Last week, my son, who is 2 years old, was crying. When I asked him why he was crying he replied, ‘I feel upset’. I then asked him why he was upset, and he said, ‘Because I missed you’. I was so happy. Not, of course, because my child was upset, but because for the first time he could clearly articulate his feelings. He could communicate how he felt, and why, which made it so much easier to work through his feelings with him and to comfort him. Up until then it hadn’t always been obvious what was wrong, and I wasn’t always successful in working out what was upsetting him. This was so much easier!
And as I rejoiced at this new milestone, I couldn’t help but wonder, how can I foster and grow his ability to express his emotions? How can I nurture him to grow into a strong and confident man who is unafraid to talk about his feelings? And at what stage does our society impose a belief that boys don’t cry and show their feelings?
I’m talking generally, here. Not every man struggles to express his feelings and not every woman is good at expressing her emotions. But, generally speaking, men tend to struggle more than women do. So much so that researchers have coined phrases to describe the issue of men being unable to express their feelings.
Psychologist Dr Ronald F. Levant calls it ‘normative male alexithymia’. Gregg Henriques, Ph.D, writing in Psychology Today, explains it as follows:
‘Alexithymia is the clinical-sounding term for when someone has a lot of difficulty translating their emotional experience into words. Normative male alexithymia refers to the fact that traditional masculine role socialization channels many men into ways of being such that their masculine identity conflicts with many emotions they feel and what they feel they are “allowed” to express (i.e., they will be shamed and will feel as if they are “not real men” if they express feelings of vulnerability, dependency needs, weakness, etc.)’
Another term widely used by psychologists is ‘toxic masculinity.’ Psychologist Terry Kupers defines toxic masculinity as ‘the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence’. These traits are the opposite of the more positive aspects of masculinity, such as ‘pride in [one’s] ability to win at sports, to maintain solidarity with a friend, to succeed at work, or to provide for [one’s] family’. The concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conforming to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors, such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition.
Where I come from in the West of Scotland, it is such a big issue that a project I worked for received funding specifically to work with young men. This inability to express feelings, combined with other social factors, has resulted in extremely high levels of depression and a higher than national average of completed suicides amongst young men. After road traffic accidents, suicide is the second biggest cause of death of young men.
What is important to remember is that just because some men can’t often express their emotions , it doesn’t mean they don’t have any, or aren’t feeling things deeply. Due to the pressure to conform, many times men will convert stereotypical female emotions such as sadness and vulnerability into acceptable masculine emotions such as pride and anger.
Or they will express emotions only in socially acceptable settings, such as at a football game, or after a few drinks in the pub.
Society forces men into a situation where they feel deeply, but are told not to express these feelings. At best we have men who are low in confidence, disconnected from their feelings and struggling in relationships. And at worst, we have men who go on mass killing sprees like the recent ones in the US or hurt themselves and complete suicide. Since 1982, 92 of 95 mass shootings were carried out by men.
So, with all of this knowledge, it feels essential that I teach my son emotional awareness. Here are 6 ideas to increase your child’s emotional intelligence:
- Become a good role model. When it comes to expressing and showing emotions, the best way to teach our kids emotional intelligence is to lead by example. Don’t be afraid to show your kids a wide spectrum of feelings and explain to them how you feel.
- Listen. Actively listen and show interest so that they feel safe to talk. Starting now means your kids will be more likely to share their feelings, especially during the crucial teenage years.
- This builds trust. Active listening fosters trust. Trust that he can talk to you and share his feelings without fear, judgement or ridicule.
- TV. If you’re going to use TV, then there is some good TV that can help. Sesame Street, Elmo’s World and Daniel the Tiger all discuss emotions, feelings and consequences. And by watching it together it becomes an easier way of chatting about these topics with your child.
- Read books together. There are wonderful children’s books that can teach your children about feelings with age appropriate language. Find some inspiration here.
- Gender neutral toys. Avoiding ‘boys toys’ such as guns, and focusing on neutral toys such as Lego and puzzles reduces stereotyping what typical boy behavior should be.
This article was originally posted in Uber Moms by me.