Football player Jameis Winston’s recent comments to elementary students that boys should be “strong” and girls should be “silent, polite, gentle,” were met with a lot of criticism. But they also highlighted that plenty of people still hold the same gendered ideas about expressing feelings, even for young children.
Plenty of parents nowadays work to emphasize that boys and girls should be able to express their feelings in healthy ways whether those feelings are happy, sad, proud or angry. But it’s also important to make it clear that older boys can express those same feelings — even in ways like crying, despite the fact that a boy who cries is still often called weak or overly emotional.
"Taking responsibility for our children’s emotional health is a great first step in helping our boys express themselves,” says psychotherapist Dana Kasper. "Emotions of sadness and frustration are innate within each of us, young and old. They tell us we are alive."
Here are tips on helping teen boys express their feelings — including the sad ones — in healthy ways, and a few reasons why sharing and being allowed to express those feelings is healthy and important.
Research shows that boys are even more emotionally expressive than girls as infants, but this changes as children age — likely because boys are socialized not to be as expressive. But that doesn’t mean the feelings themselves go away, and refusing to acknowledge that they’re there is harmful to boys’ development.
The 2013 report, The Rise of Women, highlighted the ways that putting boys and young men into a narrow definition of what manhood and boyhood means can harm their educational success. For example, boys involved in extracurriculars like drama and music — ones often thought of as appropriate for girls — get better grades and report higher school engagement.
Teen boys die by suicide at higher rates than teen girls, and the act sometimes comes as a shock to those around them. Many experts believe that societal expectations about the way men and boys should behave is part of the reason why — males are encouraged to mask their feelings, even when they are serious or dangerous to their wider health. Allowing teen boys to express sadness in a healthy way is important not just for when it's normal to feel sad because of things such as the death of a loved one, for example, but also for when that sadness is a symptom of a larger issue.
One 2010 study showed that as boys move into adolescence, they are more likely to embrace hyper-masculine stereotypes and become less emotionally available. Focusing on productive ways to counter those stereotypes is important during the preteen and teen years, when kids are getting a lot of mixed messages about how they should act and who they should become.
The boys who are teenagers today will one day be men — and will likely be partners or parents themselves one day. Helping them become emotionally healthy now makes it more likely they will stay that way as adults, and then bring that approach to their own relationships. Today’s teen boys who can express a range of emotions in healthy, open ways will later be fathers who can teach their own sons to do the same.
"Since we are models for our children’s behaviour, taking a moment to consider how we express sadness and frustration is beneficial,” Kasper says. Think about how sadness is expressed in your home, by parents of all genders. Modelling a healthy expression of sadness, and a willingness to talk about sadness, is an important part of teaching your child to deal with his own sadness in healthy ways.
"Framing out acceptable ways to share their feelings is the next step,” Kasper says. She suggests having a relaxed family meeting or talking over dinner about feelings and emotions — creating situations where you can discuss serious topics in a relaxed surrounding. This will help make your home a place where teen boys feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings, and that your family is one where it’s OK to talk about hard things.
Ending the day with your child with a debriefing session — a few minutes to talk about the day — is a habit you can start young and carry with you into their teenage years. The practice gives your child a quiet space to bring up any concerns, and establishes that you want to hear about their day — even the parts of it that were upsetting or disappointing.
Even if you’re saying all the right things to your teen boy, the way you’re responding non-verbally can still send the message that you don’t approve of his expressions of emotion. "Since most of our communication is non-verbal, some subtle cues are eyes rolling, or a sigh,” Kasper says. "These act as our responses to the child’s behaviour, and/or comments.” Pay attention to your body language and non-verbal responses as much as the words you’re saying in order to make sure you’re really expressing that it’s OK to cry or feel sad.
Children can and should have friendships with other kids of all genders, but solid friendships with other young men are particularly important. They give teen boys a peer to share their feelings with — one who is likely going through many of the same experiences. Encouraging these friendships into the teen years can help boys maintain these healthy close relationships as adults.