Boys don’t just “mellow out,” they learn to repress anger and fear. How to give your sons the freedom to feel and express the full range of emotions.
I was an angry boy. My family often reminds me of my childhood antics—from banging my head against the wall when not getting my way and kicking friends out of the house to firing our nannies and throwing backpacks out the window of speeding school buses. The list seems endless.
The formative years of my life clearly lacked emotional intelligence—the ability to recognize, name, and manage emotions effectively. No one taught me. I don’t even recall hearing the word emotion mentioned when my behavior was under scrutiny which always resulted in being spanked, shamed, or punished for being so explosive.
To mother’s great relief, I eventually mellowed out. The process started when the rumblings of civil war forced my two siblings and me to flee Nicaragua and take refuge with an aunt living in Los Angeles. Leaving my parents and a life of comfort behind to step into an uncertain future surely rocked my world and shifted my priorities.
Many years later, as a parenting strategist certified in social and emotional intelligence (SEI), I finally learned a thing or two about emotions. And I know that mellowing out is not what happened to me. Rather, the pressures of a new world forced me to set aside the anger while I dealt with a more pressing reality of fear and uncertainty.
The emotional experience of my boyhood is not unlike the experience of most men. We learn early on that boys and emotions don’t mix. It is not surprising most of us learn to repress our emotions to avoid being shamed, ostracized, or even bullied.
Over time, we lose the ability to recognize our feelings and even identify them by name. This process sets the stage for a life in which rage becomes the main conduit for all the repressed feelings. And unless we embark on a path of self-discovery, we may never experience the full range of our emotions safely.
The pervasive imposition of a limited definition of manhood keeps emotional literacy in check. In our youth, our families, friends, and teachers gave us their version of an idealized masculinity we were too young or too afraid to question. The media and entertainment industry come along to give us their version of it too.
The indoctrination is so effective that in adulthood we fail to recognize the double standard of modern-day masculinity: being brave, stoic, and macho while also being tender, kind, and sensitive. Because we believe something is wrong with us and not with the way we are taught, we lead lives through an ill-fitting version of manhood.
I believe it is our personal duty to give ourselves permission to own our emotional lives. Placing blame is a losing proposition. We can develop emotional literacy by reading the extensive literature readily available on the topic, working with a coach skilled in social and emotional intelligence, embarking on a spiritual path, or working with a therapist if healing the past is required in order to move on.
I also believe it is our obligation to ensure the next generation of boys is raised in a world where they are respected for who they are so they can become the best version of their individual selves. We need to show them how to develop their emotional literacy in order to manage themselves and their relationships effectively.
Here are four core principles for raising an emotionally intelligent boy:
- Honor and protect his emotional life. Grant him permission to explore his internal world. Respect his feelings by not dictating what he should feel. Acknowledge and validate his emotional experiences—all of them not just the ones you feel comfortable handling. Create a safe environment for him to express and nourish his emotional needs without the fear of being judged or shamed.
- Develop his emotional self-awareness to tap his personal power. Teach him emotions are an essential source of valuable information about who we are. Ask him to articulate what he feels not just what he thinks. Invite him to name his emotions to create a vocabulary that reflects the spectrum of human emotions. Nurture the exploration of his emotions to recognize their true source and the impact on his body and soul.
- Develop his emotional awareness of others to manage relationships effectively. Invite him to take an interest in the feelings and concerns of others. Show him how to anticipate, recognize, and meet the needs of family, friends, and even strangers. Teach him the value of being of service to others and create opportunities for doing so.
- Liberate him from the relentless imposition of a limited definition of manhood. Teach him there are many ways to be a man in today’s world. Because men long for the company of other men, show him the value of intimacy and physical affection in male friendships. By honoring the natural expression of his manhood, a boy will find for himself what it means to be a caring son, a brave man, a loving father, a great friend, a dedicated partner, a productive worker, and a contributing member of society.
I’ve heard it said that when we finally choose to live our passion we find our line of work is very closely connected to our life experience. If true, then perhaps teaching parents about emotional intelligence in boys has allowed me to embrace my emotional history. Even if, in the end, my work is more about making a living than making an impact, at least I know my two sons will be better off.
Read more on Emotional Intelligence.
Image of an angry boy courtesy of Shutterstock