, struggling to speak his upset. As my husband prepared to talk, I knew something powerful was about to happen.
Raising boys to be men is the opposite of what you’d think.
Lelia Schott once said, “Perhaps if tearful little boys were comforted instead of shamed there wouldn’t be so many angry men struggling to express and empathize with emotions.”
She’s absolutely right. All you have to do is look around to witness a sea of angry men around us.
Faith Saile put it best in her recent viral TIME article when she said, “A man uses his car to assassinate an anti-Nazi protestor. A man shoots a congressman at his baseball practice. A man commits mass murder at a Vegas concert. A man massacres worshippers in their church. A police officer slaughters his own family. The headlines blur, but they invariably seem to feature men whom the media informs us felt lonely or powerless.”
Turns out, the traditional ideas of “raising boys to be men” might be entirely backwards. According to science, boys are more vulnerable and in need of emotional support than previously thought.
Sebastian Kramer, a child psychiatrist and researcher, says, “Even in the womb, boy brains are more reactive to maternal depression and stress, while at birth, baby boy brains lag behind girls by a full six weeks. […] As boys age, they can continue to struggle, which, when compounded by the lack of emotional support, only gets more serious.”
It makes so much sense, right?
Here’s the problem.
When upset boys are told to “stop crying” and “toughen up” and “just punch ‘em if you need to,” a major communication breakdown occurs between the child and adult.
All behavior is a communication, and when boys are crying, upset, sad, frustrated or angry, they are hurting. They are trying to tell you something. They are — in the most unloving way — asking for emotional support.
If boys don’t get the opportunity to fully express themselves now, they will either escalate their actions immediately or store it up and use it for later.
Things can escalate quickly if missed communications build over time, and eventually it becomes a way of altered coping for boys. To not talk about feelings. To ignore real and valid emotions. And worst of all — to lack empathy and understanding for the emotions of others.
Boys need emotional support.
In working with parents, I’m often asked “If he won’t stop crying or he’s upset, what should I do?” The good news is that it’s simpler than you’d expect. When raising boys, here are 3 ways you can emotionally support your son:
1. Listen, validate and wait.
One of the most revolutionary principles that can change the way you respond to a child’s upset is this:
Emotions don’t need fixing; they need to be processed by the person feeling them.
You can help your child process through listening and validation.
You can simply sit and be alongside them. If you don’t know what to say, you can say…
“You’re sad and upset. You’re crying…I see that. This is hard for you. I’m here.”
There are many times when listening, validating and waiting is enough, and you will see a child nod, take a deep breath, calm themselves and announce a solution to the problem. If the upset continues, your child needs more time and help to process. This is often the missing step in raising boys.
See more validation here:
2. Be vulnerable.
Because kids live in a physical world of the here and now (almost entirely in the moment) seeing is a meaningful way for a boy to learn. They need you to show them how to navigate emotions.
Give your son the chance to see you upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed or crying and talking about it. This is so important! Allowing your kids to see you process an upset shows them what to do.
According to a brain imaging study by UCLA psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman, verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.
“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” he said. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”
What Lieberman basically says is that anyone who is able to share his or her feelings out loud is empowered to calm the emotional center (the amygdala) of the brain, enabling one to move forward calmly, rather than build and explode later.
- The Powerful Impact of Vulnerability in Parenting
- How to Explain Your Frustrations to Kids in a Helpful Way
3. Teach empathy and empathize.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When a child is upset, one of the most powerful things you can do is — if only for a moment — imagine the situation from the child’s perspective.
Everything is a big deal to kids, even things that seem small and inconsequential to adults. Taking a moment to empathize with their challenge immediately gets you on the same side as your child. From there, you can problem solve and help them process.
What may be the holy grail for raising boys to be men is teaching them how to empathize with others. If you can teach a boy what to do (how to empathize) when he sees someone upset or crying, I’m fairly certain we could transform a generation of relationships.
More on empathy:
Raising boys to be loving men.
When my son sobbed into my husband’s chest at the playground, something powerful happened that I’ll never forget. Instead of pushing him away, he pulled him closer.
Their hands wrapped around each other and my husband spoke. “They didn’t want to play with you and it hurts. You’re sad. You’re really, really sad right now.”
I said nothing. I could only smile.
You see, most people would be surprised to see and hear my husband comfort our son in this way. He’s a big guy, a Marine who’s seen and done tough things I can only begin to imagine.
He’s taught me something important: It takes a lot more courage and bravery to support someone emotionally than it does to push someone away or ignore them.
Like Saile said, “Boys will not be merely boys. If we let them, boys will be human.”
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Want more on parenting?
- What No One Tells You About Parenting Toddler Boys
- How to Handle Back Talk and Disrespect Like a Parenting Warrior
- One Surefire Way to Stop Entitlement and Raise Kind Kids
- How to Build Cooperation Using a Printable Daily Schedule for Kids
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