The sentiment that boys need to cry is a common cliche but it eclipses a more important truth beneath it. Emotional expression in males is a social issue and boys need to do more than shed tears—they need to feel all their emotions. Emotional vulnerability is at the root of what makes us fully human and humane.
The more our children can feel, the more caring they will be.
It is caring about others that fuels empathy and consideration. It is caring in the face of fear that moves us to display true courage. It is caring when we are frustrated that creates patience. Caring is one of the most important emotions that serve to civilize us. Tears are significant but they only tell part of the emotional story.
The better question to ask when it comes to boys (and girls, too) is, can they have a “soft heart” and can express their vulnerable feelings?
This is what underlies tears and is at the root of emotional wellbeing and maturity. Tears are one of the best indicators of a healthy emotional system, but there are many others feelings:
- being hurt
In a longitudinal, meta-analysis research study of the rates of empathy in youth in the US, a decline of 48 percent was noted over a 30-year period(1). What we should be focusing on is how to keep our boys’ hearts soft and to figure out why their caring is going missing in the first place.
According to Tom Lutz, author of Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, part of the challenge is the differing perceptions of the value of having a “soft heart.” Lutz offers two categories of thought when it comes to tears, that of the “criers” and the “dry eyed.” Crier's value tears and the release of emotion, but this belief is routinely pitted against the dry eyed group who display contempt for tears and sentimentality, as well as feeling manipulated when others cry.
On the surface, it would seem a change in values might be enough to encourage and promote tears among the dry eyed, but this is too simplistic and doesn’t get at the heart of the vulnerability problem.
Feeling safe and trusting other people with vulnerable feelings is a matter of attachment. Unless a close relationship exists, we should not expect someone to share their feelings with us.
Responses to tears that are dismissive or devaluing often have more to do with a hardened heart and signal emotional defenses against vulnerable feelings. In other words, the brain has the capacity to press down on emotional awareness and expression, coined by neuroscientists as “emotional inhibition.” A lack of tears and contempt for them is the anthem of the defended and hard hearted.
Emotional suppression is part of the brain’s sophisticated sacrifice play to ensure that anything that would be too overwhelming—or interfere with attachment needs being met, or get in the way of fixing a problem—doesn’t become conscious and felt vulnerably. It is important to recognize there is a difference between not expressing emotion and being defended against feelings.
There are five signs to look for that indicate emotional numbing and inhibition may be present:
- They no longer talk about what distresses or their hurt feelings
- They no longer feel unsafe or alarmed when they should be
- They no longer see rejection from others or they can’t stay out of harm’s way
- They no longer adapt to the lacks and losses in their life, which is often accompanied by increased frustration and aggression
- They no longer feel emptiness or desire, just a chronic level of boredom
How to keep our boys’ hearts soft
If there were a goal with boys, it would be to ensure that there is an invitation for all their emotions. If we construct notions of masculinity that do not include an invitation for caring or sadness, we do a disservice to our boys, just as we do for girls when we focus on being nice and suppressing their expressions of frustration or resistance. The more room we give our children to communicate to us about their emotional world, the less likely their brain will suppress their vulnerable feelings.
There are five things we can do to help keep our boys’ hearts soft:
- Shield the heart with a caring attachment. When a child feels they matter to adults, then what others think or say about them will matter less. It is attachment that shields the emotional system from being critically hurt by rejection, betrayal, and a lack of belonging. While adversity is part of life, it is the experience of being alone while facing it that can be the most emotionally wounding for a child. Kids need to believe their adults are loyal to them.
- Protect from wounding experiences where appropriate. If it is clear a child is in a relationship that is emotionally wounding, it is time to consider whether you can reduce contact, help them attach to others who are safer, or to provide alternative activities to decrease wounding. By changing the context for a child, you can prevent the brain from needing to protect against emotional wounding.
- Lead into vulnerable territory. Kids adopt the values of the people they are closest to, so if their adults lead discussions into more vulnerable territory, they are likely to follow. We can’t always expect a child to come to us when they are upset; it is the role of the adult to take notice and to draw them out when appropriate.
- Display warmth and invitation for expression. The expression of warmth, delight, and enjoyment for a child can draw them near and encourage them to open up. It is safety in the relationship and a belief that it won’t be withdrawn if they were to share vulnerable feelings that matters most. If a child is shamed or belittled for voicing their feelings, they will be less likely to reveal them again to their adult.
- Validate and support displays of sadness, including tears. Boys can feel sad without shedding tears and it is important to meet them where they are at. It is also important not to force contrived expressions of sadness or suggest they are not doing something right when it comes to their feelings.
We don’t need to tell our boys to cry, and we don’t need to become preoccupied with whether they have shed any tears. If we do our job well and keep our boys’ hearts soft while inviting their emotional expression, then nature will do the rest and naturally move them to their tears.
We don’t need to work on our boys but on our relationships with them. When our boys feel we are holding onto them, they will lean on us emotionally.
Reference: (1) Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing, “Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15 (2011): 180–98.