Emotions are for boys too – let’s stop teaching them otherwise

It’s time to stop telling our boys to ‘man up’ and start raising them to be emotionally intelligent

By Olivia Leahy – Volunteer Writer at not only pink and blue

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

We know that phrases like ‘Man up’ and ‘Boys don’t cry’ are outdated; we know that boys are taught to not be emotional; we know that in their teenage years, the suicide rates of boys far surpass that of teenage girls. So, why are we still raising boys using detrimental stereotypes, and why are we doing nothing to change these worrying facts? It is time to stand up against these damaging stereotypes and start teaching boys to embrace their emotions and start raising them to be emotionally intelligent.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is defined as “the ability to identify and respond to emotions (yours, and others’) in healthy, productive ways.”[1] Emotional intelligence and emotional literacy are key to social and mental development for children, but time and time again this area of development is neglected, in particular when it comes to boys. According to Building Boys, “boys, in particular, often struggle with emotional intelligence due to cultural norms that suggest it’s less-than-manly to acknowledge or admit emotions.” Here at not only pink and blue, we are so aware of these cultural norms that restrict the emotional feelings and wellbeing in boys. It is something we see everywhere, from the playground to the home, and we are actively working towards the destruction of these damaging stereotypes.

The lack of emotional intelligence in boys stems from the stereotypes that continually tell them that showing emotions will emasculate them. According to a study carried out by ScholarWorks on emotional literacy in boys and men, “men are raised and groomed by a culture that rewards them for ‘acting like men’. Central to this notion is a lack of emotional literacy and expression. Gender stereotypes lead to a lack of safety and security as boys and men seek to question these unspoken expectations.”

Clearly, the lack of emotional intelligence in boys is down to our cultural norms discouraging us from educating them about emotions. And, of course, this happens because the parents of boys were raised in the same society. In the words of Lael Stone in her TED Talk about raising emotionally intelligent children, “the real issue is the lack of emotional literacy in our culture. We don’t teach parents how to respond to children’s feelings and emotions with empathy and compassion.” Stone touches on something incredibly poignant in her TED Talk: “we still value IQ far more than we value EQ [emotional intelligence]”. Think how damaging it must be for children to be raised being constantly praised for how well they did in a test, rather than how well they handled their emotions in an unfamiliar setting. From a young age, children are made aware that emotions are not as important as grades which is really upsetting – this is especially true for boys.

Aren’t boys just angry all the time?

Another hugely damaging stereotype that restricts boys’ emotional education, is the completely false narrative that boys only feel anger. Boys obviously feel that same type and amount of emotions that girls do, but they are simply not allowed to express them. The emotion boys are seemingly allowed to feel is anger – so that is what they use in every unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation. Stone expresses in her TED Talk that ‘angry’ boys are often called ‘disruptive’ because of how they handle their emotions: “you might have been labelled as ‘naughty’, ‘too much’ or ‘trouble’ when all you were doing was responding to your environment.” But how else are boys supposed to react when they are uncomfortable if they are not being given the same techniques and emotional vocabulary as girls are? How can we, as adults, get angry at boys for getting angry, when we do not give them the tools to express any other kind of emotion? This trend unfortunately passes from childhood to the teenage years, to adulthood, as concludes  the ScholarWorks study, “lacking an emotional education, a boy meets the pressures of adolescence and that singularly cruel peer culture with the only responses he has learned and practiced – and that he knows are socially acceptable – typically ‘manly’ responses of anger, aggression…”

What are the implications of this?

A hugely worrying trend that comes from this lack of encouragement of emotional literacy in boys is the struggle young men have with their mental health. As previously mentioned, teenage boys have a higher suicide rate than teenage girls; in comparison to teenage girls, teenage boys are seven time smore likely to die by his own hand [2]. Things like depression and substance abuse are predominantly suffered by men in our society – a huge factor that plays into this is mens’ and boys’ inability to openly discuss their emotions because of gender norms. According to Educating Matters, “because of this assumption that boys do not have deep feelings, they are being exposed to far fewer ways to define their emotions… This leads to higher levels of depression and anxiety… Can we really wonder why many of our boys are lacking coping skills for their emotions when they feel they don’t have permission to have those feelings to begin with?”

So, how can this change?

As we’ve seen, raising boys to be emotionally intelligent is long overdue; while the studies we’ve seen surrounding boys’ lack of EQ have been distressing, there are simple ways to implement the encouragement of emotional literacy into the upbringing of boys. From our research, we have put together some top tips:

  1. Encourage your child to make a big list of feelings: all this activity needs is some paper and a pen – your child is then free to brainstorm all the emotions they can think of. You can add new emotions that your child may not recognise and talk openly about them so your child understands each emotion. You can also explain a situation in which that feeling or emotion might come up. [3]
  2. Develop your child’s emotional vocabulary – our emotions are more than just happy, sad and angry. Teach your child the differences between similar emotions, like furious and frustrated, sad and disappointed and ecstatic and joyful. Understanding these words leads to both coping skills and self-awareness in children when they encounter a new situation. [4]
  3. Teach your child that showing, feeling and acknowledging their emotions is good! – remember that an outward expression of emotion is far healthier than an internal build up of unfamiliar feelings. Especially teach boys that they have every right to cry, to be sad, to be scared and to be kind.
  4. Read your children or encourage them to read to themselves topical books (take a look at the resources at the end of this post to find our recommendations). Literacy is an amazing tool to support emotional literacy, so use it! Sometimes it is easier for children to recognise and understand an emotion if a character in a story is feeling it. Seeing emotions they feel in others helps children empathize and comprehend their own thoughts and feelings. Picture books are especially useful for younger children. [5]
  5. Lastly, and perhaps most poignantly of all for boys, teach your children that being vulnerable is NOT the same as being weak. Teach your children that there is so much strength and bravery is being vulnerable and acknowledging your feelings. Make sure you respond to a child’s vulnerability as that is their way of asking for guidance in an unfamiliar situation. Offer safe spaces to show vulnerability, and show your children that you can be vulnerable too, to show them that adults can acknowledge their emotions in a healthy and constructive way. [6] Click here to find not only pink and blue’s free downloadable resource, 10 tips to challenge gender stereotypes with kids.

Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

[1] https://buildingboys.net/encouraging-emotional-intelligence-in-boys/

[2] https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1197&context=tvc

[3] [5] https://www.thoughtco.com/activities-to-increase-emotional-vocabulary-2086623

[4] https://www.educatingmatters.co.uk/blog/boys-desperate-for-emotional-vocabulary/

[6] https://www.familyeducation.com/life/social-emotional-development/raising-boys-teaching-emotional-vocabulary

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