The causes or consequences of why boys aren’t seen as emotional would make for a long and lively debate, but for busy parents just looking for practical ways to improve young boys’ emotional IQ, here are some quick tips.
The best kind of care is preventative, and it’s useful to help boys explore emotions by starting with what they know. Look to the people they interact with daily—in person or in fantasy—as a way to discuss feelings. Bring up emotions in their territory and space. Television shows and video games are all driven by character interactions and are full of openings to start a conversation about feelings, especially if there is a mismatch and incongruency between what someone is saying and what someone is doing.
If boys mention that someone was embarrassed or upset, you could ask, “How did you know?” Inquire about what cues they observed: Facial expressions? Body language? Words? It can often feel safer to talk about other people’s experiences and emotions instead of ourselves. If they can begin to identify what others are experiencing, it opens the door to understand their own responses. With that in mind, be careful of putting words or vocabulary at the top of the hierarchy for emotional competence. One can read apprehension in a person from how they take a jump shot in basketball or when being invited to a playdate or party they are uneasy about attending. Give due credit to emotional literacy based on nonverbal cues.
Boys are naturally exposed to feelings of jealousy, sadness and anxiety—as we all are. However, boys often lack the security that would armor them when talking about emotions that may negatively influence how you see and perceive them. As a result, it is critical for adults to praise expression of emotions in men. If a boy can see that you have a consistent attitude about a man despite his changes in emotional state, then he can begin to feel more comfortable expressing his emotions. If you’re a man, you can promote this idea by comfortably sharing your own emotions. Exercise vulnerability and expression in public and private settings about moments that make you feel irritated, nervous or sentimental, not just the more acceptable emotion of anger.
Modeling this kind of behavior and permitting it in others drops the veil of false expectations. From a child’s perspective, if it is okay for you to talk about and express, and if it is okay for others (both females and males) to emote and share, then the message for the boy will be, “It's okay for me too.”
When talking about feelings with boys, paint the picture that emotionality is a human quality and that it can be dealt with in positive and negative ways. If someone throws their Xbox controller at the screen when they’re angry or suppresses a desire to cry when they feel extremely hurt, address those instances as inappropriate ways to handle emotion. Validate their feelings, but point out and discuss those destructive behaviors in men and women alike so they can be seen harmful or less than ideal for everyone, not just boys or men. Also, praise boys when they express emotions in a positive and healthy manner.
It isn’t revolutionary to say that we influence the next generation in ways we don’t realize. But it is helpful to remind ourselves we do influence future generations. I give this advice as a reference point. Obviously it won’t make you an emotional guru overnight, but it does begin a chain of events to bring these ideas to the forefront of your relationships. Exploring, modeling and sharing emotion make it more acceptable for young boys, and eventually expressing emotions for boys becomes part of any normal day.