As a highly sensitive person with the proverbial thin-skin, who cries easily and often, I am often labeled “emotional.” But aren’t we all emotional? We are human, after all. We all have feelings and emotions. The idea isn’t to pretend that we don’t have emotions, but instead to have emotional awareness. The goal isn’t to harden our children to a harsh world, but to nurture their sensitivity so they can bring a little softness to it.

Rather than repress or ignore emotions, I want my children to understand them. As Dr. Holly Symons wrote on Motherly, “Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the ability to understand, regulate, and express one’s own emotions. Not only that, but it also refers to the ability to perceive, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others.”

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We live in a society that, despite noticeable progress, is still filled with gender bias and stereotypes. 

“While many grasp the validity of and need for emotional intelligence, our sociocultural landscape, heavily influenced by gendered stereotypes, unintentionally perpetuates discordant behavioral expectations for boys and men,” Dr. Leesha, who is a Happy Family Organics’ Happy Baby Expert, told Motherly. “Boys learn early to mute their feelings, to withhold their tears, and to adopt a posture of reckless toughness all in the name of anti-femininity. The message society both unwittingly, yet also intentionally, communicates to our boys is that real manhood requires bravado and aggression, i.e., toxic masculinity.”

As a mom to two boys, it is a great privilege and responsibility to raise sensitive boys, combat society’s tendency to spread toxic masculinity and teach them how to be sensitive, emotionally aware humans. This isn’t a one-and-done process like potty training, rather, it’s an ongoing, consistent and never-ending parenting priority. As Dr. Leesha noted, we never stop parenting or caring for our children

Related: On wondering if I’m a good mother to all of my boys

“Cultivating emotional awareness in our children is so critical to their develop and the benefits persist well into adulthood,” says Dr. Leesha. “Emotional awareness and high emotional intelligence improve marriages, friendships, and work relationships.”

There is a lot of great advice from therapists and child development experts, and as parents, it’s our job to apply that advice and recommendations to our own family and our children’s unique needs. I’m no expert; I’m just a mom, who has been raising sons for more than 15 years. And this is how I’m working to raise sensitive, emotionally aware sons.

We talk about emotions and emotional awareness a lot

This doesn’t just mean talking about their emotions, but also talking about our own. My husband and I share when we’re feeling sad or angry or scared. And we encourage our kids to talk about their emotions, even if they don’t have a name for them or they are feeling a lot of different things at one. Sometimes, one of our sons, will say something like, “I’m feeling a little sad but I don’t’ know why” or “I’m feeling strange, with a lot of different things at the same time.” We validate and acknowledge the complicated and confusing ways we feel sometimes. Then we name our emotions when we can.

We avoid sexist phrases like “man up” or “be a man”

Often times these outdated and sexist phrases are said when a boys has an emotional response or demonstrates sensitivity, like crying. At best, these phrases are confusing (what do they even mean?!?); at worst, they can cause serious harm and damage to the emotional wellness of boys. And girls for that matter. 

Related: 13 phrases to build your child’s emotional intelligence

According to Dr. Leesha, phrases like this thwart emotional growth. “We fail to give our children permission to learn and grow, to falter and to fall. We miss precious opportunities to teach them healthy coping skills when life goes awry, how to bounce back, and how to manage negative emotions.”

We don’t avoid crying. 

I cry in front of my kids, and I try to avoid telling them things like “boys don’t cry” or “crying doesn’t help.” Both of these statements are false. Boys do cry and crying absolutely does help. Crying can help improve your mood, restore emotional balance, assist with self-soothing and relieve pain by releasing oxytocin and endogenous opioids (also known as “feel good” chemicals). So instead of trying to prevent the tears from flowing or pretending that grown-ups don’t cry, I try to share the reasons why I am crying in an age-appropriate way and encourage my kids to cry as necessary. 

We prioritize empathy and compassion.

Whether it’s a slow driver in front of me or a rude person in the grocery store, I constantly try to use these experiences as teachable moments for my kids by explaining that we don’t know what is going on in their life. I preach “assume good intentions, but know that your actions have impact.” Not only can assuming good intentions and practicing empathy prevent escalation of charged situations, but it generally just makes me a happier person. When I assume that people are doing their best, rather than resorting to the “people suck” mentality, I am a better person. 

We acknowledge that boys are sensitive and have emotional awareness.

Both of my sons are loud, boisterous and wild. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t sensitive. Just because a boy is active and physical doesn’t mean they aren’t also sensitive and caring. They care deeply about others. They still needs lots of hugs and affection and reminders that everything is OK. They can still have emotional awareness. 

Related: Raising a tween is hard—but so is being a tween 

A few months ago, while talking to my oldest son, he commented, “He’s going through emotional puberty, Mom. You know, when your body isn’t changing all that much but your emotions are.” I looked at him, jaw dropped, and stared at him in amazement. That’s it exactly. And also, when did he get so sensitive and emotionally aware?

Turns out, he always was sensitive and emotionally aware; he just needed it to be acknowledged.