Who Said Boys Can’t Have Feelings?

7 min read
Source: Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay

Source: Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay

“I do not have feelings” is a common statement that I’ve heard from boys. Or, they will tell me, “Don’t tell anyone that I have feelings,” while laughing, as if it is a joke to have feelings. When did they learn that having feelings is unacceptable? Even admitting their feelings seems difficult for them to articulate.

Boys can be emotionally vulnerable; we need to do better with understanding their feelings and discussing them as much as we do with girls. Whether we want to subscribe to gender differences or not, when it comes to communication with boys versus girls, it is different.

Differences in self-expression between genders start early. Boys are treated differently than girls from the time of their birth because of gendered colors, clothing, language, and toy choices. Even men tend to exhibit more stereotypically “macho” or traditionally masculine behaviors or attitudes when they have baby boys, which a range of factors can influence.

Men can internalize societal gender expectations from a young age, including ideas about how to raise children of a particular gender. When men have sons, they may feel a cultural or societal pressure to raise them in a more “masculine” way, emphasizing traits like strength, independence, and toughness. Men tend to draw upon their own experiences of being raised as boys and may seek to pass down what they believe are the valuable lessons and qualities they learned from their fathers. Some fathers may believe that connecting with their sons through stereotypically “masculine” activities or behaviors, like playing sports or teaching practical skills, will create a stronger bond between them.

How a Boy Develops Emotions

How boys develop emotions can include many things: It may come from societal communication, cultural expectations, and directly from parents. Or it can develop from the fact that as boys grow up and are told to talk about their feelings, the directive may have come from a woman as opposed to a man. Men do not tell boys to talk about their feelings, and boys do not always see emotions demonstrated by men. Furthermore, they do not learn from men the benefits of emotional expression and how it makes them feel afterward.

In other words, there is a lack of boys seeing the results on the other side from men doing it or expressing their feelings. When do boys get to see if crying is cathartic? Emotional expression is a lifetime study for men. As such, we cannot treat boys like girls.

Simply telling boys to “talk about their feelings” does not work to convince them to do so. Boys do not talk about a lot of things, and a one-size-fits-all-gender approach fails to gain access to their feelings. Emotional expression for boys is not always verbalized but repressed due to a lack of understanding about how to get them to give voice to their concerns.

Ways, Places, and Spaces to Help Boys Talk

“Repression equals the avoidance of the uncomfortable,” explains Dr. Jason P. Chambers, Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Teaching boys to repress their feelings can have negative consequences for their mental health and well-being. It can lead to emotional distress, difficulties in forming meaningful relationships, and a reluctance to seek help when needed. To address this issue with boys, it is important to challenge traditional gender norms, promote emotional education, and encourage open communication about feelings and mental health. This involves creating safe and inclusive environments where boys and men can express themselves without fear of judgment or ridicule, and it requires the active participation of families, schools, communities, and society as a whole.

We also need to show boys that we care about their interests, which needs to be done before we invest in learning about their feelings. They may not express their feelings if we do not demonstrate to them that they are important. It is not how we engage our sons in communication that matters but how often, when, and letting them know that we are trying to hear them.

Boys are not selective in who they choose to talk to because they will talk to people who will listen to them. However, communicating is something that girls do, and it can be more of a struggle for boys. If you sit a girl on a sofa to talk to her, this will probably work to get her to express herself. This tactic may not work for boys, but if you take a boy outside and play sports or walk while engaging him in conversation, more than likely, he will be more open to talking with you about his feelings.

As a result, we need to create opportunities for a safe and supportive environment that encourages the emotional expression of boys. Consider the following as you work with your sons to improve their social communication about their emotions:

  • Let boys know that their emotions are valid.
  • Practice active listening to give them your full attention, and ask questions to show that you are interested and engaged in the conversation.
  • Teach boys about empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
  • Explain that everyone experiences a wide range of emotions, and it’s natural to feel happy, sad, angry, or anxious at times. Normalize the experience of emotions, even for boys.
  • Boys can learn to express their emotions by example. Model healthy emotional expression by sharing your feelings and demonstrating how to manage them.

We Need to Pay Attention

Certain gender-based stereotypes about boys cause us to assume that boys are stoic and that their masculinity means that they cope, handle, and do things that girls naturally cannot do. Consequently, mental health concerns in boys may go unnoticed because we believe that they can handle most situations on their own. Even if boys believe that they “do not have emotions,” we need to pay attention to them and offer to counter their ideologies. They need a supportive approach while emphasizing that they have feelings that can be expressed openly and authentically.

Boys are emotional beings with many feelings and emotions. To develop boys into well-rounded men, they must be taught that expressing themselves effectively is essential for their emotional well-being and healthy interpersonal relationships. Encouraging open and honest communication helps them to develop emotional intelligence and self-awareness, which makes them strong individuals. Strength in this context is not limited to physical attributes but encompasses emotional, mental, and social well-being. Paying attention to boys’ emotional stability is crucial in these areas:

  • Monitor boys’ mental health. Be aware of any signs of mental health challenges and seek professional help if necessary.
  • Support boys in building positive social relationships and friendships. Observe their interactions with peers and guide them into positive social skills and healthy relationships.
  • Promote emotional intelligence by teaching them how to recognize, understand, and manage their emotions.
  • Foster open and effective communication with boys. Monitor their communication style and needs and encourage them to express themselves clearly.
  • Teach boys the importance of seeking help and support when they face challenges or difficulties. Make them aware of available resources and encourage them to use them.

Developing emotional expression in boys is an ongoing process, and it takes lifelong learning. By providing safe and supportive environments and promoting open communication, boys can develop emotional intelligence and express their feelings more comfortably.

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