What does it mean to be masculine or manly?
For many, it means conforming to stereotypes related to providing, protecting, procreating and not showing your feelings. But being strong all the time often comes with stuffing down anxiety, sadness, weakness and vulnerability. Research shows these habits can lead to negative health outcomes ranging from digestive problems to heart concerns when emotions spill out in the form of anger.
The same social expectations we place on men to be strong spills over into how we raise boys, perpetuating a cycle. Even though male babies have been shown to be more emotionally expressive than female babies, they learn to mask their emotions based on the feedback they receive from the adults in their lives.
So, how can you raise boys fully able to express their emotions in healthy ways?
Talk about emotions. Babies aren’t born knowing what it means to be sad or happy. It’s important to name emotions and help kids understand them. When a child falls and cries, ask, “Was that scary? Did you feel afraid?” and let them know that’s okay. As they get older, ask them how they’re feeling after suffering loss, disappointment, embarrassment or when they’re angry. Acknowledge what they’re feeling and powerfully connect by telling them about a time you felt the same way. This guide can help you get started.
Listen with empathy. Listening to your child without judgment is a great way to model emotional intelligence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tips on active listening, a habit you can develop. Start young so your kids know you can be trusted with their feelings as they get older and the problems become more complex. Listening doesn’t necessarily mean problem-solving for them but rather helping kids work through their emotions about the situation.
Express your emotions. When you experience emotions, express them positively. When your child skips school and you’re mad, it’s important to express your frustration with calm words and actions. Happy emotions should also be encouraged and expressed. It’s okay to let your sons know how much you love them and to tell them that you feel sad and discouraged from time to time. By showing children, and especially boys, that men do indeed cry, they’ll feel less pressure to bottle up their own feelings and ask for help if they need it.
Raising emotionally healthy boys can help set them up for future success. Emotional intelligence is a predictor of success in the modern workforce and research continues to show that involved dads can help protect kids from developing behavioral problems and benefit their cognitive and intellectual ability down the road.
If you’re struggling to keep your emotions in check or have developed unhealthy coping methods such as substance abuse, it’s important to get help. Talk to your physician or a licensed mental health professional. You can call the number on the back of your Blue Cross member ID card for help in getting the care you need. Or members and nonmembers alike can use the Find a Doctor search feature on bcbsm.com to find a physician or mental health professional in their area.
This content was reviewed and approved by Dr. William Beecroft, medical director, Behavioral Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
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