“Toxic masculinity” is a trending topic that’s made it to the front page of the news too many times this year, and for good reason. Manhood in society has traditionally meant being stoic and straight-faced—emotions might as well not exist if you’re male.
Boys are taught these social norms from the very first months of their lives, and by the time they reach young adulthood, it’s ingrained into them that emotionality is unacceptable; that “boys don’t cry.” This is toxic masculinity, and it has untold negative psychological and social effects on men and boys. How can we prepare our boys for life in a world where their emotional experiences mark them as less worthy of manhood?
The Problem with Boys and EQ
It’s quite simple: the problem with boys and EQ is that boys aren’t taught to develop their EQs in the first place. Toxic masculinity as a social norm means that girls are encouraged to let it out and boys are encouraged to keep a straight face. When you’re told in daycare and preschool that you shouldn’t cry, it’s hard to develop emotional intelligence at all. How do you learn a skill without practicing it?
In reality, it starts even earlier than daycare. Because today’s parents were raised in the same environment of toxic masculinity, it’s easy to slip into the same behavior patterns despite knowing better. Problematic behaviors can be as simple and benign as shushing your crying son instead of letting him cry it out, but the end result is the same even if your intent is good: it hampers his emotional development.
If you’re a parent to a boy, or if you have a male child in your life at all, it’s vital to educate yourself about boyhood and emotional intelligence now so you can make changes early, while it still counts.
Here’s where to start:
Help Boys Develop Their Emotional Capacity
If you have an older boy, it can be a struggle just to get him to open up when you suspect that something is wrong. It’s hard for boys to develop the emotional capacity needed to parse their own emotions and recognize when it’s time to open up. Instead of saying “I had a bad day” and elaborating with details, it’s easier for him to say that his day was fine and let the conversation drop.
You can start by setting aside regular time every day to expand his emotional capacity. It doesn’t require in-depth social exercises or homework on his part; it can be as simple as sitting down together at dinner time and discussing what happened at school that day. Establishing a routine for talking about your feelings makes emotional discussions feel cathartic, rather than stress-inducing.
If you have a younger boy, start developing his emotional capacity now, before he develops habits that are detrimental to his emotional development. Make it a habit to read his body language, ask “what’s wrong?” and actually listen to him, no matter how inconsequential or small the problem. Better yet, model the right behavior by taking the initiative to talk about what’s bothering you. When he sees that his adult role model is comfortable talking about emotions, it becomes easier for him to talk about his own feelings, too.
Cultivate Boyhood Relationships
The best way to let a boy practice and develop his emotional intelligence is through natural, organic peer interaction. Encourage your child to interact freely with kids his own age. It’s entirely likely that he’s engaging in these friendships on his own at school, but if your child has introverted tendencies, it can take some extra effort to guide him into developing relationships.
According to applied psychology and adolescence expert Niobe Way in her book Deep Secrets, boys are at their most emotionally available when they’re still young. In elementary school and middle school, boys describe their relationships with other boys as fundamentally important to their everyday life, with one child saying that he would go “wacko” without the support of his same-sex friends. Yet, as boys age, they develop tendencies to isolate themselves from other young men, starting in high school when the social differences between boys and girls become the most stark.
Combat this tendency by giving your boy plenty of opportunities to keep socializing with boys his own age, and most importantly, model the behavior you want him to see. Speak freely about your own friendships and the important role that they have in your life. Even if you’re female, you can still speak out about your own friendships and encourage him to maintain his own. Tell him how happy it makes you to see him thriving when he spends time with his best friends.
Teach Emotional Expression Early
Another significant problem when it comes to emotional expression is that boys just don’t know how to do it in a socially appropriate way. It’s commonplace for boys to get into trouble at school for expressing themselves through outbursts or violence, and unfortunately not common enough for those boys to receive the emotional help that they need.
Help him learn safe strategies and outlets for expressing his emotions in a pinch. It’s not always appropriate to have a crying or screaming fit at school, so teach him what to do when something emotionally volatile happens in a public place.
When he’s still small, verbal strategies might still be out of reach, so teach him creative strategies such as squishing Play-Doh or playing with a bracelet band when he’s feeling upset. If he has access to art supplies at school, teach him to draw a picture that shows what he’s feeling, and have him bring it home so you can have a discussion about it later.
For older children, emotional expression strategies can be a bit more complex. If he carries a smartphone with him, have him start using an app such as Mood Meter to jot down information about his emotions when he needs an outlet. Carrying a journal serves a similar function, and can be more school-friendly in districts where smartphone use isn’t allowed.
For children of any age, seeing a therapist can be hugely beneficial in teaching emotional expression strategies, even if there isn’t an underlying emotional or psychological problem. Therapy can help a child learn the emotional vocabulary necessary to express how he’s feeling and why, and it can help him learn internal and external coping strategies so emotional expression never escalates to public temper tantrums or other socially inappropriate behaviors.
It’s clear that our nation’s boys need help when it comes to EQ, today more than ever. Niobe Way notes that boys have trouble trusting other boys, leading to increased depression and loneliness as they approach adulthood. Toxic masculinity and a tendency toward depression does not have to be the future of our nation’s boys. Emotional intelligence is the answer, and it’s never too late to take action. Start learning about how to advocate for your child today.