Big Boys Do Cry
Ron Huxley, LMFT
Get a number of parents in a room and ask them about their children’s behavior and you will begin to hear a common theme that boys behave differently than girls. It’s news in the media too; it seems, with all of the talk about our Emotional IQ (usually referring to a male’s lack of) or how men are from Mars and women from Venus. Sit in on an online chat room for parents or an email discussion list on male/female relationships and it won’t be long before you see some retort about how “men can’t express their feelings” or “boys acting out their aggression.” All of it focuses on how men struggle with their emotional self.
As a man, I won’t deny it’s true. Even the men I have talked with, be they friends or patients in my office, will agree with it. The rub is that while men accept this fact they feel helpless to change it. That’s because we are caught in a double bind, put on us by society, the other gender, and ourselves. The double bind says that we should be more in touch with our emotions and yet, at the same time, be tough, macho, Mr. Fix-It, and the Family Provider. We are asked to be in touch with our “feminine” side and still retain our “Male” strength.
Add the problem that most men never had adequate male role models in life, or if they did, they weren’t emotionally available one’s, and you end up with a fairly confused man or son about the emotional nature of manhood. William Pollack, Ph.D., in his book, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of states that the consequence of this confusion for males includes higher rates of depression, anxiety, aggressiveness, and substance abuse. It’s ironic that male’s confusion about expressing emotion leads to emotional problems. He goes on to state that in order to survive this confusion, boys learn “the code” that to be a man you must pretend to “feel nothing.”
Of course, it’s not possible to “feel nothing.” The best example comes from the biggest complaint about male’s behaviors, namely, that they are too competitive and aggressive. Boys are much more likely to be diagnosed as conduct disordered learning disabled, and attention deficit. Statistics are also higher for violent crimes and fighting among males. They are also more likely to be medicated for these disorders to decrease their aggressive behaviors. Dr. Pollack feels that males are given an “emotional funnel” to express their feelings. All of their emotions: sadness, fear, anxiety, and frustration is translated into one emotion: Anger!
Anger is the most common emotion expressed by males. That is because men and boys feel more accepted by society when they express anger over what is considered to be the more “feminine” emotions. Here is the double-bind again: we ask males to manage their anger which is the only socially acceptable emotion to express and that emotion turns out to be a cover-up for other emotions, such as sadness or powerlessness. Anger or aggressive behaviors, are just the symptom. The source may be any number of hidden, indirect emotions.
So what do males do with this double bind? If we agree that we have trouble expressing our emotions, and that creates trouble for us relationally and socially, how do we get out of trouble? First, we start with understanding the true nature of emotions and then society must demonstrate an acceptance of those emotions in boys and men.
The Emotional Brain
If we look at emotions from purely a physiological standpoint, they turn out to be some of the most fundamental parts of our brain. Researchers have determined that our emotions are controlled in the brain stem, which regulates our involuntary functions and the middle area of our brain, which controls our basic drives, such as eating, and sleeping. Emotions come from and are related to some of the most primitive and primary areas of our brains.
According to Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., in his book, Emotional IQ, our emotions are designed to “motivate” or move us forward in life. Each emotion has a particular purpose in our personal evolution. Anger serves to give us the energy and strength necessary to change a situation, fear allows us to focus on the threat at-hand and evaluate a course of action, happiness increases energy and decreases inhibitions to achieve goals, love creates satisfaction and a state of rest or contentment, surprise allows us to take in more information about an unexpected event, disgust expresses a need to avoid an undesirable event or food, and sadness slows us down to adjust to a major disappointment and find solace in familiar people and places.
Dr. Goleman goes on to acknowledge that while males and females have the same emotional capacity, they are taught very different lessons about how to handle their emotions. Parents tend to discuss emotions more with daughters than sons. In studies of parents telling their children stories, girls are told stories more heavily laden with emotional words and situations than are boys. Mothers display a wider range of emotions when playing with their daughters than when they are playing with their sons. And even when parents talk to their children about emotions, they use more emotional descriptions with girls than with boys.
Research has also shown that girls develop language skills much sooner than boys and are more articulate when it comes to expressing themselves emotionally. This natural advantage and the de-emphasis on emotional training for boys, lead males to communicate their emotions behaviorally. This may be why so many boys get into fights, play competitive sports, or act aggressively towards others. It is their way of communicating their feelings. And anger is the socially acceptable spokesperson for all of those feelings, be they positive or negative. Perhaps the answer to the emotional double bind, experienced by boys and men, are to provide males with the missing Emotional IQ training. Teaching males to understand and express their emotions increases their Emotional IQ, according to Dr. Goleman and other researchers. It is this Emotional IQ that provides success at school, work, or home - wherever human relations are necessary.
Emotional IQ Training
Howard Gardner, a psychologist at the Harvard School of Education, has suggested that there are many different types of intelligence, not just academic (linguistic and math) one’s. He refers to these as talents that all children possess, male or female. Being able to use these talents is what makes people successful and satisfied in life. Peter Salovey, another psychologist, refines Gardner’s talents into five main domains of emotional intelligence: Knowing one’s emotions, Managing emotions, Motivating oneself, Recognizing emotions in others, and Handling relationships. Making these domains a part of every boy’s daily curriculum is essential if we want to help boys increase their Emotional IQ and become the fathers and husband’s society desires. Another way of saying it is, if we want males to be more expressive emotionally, we have to give them the “right tools to do the job.”
Where do we start? The most natural place is the home. And the most natural person is dad. It stands to reason, that if we want to teach real boys to be real men, then we need to utilize our most natural and powerful resources. We also need to be more conscious about what and how we are teaching emotional literacy to our sons and take a more active approach in doing so. And these Emotional IQ skills must be socially sanctioned in order for the new skills to take root and grow.
Dr. Pollack suggests that we give our sons undivided attention every day. This means full attention, not partial or half. Don’t engage in cooking, cleaning, reading or anything else that might detract from the attention giving. Dads don’t always have to talk when giving attention either. Playing a game or working on a project, side-by-side, with minimal words is enough. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, Ph.D, in his book, The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Father You Wish Your Father Had Been, states that while men and women experience emotions similarly, they may share those emotions differently. Men, due to past Emotional IQ training, are used to indirectly communicating with one another. This is what, Dr. Shapiro calls “side-by-side” or “shoulder-to-shoulder” communication. Moms tend to prefer the more “face-to-face”, direct approach.
Dr. Shapiro talks about the different styles of communicating emotions by men and women: “Men have long been criticized for either having no feelings or having the wrong ones, or being unable to describe them. It is true that males in our society are trained to deny, ignore, cover up, and rise above feelings. However, we do have them all the time. It is important that we express our feelings to our children in male ways. It is customary for men to be most open, for example, while they are working on a joint project together (i.e., shoulder to shoulder).”
It is also important that mom’s and dad’s encourage boys to express the full range of emotions. Past social conditioning that only some emotions, namely anger, are acceptable need to be removed. All emotions are valid. Be receptive to a baby’s sadness and discomfort as well as his cooing and giggles. Ask toddlers and school-age boys if they are feeling sad or tired and empathize with those feelings. Tell older boys that it is normal to feel awkward or anxious and have open discussions about his relationships with girls, other boys, siblings, teachers and family.
When boys do express themselves aggressively or act rambunctious, look below the anger. While it is true that boys, on the average, do play more aggressively, don’t let that prevent you from checking for underlying emotions of sadness or anxiety. Remember that acting out means just that. Boys often act out their feelings of hurt and loss. Labels those feelings for them if they are obvious or ask them about their feelings if they are not. Reflect on their behavior by stating, “You seem to be upset about this situation. I wonder if your are feelings hurt/sad/anxious by it.” Model complex feelings by admitting you often get angry when you feel these other emotions too. It is often difficult for young children to understand that people can have more than one emotion at a time.
Be willing to express your love and empathy openly and generously. Loving your son will not “baby” him, “spoil” him, or make him a “sissy.” It will make him more self-assured, confidant, and secure. When a dad is openly affectionate toward his son, a very deep message about manhood and emotions is communicated. Tell you son that you love him as much as you wish. Give him hugs and take opportunities to play with him.
Fatherless Homes And Father Hunger
What is a boy to do if there is no father or positive male role model available? The answer is two-fold: Model emotions yourself and/or borrow a positive male role model. Although the most powerful model of emotional literacy is between a dad and his son, mom’s can model healthy functioning too. Any and all adults, not just the biological father, can teach Emotional IQ. And if dad is absent, physically or emotionally, from the home, have your son join a mentoring program like Big Brothers or the Police Activity League. Ask around about organizations that provide positive role models for boys and check them out to determine if they are able to provide Emotional IQ training. Of course, they may not understand it as such, but watch what they do with your son and other boys to see if they are teaching it, by their actions. Recruit an uncle, grandfather, or other male relative to get together with your son one-day a week to go to the movies, build a model, or play catch. It is also possible to find a male, child therapist for your son. A child therapist can address the child’s issues (aggressive behavior, depression, anxiety, etc.), consult with the parent about how to increase a child’s Emotional IQ, and be an adequate male role model at the same time. While you are not trying to replace dad or build an unhealthy dependence on the therapist, a male therapist can provide that essential ingredient some boys needs and can’t get from a female therapist.
Dr. Shapiro talks about this essential ingredient as “father hunger.” Coined by James Herzog, a psychoanalyst, to describe the psychological damage in young children who were deprived of their fathers love and attention. These children were determined to be more aggressive and had trouble controlling their impulses. They also tend to be more immature and needy. Older children, who suffer from this “father hunger” are more likely to attempt suicide, run away, malinger, and manipulate others.
The satisfaction of this hunger is to find adequate father substitutes. Even men, who did not have emotionally available fathers or grew up in single parent homes without a father, can find other men who act as mentors or role models about how to be a high Emotional IQ dad. Even haphazard attempts at emotional functioning are better than nothing. Most children are fairly forgiving and willing to learn how to be healthy males together. Contrary to popular opinion, I think that children learn as much, if not more, from healthy male failures as their successes. Covering up our failures only reinforces the old “boy code” that we feel nothing or must always be right, tough, and macho.