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Three essential strategies for raising emotionally healthy boys

Early in the process of raising our son it became clear to me that I needed to rethink some of my conceptualizations of gender and the influence of it on behaviour. Despite what I felt were some fairly egalitarian approaches to parenting, as my son reached his toddler years his behaviour was dramatically different than what I had seen in my daughter. Where she would neatly arrange toys and create social scenarios for them, my son would find a way to throw them into each other, jump them off of things, or make them fight. Every stick became an opportunity for a firearm, sword, or ballistic missile despite no real contact with media portraying these things. Rough play was craved- almost as though there was a daily quota that needed to be met. He was very much a boy as defined by popular culture.

When we look at the expression of gender across the population there is a great deal of variation. The biological controls for gender sit far deeper than whether or not our genitals are innies or outies. For example, there are some distinct differences in brain physiology between males and females, particularly in areas related to sexuality and aggression. A good example of one of these areas is the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, a deep and ancient part of the brain responsible for basic drives, has regions that have been found to be larger in males than females. The action of these differences in the hypothalamus and other regions contribute to how gender is felt and enacted.

As it relates to childhood behaviours, hormones are some of the key players in gendered behavioural differences and at centre stage are the opposing influences of testosterone and estrogen. Soon after birth, children undergo a period of surges in these hormones referred to by Dr. Louann Brizendine, distinguished neuroscientist and author of The Female Brain (2006) and The Male Brain (2010), as ‘infantile puberty.’ During this period, lasting roughly nine months for boys and 24 months for girls, hormones flood their systems and shift the nature of brain development and behavioural motivations. The most common distribution of these hormones is boys experiencing higher levels of testosterone release and girls experiencing higher levels of estrogen release.

These hormones are key building blocks in the creation of what we call gender. These  play a key role shaping dominant conceptions of how boys and girls look and act and the differences we commonly see. Generally speaking, when contrasted with estrogen driven “girl” behaviours, testosterone driven “boy” behaviours more often include decreased fear evaluation, increased drives for challenge and competition, an emphasis in spacial memory over verbal memory,  and increased aggression. Again, gender is complex and how it manifests varies dramatically across populations.

How a society defines gender also influences the shape it takes in an individual. What it means to be a boy is strongly influenced by the settings boys grow up in. Research on parenting practices show a great deal of variation in parenting but some observed and robust differences between how boys and girls are parented (Mascaro eat al., 2017). Parents on average allow boys to take more risks, buy them more instrumental toys that allow more physical creativity early on (such as LEGO), and more often enrol them in competitive sport. All of these enforce adoption of socially dominant, or “hegemonic”, masculinities- or ways of enacting manhood within a culture.

Emotional interactions between caregivers and boys differ also. I remember being told as a young boy very clearly by my caregivers and men in positions of authority around me “we don’t cry”, “suck it up” and other evidences of emotions it was okay for me to display in public and those I should not. In adolescence it became my peers, and myself to my peers, enforcing these lines. Statements like “Don’t be a little bitch”, “Pussy!”, and “Grow a pair” directly relate to being less of a man and were often mercilessly hurled at those breaking from gendered expectations.

The endorsement of masculine traits have led to many positives in my life including increased self reliance, confidence, strong recreation oriented peer groups, engaging sport opportunities, and emotional sturdiness. However, there is a cost. Men are four times more likely than females to die by suicide, less likely to access help, more likely to be injured at the workplace, more likely to die of disease, and more likely to be the victim of violence (Sorensen, 2011). Also, and commonly portrayed in the media, Men are more likely to assault others and to be assaulted.

In his brilliant poem “10 Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’” (Sensitive ears warning- there is a very bold, but appropriate IMO, F bomb in the first line), Guante wrote: “…not every problem can be solved by 'growing a pair.' You can’t arm wrestle your way out of chemical depression. The CEO of the company that just laid you off does not care how much you bench. And I promise, there is no lite beer in the universe full-bodied enough to make you love yourself.” Dominant masculinities and their emphasis on doing over feeling, on self-reliance over connection, and on strength over weakness can make the world a frantic, lonely, and shaming place for some boys and men. For some boys, exaggerated masculinities can make them feel unsafe to others and isolate them.

The roots of these problems can start in early childhood and the good news is there is a lot we can do to help boys become men who feel safe with their emotions and promote safety in the emotional experiences of those around them. The goal is not to make them “less manly” but rather to help them include in their conceptions of masculinities buffers against shortcomings of the social boy code. This starts with expanding their emotional range and building healthy emotional expression.

Building Emotional Awareness, Insight and Control in Boys

We have evolved with complex emotional systems to help us navigate and thrive in the settings we inhabit. Sadly, the range of emotions presented as safe for boys is often very narrow. We can help change this by working to build emotional intelligence in boys. Building emotional intelligence includes awareness, insight, and control over emotional experience.

Awareness. Awareness of emotional experience is the recognition and identification of what we are feeling. I often have boys described to me as going from “zero to one hundred” by caregivers or teachers who see them as instantaneously escalating  from chill to freak out. However, in my experience, most boys described in this way actually went from somewhere around 75 to 100 but they, and everyone around them, didn’t know they were at a 75. Awareness comes from being able to sit in your body and explore how you are feeling. This is hard for all children- but especially for boys who are often more driven to do than feel. Sitting in the moment is referred to as mindfulness and here are some great tricks to help boys do this.

In addition to mindfulness- boys more so than girls need to learn through doing and are designed to enjoy instrumental and physical play. Rough housing, or arousing physical play, with boys can be such a great tool to help them learn how they feel, how they interact with the world, and how their actions impact others. Through correction and clear boundaries around appropriate play behaviours during rough play, boys can learn to ramp up their emotional system and them calm in order for the play to continue. Healthy play includes conversation and boundaries. It is an act of consent. The rules are laid out before hand and the word stop is always responded to. For example, “No slapping, pinching, or hitting- just pushing and pulling and be careful of my face- because it really hurts to get bumped there. If you don’t like what we are doing you can say stop and we will stop wrestling. If I say stop you will need to stop. If we can’t stop while wresting than we will need to take a break from playing. Okay?”

Insight. One of the most useful tools for boys in gaining insight into their world is helping them to understand and manage sadness and fear. Sadly, popular media creates an archetype of masculinity that doesn’t feel fear, doesn’t get sad, but harnesses anger to maintain power and protect others. I grew up in the age of Die Hard, Rambo, and the Terminator. Based on these models men can either feel emotionless or justified anger- nothing in between. As an emotion designed to protect, anger is a source of great power. It is easier to feel powerful than powerless. Sadness and fear are vulnerable emotions and feel uncomfortable as they often challenge our conceptions of being strong, independent, and everything we are told is appropriate for men to feel.

However, at the root of all anger is fear or sadness. For example, road rage is a primitive response to someone threatening our safety in the form of violating rules of the road in an arousing situation. Domestic violence, disrespect, revenge- all of these are rooted in feeling emotionally or physically hurt or responding to the threat of being hurt. Helping boys identify pain and fear, acknowledge it, and learn to manage it is so valuable. Doing so helps to stop this power from overflowing onto loved ones and potentially even putting others or the self at risk through violence.

One way to help boys with this is to talk about our own anger and trace it back to fear or sadness. For example “I was really mad at Jim- he said something about work that I felt was unfair- it hurt me and I felt like what I was doing wasn’t appreciated.” Once we have modelled this we can help coach our children to do it. “You are really mad at your sister. What do you think happened that hurt you… hmm…I can understand why you wouldn’t want her to take that toy- you really like using it and would feel sad if you couldn’t use it anymore.” Once children have calmed, conversations like these with them go so much further developmentally than the standard “we do not hit in this house!”… though these are also necessary in establishing boundaries based on safety.

Control. Emotional control comes from practice; repeated practice over and over and over again. This practice starts when boys are young with each and every moment of intense experience that is managed. Keeping boys engaged in activity that allows them to push their emotional experience can help with this. Things like sports, social clubs, and games can all give boys the opportunity to help them manage their emotions and build skills.

For boys who are easily overwhelmed, too aggressive, and lose control in moments of high arousal- finding ways to give them shorter and less intense opportunities for arousal is a good strategy. Two or three minutes of rough rough play followed by five minutes of a calming activity like lego building and then rough play again is a good example of this. Or, 10 minutes of video games followed by 20 minutes of reading before they can play again. Structuring arousing activity like this allows their arousal systems an opportunity to work through a full cycle. They have the opportunity to cycle into high arousal and fully calm before beginning again- each cycle providing a full range of nervous system practice. Much like weight training- regular practice is the only way to build capacity.


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