It was a moment that had the potential to change my son's life.
Nicholas, age 5, came charging into our home from playing outside. He had fallen and scraped his knee. But a Band-Aid wasn't his ultimate goal. He wanted to cry and get a hug from me, his mum.
As he came into the kitchen, the neighbour I was chatting with put his hand on my son's shoulder. I thought he was about to say something consoling, so I was shocked by what came out of his mouth.
"Big boys don't cry," he told my son sternly.
After the neighbour left, I told Nicholas that he had been wrong. Expressing your emotions in a healthy way - be it happiness, sadness, fear or anxiety - is good and supported in our house.
I'm not alone in my thinking.
Recent clinical research and a 2015 documentary are exploring the dangers and ramifications of telling our boys to stifle their feelings, bottle up emotions and embrace the stereotype of the "stoic male." At the same time, experts in psychology, gender and child psychiatry are beginning to understand that by not allowing boys to express and understand their feelings, we are allowing them to fall behind in life - and even putting their physical health at risk.
"It's as if we are telling our boys to hit the brake and accelorator at the same time," said Judith V. Jordan, Ph.D., director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley University Center for Women. Jordan, a pioneer in gender studies, has devoted a great deal of her research to the emotional and physical health of men and boys.
"Boys have feelings and emotions. They need empathy and engagement. But we tell them, 'Don't be needy' or 'Don't cry.' We are pitting a boy's neurobiology and human need for relationships against a culture that says boys should never show vulnerability."
The results, she says, are isolated boys who become isolated men - suffering from anxiety, depression and loneliness.
That, in turn, can affect a man's physical health.
"Our mental health and physical health are very interrelated," says Matt Englar-Carlson, Ph.D., co-director of Cal State Fullerton's Center for Boys and Men, a clinical and research "hub" inside the school's department of counselling.
The centre promotes research and community outreach related to the mental health of boys and men, including the effects of trauma on boys and how their socialisation - positive or negative - affects them later in life.
BOYS NEED COMFORT TOO
The solution, experts say, begins at home. "Home should be a place of emotional honesty," said Dr. Anju Hurria, a psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine. "But many boys are given specific messages at home that their emotions are shameful."
The results of this "stoic male" ideal, she says, are boys who cannot express their feelings, suffer from depression and anxiety, and lack the resiliency to bounce back after hardship.
"Boys don't need to be 'toughened up,'" Hurria said. "They want the same emotional relationships we have with girls. In fact, they need it."
"The data shows us that the difference between boys and girls is quite small," Englar-Carlson said. "But we tell our boys that showing feelings is shameful."
That shame is hidden and powerful, Englar-Carlson believes, explaining that the stoic boy or man has feelings but can't express those feelings in a healthy way because they have never been honored of validated.
The results of emotions not being honored are myriad. Englar-Carlson said that boys whose feelings are not validated have a difficult time controlling their emotional reactions. "It's not that they are more aggressive," he said. "They just can't easily control how they react."
The problem begins early.
"Our data shows that the differences in how boys and girls are raised starts very young," Englar-Carlson said. "Even though male infants tend to be more expressive with their emotions than females, we don't allow those boys to continue to express those emotions as they grow."
He cites an example of a young girl and boy who each scrape their knees. The girl will often get hugs, consolation and a kind word from parents and other adults. The boy, on the other hand, will often hear, "Be quiet," "Man up" or "Shake it off."
"Boys are not little men," he said. "They need to be treated like children. They need hugs. They need comfort. They need validation. They need connection."
SHAME LEADS TO EMOTIONAL PAIN
"Humans thrive on empathy and engagement," Jordan said. "We need to help our sons feel included and curious about their feelings, not shame them or make them feel badly about their emotions.
This resulting shame is destructive. According to Englar-Carlson, boys are four times more likely to die from suicide and exponentially more likely than girls to be the victims or perpetrators of violence.
GIRLS BENEFIT TOO
Telling boys to "be a man" can hurt girls as well. Narrowly defining what it means to be masculine can limit expression and individuality for both men and women.
"When we tell boys to 'act like a man,' they think it means that they have to experience everything through anger," Englar-Carlson said. "When boys can't control their anger and emotions, they can grow into men more likely to be aggressive towards women."
Even when aggression is not involved, Englar-Carlson said, men can sometimes feel shame after showing tenderness, adding, "As a result, relationships suffer."
Jordan added, "The worst thing you can do is to tell a boy, 'Don't be like a girl.' "
This only reinforces the notion that acting feminine, including showing emotion, is shameful.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
If socialising our boys to be tough and hide their feelings has the potential to hurt them throughout their lives, what do we do about it?
Jordan said that boys have a hard path.
"We need to help our sons be emotionally expressive, curious, kind, caring and compassionate," she said. "But we also need to make sure they are safe on the playground and not open to bullying and taunting. You don't want to send your son into the lion's den."
She encourages parents to make the home a safe place for emotional expression and communication, while also teaching sons that the playground or schoolyard may not be the best place for such expression.
Hurria also has advice for parents when it comes to raising emotionally healthy boys. After having worked directly with teens and their families in private practice for more than a decade, she's come to understand that it all starts with parents.
"Talking about feelings is coachable and teachable. Kids and their parents have the ability to learn the skill," she said.
Hurria cites another recent movie as a huge teaching opportunity. Disney's "Inside Out" is about the emotions that play out inside an 11-year-old girl, but the feelings are the same ones that exist in boys, and the movie can be a great launching pad for a discussion about complicated emotions.
"It uses simple words to label feelings," Hurria said. "For boys who are not encouraged to explore their emotions, this helps them name and understand what they are feeling."
Boys, she said, often default to defining all feelings as anger, when, she said, they could be feeling sad, frustrated, depressed or anxious.
"It's hard to work with a feeling unless we can properly name it," she said.
She also recommends that parents really listen to their boys, finding those "pockets" of time - a walk or a drive - during which sons know that it's safe and OK to talk.
Making the conversation a part of a routine is just as important as validating your child afterward.
"Boys want to have your support," she said. "They want to know that you have their back. You don't have to fix their problem; you just need to listen and support them."
According to Hurria, modelling good emotional health for our sons can improve the emotional health of parents, too, adding, "When a man expresses and talks about his feelings, he makes it OK for the boy to begin to explore and develop his own emotional health."
Englar-Carlson encourages parents to show their sons that there are many healthy options for boys to express and understand their feelings, and that writing in a journal is one if a boy doesn't want to talk. It's when boys don't have an expressive outlet and don't know what to do with those feelings that they get into trouble, he says. "That's when we see the acting out: addictions, violence."
THE WIDE REACH
Asking our boys to be hyper-masculine men affects more than just the individual boy. It affects our society as a whole.
"Our strength as a society is in community," Jordan said. "Anyone who wants to make social change can't do it alone. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks - they were a part of a movement."
When we "disappear the team," as Jordan puts it, by telling our boys to "man up" and be stoic and alone, we take away their ability to cooperate, build teams and create positive social change.
"And then we all suffer," she said.
THE 'MAMA'S BOY' MYTH
Don't discount the positive influence of mothers, Hurria said. "Sons are bonded to their mothers. You can help them by listening, feeling and building confidence."
Jordan agrees that the "mama's boy" myth is very destructive, and said, "A boy with a close relationship with his mother is often branded a 'sissy.' But there is a precious closeness to the mother-son relationship. We need to support mothers in letting their sons be connected and close. It prepares them for the world."
"Boys bleed and boys cry just like girls," Englar-Carlson said. "We need to honour the blood and tears of boys like we honor those of girls. We need to give boys time and space to express their feelings."
The problem is big, but the answer, according to the experts, is simple: Let your boys feel. Let them explore. Let them express themselves. And yes, let them cry.
The Orange County Register