The recent Parkland shooting in Florida is causing many to wonder how to support the emotional health of boys in their families and communities. We welcome therapist Dina Ricciardo’s words of wisdom— Drs. Kardos and Lai
Your son is crying. A mad dash across the playground has led to a spectacular trip and fall, complete with a bloody knee and hands full of dirt. Part of you wants to hold him on your lap and console him until he stops crying. The other part of you wants to firmly wipe away his tears and tell him to be brave. Which part of you is right?
In a world where there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the emotional health of girls, our boys are frequently overlooked. While girls are typically encouraged to develop and express a broad range of emotions, boys are socialized from a young age to suppress their feelings. As a result, many boys and men struggle to express fear or sadness and are unable to ask for help. It is time for us adults to stop perpetuating stereotypes and myths about manhood, and help each other raise emotionally healthy boys. Here are five ways for us to do so:
Make his living environment a safe space to express emotions. Give your son permission to express all of his feelings. Boys typically do not have the freedom to show the full range of their emotions in school and out in the world, so it is essential that they have that freedom at home. Nothing should be off limits, as long as feelings are expressed in a manner that is not destructive.
Expose him to positive male role models. Boys need to be exposed to positive male figures who can to indoctrinate them into their culture and teach them how to be men. It is an important rite of passage in a boy’s development. Take a look around your social ecosystem and ask yourself, “Who would be good for my son?” Other parents, coaches, teachers, and pastors are examples of individuals who can play a positive role in his life.
Understand your unique role. Each parent plays a unique role in the development of a son, and that role changes over time. A mother is a son’s first teacher about love and what it looks like, and this dynamic can breed a particular kind of closeness. As a boy grows and begins to develop his sexuality, however, it is natural for him to pull away a bit from his mother and turn more towards his father for guidance. While this distance can be unsettling for mom, it marks a new phase in a son’s relationship with his father, who typically provides a sense of security and authority in a family as well as support for a boy’s developing identity. Mothers still play an important role, but that role may look different. As parents, it is important to re-evaluate what our sons need from us at each stage of their development.
Look at the world with a critical eye. Our culture not only glorifies violence, it equates vulnerability in males with weakness and attempts to crush it. That does not mean we have to accept this paradigm. Talk honestly with your son about how and when to be gentle and compassionate, educate him on how the world view softness in men, and never tolerate anyone shaming him when he exhibits these traits. There is no shame in showing vulnerability, it is actually an act of courage.
Take a look in the mirror. Whether you are a mother or a father (or both), be honest with yourself: what are your beliefs about manhood? Do you feel safe expressing all of your feelings, or are some of them off-limits? If you are perpetuating negative stereotypes about men or are not comfortable with a full range of emotions, then your son will follow in your footsteps. Regardless of our own gender, we cannot expect our children to be comfortable with their feelings if we are not comfortable with our own.
There are times when insuring the emotional health of your son will feel like an uphill battle. Keep the conversation open, and do not be afraid to talk with others about the dilemmas of boyhood and manhood. And if you are looking for an answer to the playground dilemma, then I will tell you that both parts of you are right. Sometimes our sons need loving compassion, and sometimes they need a firm nudge over the hump. You know your child better than anyone else, so it is up to you to decide which approach to use and when.
Dina Ricciardi, LSW, ACSW
©2016, 2018 Two Peds in a Pod®
Dina Ricciardi is a psychotherapist in private practice treating children, adolescents, and adults in Doylestown, PA. She specializes in disordered eating and pediatric and adult anxiety, and is also trained in Sandtray Therapy. Ricciardi is a Licensed Social Worker and a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.