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How to help boys open up about their feelings

How to help boys open up about their feelings

Remember our sweet little boys, all fresh-cheeked and wide-eyed, telling us all about what they want to be when they grow up? Sigh. Those sweet little boys, where did they go? These days we have to get the can opener out if we want our boys to open up about their feelings. Even then, we usually just end up with… an empty can.

At a certain point, those wide-eyed little boys faced an increased pressure to conform to traditional masculine stereotypes. Yep, those ingrained, die-hard stereotypes that say that ‘real men’ don’t express emotions. It leaves so many boys feeling like they have to be strong, independent, and in control at all times. They won’t admit fault, they won’t say they’re scared and, worse, they won’t ask for help. Ever.

That’s because admitting to feeling scared, vulnerable or even just a bit confused can contradict the expectations boys have about what it is to be a man. Sadly, society is only too happy to keep reinforcing this belief.

There are many important reasons why we need to show boys a better way. Let’s take a look.

How to get boys to open up about their feelings

Why it’s important for boys to express their emotions

It’s crucial to encourage boys to express their emotions for several reasons. First of which is that it’s well-known that bottling up emotions is detrimental to mental health. Studies have shown that people who regularly suppress their emotions are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Boys who feel like they can’t open up may be at higher risk for these problems.

Second, when people don’t express their emotions, it can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications in their relationships. If boys don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings, they may struggle to communicate with their peers, romantic partners, or family members. This can lead to conflicts, misunderstandings, and ultimately a lack of intimacy in relationships.

Finally, encouraging boys to express their emotions can help them develop greater empathy and understanding for others. When boys learn to express their truth, they are better able to recognise and empathise with the emotions of others. This can lead to stronger, more compassionate relationships with friends, family members and romantic partners, which ultimately leads to a more compassionate self- relationship.

Barriers to boys opening up

There are several reasons why boys can find it challenging to open up about their feelings, like:

Traditional gender roles

Even today, many boys grow up with the idea that expressing emotions is “unmanly” or weak. This can make it difficult for them to express vulnerability or open up about their struggles.

Fear of being judged

Boys may worry that expressing their emotions will lead to them being judged by others. Whether it’s true or not, they may feel judged by their adult male role models, peer group and even the females in their lives as being a ‘sissy’ or a ‘girl’ for showing vulnerability. Yes, my eyes are rolling into the back of my head right now… but sadly, this sort of stuff is still going on.

Lack of role models

Boys may not have positive male role models who demonstrate emotional openness and vulnerability. Even if they do, they may not be responsive to these role models due to the influence of their peer group or social media influencers.

Boys and feelings

Lack of emotional vocabulary

Boys may not have the words to express their emotions, which can make it difficult for them to articulate what they’re feeling. Bear in mind that this may not be because we parents never ‘taught’ them the words they need. Rather, they weren’t given the opportunity, or simply didn’t, practise using those words regularly enough for them to feel comfortable.

Cultural norms

Different cultures have different expectations for emotional expression, and boys from some cultures may face additional barriers to expressing their emotions.

Tips for helping your boy express his emotions

Despite these challenges, there are several practical strategies we can use to encourage our boys to open up.

1. Create a safe and supportive environment

Naturally, kids are more likely to open up when they feel safe and supported. Make sure that your teen knows that you are available to listen without judgment and that you will respect their privacy if they don’t want to share certain things. It can be helpful to leave space in each day for these kinds of conversations. After dinner, before school or even when driving to training – driving is actually good as sitting side by side feels companionable, rather than confronting.

2. Be a positive role model

Show your teen that it’s okay to express emotions by modelling this behavior yourself. Share your own feelings with your teen and demonstrate how you handle different emotions in a healthy way. Encourage the men in your child’s life to do the same!

3. Use language that encourages emotional expression

Boys may not have the vocabulary to express their emotions, so it’s important to use language that encourages them to talk about their feelings. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” try asking, “What was the best part of your day? What was the most challenging part? What would you do differently if you had the chance?” Don’t underestimate the power of simply asking them “how did that make you feel?”, then giving them plenty of time to come back with their answer.

4. Validate their emotions

Boys will be more likely to open up when they feel that their emotions are being validated. If your teen expresses sadness, anger, or frustration, acknowledge that and encourage them to sit with the feeling. They don’t need to rush it away or distract themselves with activity. Explain that life can be tough and it’s okay to find it hard sometimes.

Learning to regulate, not suppress

Of course, one way that many boys (and sadly men) show extreme emotion is by acting out with anger and frustration. It’s natural to feel big emotions like these, but learning how to regulate these feelings is just as important as learning how to express them.

The only way to learn to regulate emotions is to allow the feelings you feel to simply be felt. The feelings will rise and fall like a wave, so learning to surf the rise and accept the fall is an important part of developing a healthy EQ (emotional intelligence).

If your son is open to it, mindfulness techniques can help them learn to sit through emotions, rather than act them out or suppress them.

Feature image by Andres Perez; blue jacket by Creative Christians; canola field by Rachael Crowe