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By Steven Rowe
As parents, we tend to notice everything when it comes to our kid’s physical health: when they feel a little warm, when they’re acting a little extra cranky, when they don’t eat at dinner, or when their voices sound a little hoarse.
And from birth, we’re basically conditioned to watch out for their physical milestones, from the first time they hold their head up to their first steps and everything in between.
But when it comes to their emotional health, it’s easy to feel a little in the dark. (I know I certainly was when it came to raising my son.)
How do we really know if our kids are emotionally healthy? And more to the point, how do we know if we’re doing enough, as their parents, to help them become emotionally healthy? There isn’t a number on the thermometer that we can look for to signal something’s wrong.
And yet, the science is clear: Emotional health is definitely important — especially for boys. So here’s everything you need to know.
Emotional health is someone’s ability to be aware of, understand, and manage their emotions, including the highs, lows, and everything in between.
Of course, kids aren’t born with this ability inherently. It’s something that develops as their brains grow, throughout their childhood but especially within their first 5 years of life. In fact, it starts right away at birth — based on how you bond with your baby and help them learn how to form attachments, grow to trust, and deal with the stresses of everyday life.
Then, as your baby gets older, they learn how to talk, ask for the things they want, cope with disappointment — a key lesson during the “terrible twos” — and pick up on the boundaries of others.
During this learning process, children often begin by acting frustrated or angry because they don’t know how to articulate what they’re feeling. But later — with our help as parents but also with exposure to social situations — they learn the ability to wait and express their feelings in a constructive way.
“Emotionally healthy kids have better executive functioning skills, which allows them to respond to situations with self-control, critical thinking, and more,” explains Nicholas Hardy, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist.
This sets the stage for their whole life, affecting their day-to-day, their future relationships, their
Needless to say, emotional health is super important for all kids. But it’s particularly important for boys because society has traditionally expected different things from boys and so conditioned them into certain behaviors.
Boys are often told (either implicitly or explicitly) to repress certain emotions, like sadness, and embrace the following instead:
And these messages don’t just come from their parents; they come from society as a whole. Think about the number of representations of tough, aggressive, or violent men in movies and TV — or even the lack of men showing their emotions in popular culture.
But this idea of what it means to be a boy (and later a man) can take a harmful toll on kids, affecting how they process their emotions and relate to others both in childhood and adulthood.
In other words: An emotionally unhealthy child can grow up into a man that has a toxic view of what their masculinity means. That toxic masculinity can, in turn, affect their physical and mental health.
For example, studies have found that toxic masculinity can lead to:
“Studies have [also] concluded that those who conformed closely to traditional notions of masculinity were more likely to have poor mental health outcomes,” explains psychologist Shagoon Maurya. This includes a higher risk of depression and risk of suicide. In the United States, for example, men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women.
In extreme cases, it also raises the chances that boys could grow into men who are more likely to be sexually violent or physically violent, both
Children learn a lot from us — and that includes how to start figuring out who they are, how they identify, their value and worth, and how to communicate their feelings. They watch us and copy our behavior, often replicating our attitudes towards them and others — and that means modeling our good and our bad habits.
So with that in mind, here are some things we can do to help foster our boys’ emotional health:
This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to accidentally send your son a signal implying that expressing their emotions isn’t OK.
For example, your son is climbing up in a tall chair. You tell them to get down so they don’t fall, but they don’t listen. Then, a few seconds later, they do fall, bump their chin, and start crying.
As men already conditioned by our society, it’s easy to respond with, “It didn’t hurt that bad” or “That’s what you get for not listening.” But in doing this, you’re telling your son that the pain they’re feeling isn’t real or a valid reason to cry.
This might inadvertently encourage them to hide when they’re hurting or not talk to you about something that’s wrong.
“Make the house a safe place for them to share and express their feelings,” says Maurya. “Don’t make them feel as if it’s making them seem weak. Share your feelings and encourage them to do the same. Expressing how they are feeling is a major step in learning emotional regulation.”
By putting words to complex feelings, young boys can talk through their experience and explore why they’re reacting the way that they are. As a parent, encourage them to talk it out further and explore what caused them to feel emotional — and how their reaction influences the people around them.
Another way to encourage emotional regulation is to model a diverse range of emotions yourself.
“Even if we tell boys that a certain behavior is OK, if they never see us (as fathers) display it, they may misinterpret this as something to reject within themselves,” says Hardy. After all, children learn by watching and mimicking our behavior.
If you’re hiding your emotions, avoiding the doctor, or valuing competition and aggression, they’re going to notice. But by being open and letting them know that sometimes you feel sad, frustrated, or any other emotion, you can show them healthy coping mechanisms.
This is important, especially when you’re angry or sad. If you snap at your spouse in a moment of anger or mutter something offensive about another person when they cut you off on the road, your son’s going to think that’s appropriate behavior.
Similarly, if you play into gender roles or treat someone differently based on their gender (think: treating your daughter differently than your son), they’re going to notice that too.
According to the American Psychological Association, a known risk factor for toxic masculinity is exposure to
You don’t have to ban every movie, video game, or TV show with violence, but you should pay attention to the frequency and severity. Try to make sure what they watch is age-appropriate and that they’re getting a mix of content. Talk to your boys about what they see.
We need to encourage our boys to read a variety of books or watch movies that have heroes coming from a variety of different backgrounds.
Introduce them to positive role models with good values. For example, if your son likes sports, talk about athletes who stood up for what they believed in, like tennis player Arthur Ashe, who worked against South African Apartheid.
Praise your son for having a wide variety of interests, even if it’s not ones that you necessarily relate to. Don’t shut down an activity or an interest because it’s “girly” or “weird” — this can reinforce toxic masculinity ideals or outdated gender norms.
Research has shown that children’s emotional health is higher when both mothers and fathers put family first, regardless of how much time they spend working. This is because, as you might expect, it’s important for parents to be present with their children.
In other words, 1 hour spent really talking, playing, or engaging with your child may be better than 4 hours spent with them where you’re distracted by your phone, work, or something else. Make sure that you’re truly present for the time you spend together.
Christina Steinorth-Powell, psychotherapist and author, recommends making time to have dinner as a family with your kids as often as you can.
“Children who eat dinner with their families tend to develop better social skills that they will be able to use in other areas of their lives — such as at school, and when they get older, in the workplace,” she says.
“In addition, studies show that children who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are less likely to have issues with alcohol and substance abuse as they get older and they are also less inclined to develop eating disorders,” she adds.
Keep in mind that families come in all shapes and sizes, and this applies to the full range.
“Studies show that when fathers are involved in the schooling of their children, children have better peer relationships, higher levels of self-esteem, and do better at school,” explains Steinorth-Powell.
“When you’re active and involved in your child’s schooling, you send the message through your actions that education is important — this is far more effective than any long-winded lecture would ever be,” she adds.
Plus, if you’re involved and helping out, it teaches boys the value of giving back to others and getting involved in community activities.
You’re also more likely to notice the signs that your son is struggling if you’re involved in his schooling. You can more easily pick up on signs of anxiety, perfectionism, depression, or other behavioral concerns if you’re present. This will help you know when it’s time to get him help if he needs it.
Studies have shown that men who have more nurturing parenting styles have better relationships with their children. And the trick to being nurturing is pretty simple: Let your children know you’re always there for them. Make sure your sons know that you’ll never shame them or punish them for talking to you about their issues.
This can help combat one of the more dangerous ideas in toxic masculinity: that it’s weak to ask for help or talk to other men about negative feelings. When a child feels like they can’t speak up, they’re less likely to tell you if something’s wrong, such as whether they’re experiencing peer pressure or bullying.
Parenting is hard, so it’s important to also remember to take care of yourself physically and emotionally so you can be the best dad you can be.
“Allow yourself to not be OK,” says Hardy. “Fathers often subscribe to the notion of having to have it all figured out. This pressure creates a false expectation internally that you’re OK when you’re not and distances you from the reality of your own emotions.”
Not only does this teach your sons the wrong lesson — it prevents you from getting the help or support you might need too.
If you prioritize your own mental health, it shows your kids how important it is to prioritize self-care. It also allows you to better deal with some of your own biases or your upbringing so you can better teach your children how to be emotionally healthy.
It’s OK to ask for help. There are a lot of support groups out there, as well as therapists with experience working with fathers. Here are just a few resources to explore:
Fatherhood can be scary, and adding emotional health to the equation may seem like just one more thing to worry about as a parent. But when it comes to your son expressing his emotions in a healthy way, you play a big role in his development.
Sometimes, just being there for your son and letting him know that he can be himself — whatever that looks like — is the best way for him to feel comfortable in his own skin. You may not always understand his interests or feel like the intensity of a reaction is warranted, but your disapproval may lead to feelings of shame and behaviors consistent with toxic masculinity.
To borrow a wise piece of advice from my father-in-law: You can’t plan for the child that you think they will be, but love them for the child that they are.