“Who forced my son to wear that dress?!”
The man was extremely annoyed as he watched his little one gazing into a mirror, wearing a beautiful gold and sparkly Disney dress with matching beads and a crown.
Despite our reassurance that no one had forced the child to wear the frock, the man remained unconvinced that his child would have chosen to wear the dress himself. The message he conveyed, very clearly, both to ourselves and his son, was that it was not okay to make that choice!
This incident was a few years ago, however, even now in 2023, I am often surprised by remarks I over hear parents make which suggest it’s wrong for boys to play with ‘female’ toys or to express emotions that aren’t those expected from ‘big boys’.
Our young men are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Over the past decade, the rates of suicide in young men aged 15 to 24 in the UK have more than doubled.
Although women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health issue, men are more likely to have substance abuse problems, be the perpetrators of violence and die by suicide. This is true worldwide and is often attributed to the fact that men are less likely to seek help and more likely to keep their feelings bottled up until they can’t see a way out.
One root of the problem lies in toxic masculinity and the idea that men are supposed to be ‘tougher’ than women and therefore not show emotions or cry.
Media and popular culture have reinforced these stereotypes for a long time by showing crying and emotional men as something to be mocked, rather than celebrated.
We have come a long way in terms of the loosening of male stereotypes in recent decades. Not all male characters have to be hyper masculine and ‘strong’ anymore. Although superhero movies are still a firm favourite with young boys, there is more acceptance of diverse and effeminate male characters
Sadly, I don’t think this has quite trickled down into culture yet. As highlighted in my tale, I still see parents reinforcing the ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘boys don’t wear dresses’ narrative. Although these might seem like small and insignificant comments, they all feed into a young boy’s impressionable mind - giving them an outline of how they ‘should’ behave as a male.
The way that we express our feelings and relate to our emotions starts from a young age. This is why it is vitally important that we are teaching these skills to our boys.
By teaching boys to recognise and express their emotions in a healthy way, we are giving them essential tools for the rest of their life.
Sometimes it can be difficult for boys to identify their emotions, especially when they are young. Help your son to recognise his feelings by noticing his body language and behaviour.
For example you could say; “You’re raising your voice and you sound frustrated, do you want to talk about it?”
By observing behaviour and connecting it to a feeling, you are helping him to identify and talk about his emotions in the future.
If he does want to open up and talk about how he’s feeling, it’s important that you fully listen, without judgement, to create a safe space for future conversations. This means not interrupting, not trying to fix, or explain or defend, simply listening to why he is feeling as he is. Remember, the reason they’re upset or angry might not make sense to you because children haven’t yet developed the same ability to rationalise that you, as an adult, have.
The most important thing in getting your boy to open up to you is to validate what they are feeling. There is nothing that makes a person shut down more (whether adult or child), than if your feeling is dismissed. So instead of just saying; “ Don’t be silly” when your boy tells you he’s upset because another child is playing with the toy he wanted, you could say; “ It’s understandable that you’re angry that the other child took the toy that you’re playing with. It’s okay to feel upset by that. Why don’t you speak to them and see if you can take it in turns?”
It might not make them less upset at the time but it will let them know that his emotions are valid and that you are a safe space to express his emotions to in the future.
An important lesson that we all need to learn in life is that emotions and their feelings are not bad. They’re not wrong or something to be pushed away or fixed. In fact, the more we can listen to them fully and respond appropriately, the more likely we are to be able to live a healthy and balanced life.
Emotions are essential signals from our body that prompt behaviour. For example, if we hear an unexpected loud noise, we might feel fear. The body then releases adrenaline telling us to quickly get away from the potential hazard. Our body might then remember that feeling of fear when we pass the spot where we heard that loud noise, next time we pass it. It’s not wrong that we feel anxious as that what our body has learned, but we can recognise, identify and try to rationalise so we don’t keep feeling that way.
It is so important that we teach our children that having feelings and emotions is okay. It is not shameful to feel angry or sad or anxious - everybody feels these feelings sometimes and they are important signals from our body. What is important is that we are comfortable and safe to express and talk about these feelings. When we repress them or feel guilty and ashamed for feeling them, we do serious damage to our mental and physical health.
One of the best ways to teach children about expressing emotions in a healthy way, is to do it yourself. Expressing your feelings and why you’re feeling a certain way will also help the child to recognise that the anger is not (or at least not all) about them.
Next time you’re feeling angry and frustrated, instead of just snapping and huffing, and yelling at your child, try saying out loud; “I’m feeling a bit frustrated and anxious today because I’ve got lots of things to do. It would really help if you picked up your toys”.
Do you think these approaches help children to understand emotions better? Has it worked for you as a parent or childcare practitioner?