Living in a patriarchal society means that many boys become men who believe they are powerful and privileged. But according to a recently released article by the American Psychological Association this can be a doubled-edged sword.  It means that while boys have the awareness of this “advantage” over their female counterparts, they are also forced to live up to the “ideals” of masculinity. Having to live up to these expectations means that they are much more likely to repress their emotions, which can invariably affect their mental health.

If our boys are socialised to believe that they are “tough” and “emotionless” machines, then they will find unhealthy ways of coping with their difficulties and this could result in bullying, aggression, violence against girls and other boys, promiscuity, substance abuse and addiction. The American Psychological Association article further suggests that because boys are told not to express their emotions, they are less likely to be diagnosed with “internalising” disorders, such as depression and anxiety (behaviours which are focused inwards, such as sadness, loneliness, fear) and are more likely to be diagnosed with “externalising” disorders, such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder (which are outwardly directly behaviours and are usually characteristic of impulsivity and aggression).

Research has indicated time and time again that men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide, that boys are more likely than girls to commit bullying, and that men are more frequently the perpetrators of intimate partner violence and violent and aggressive behaviour towards women and other men. As a result of this violent behaviour, men are also more likely to be incarcerated and face tougher penalties and punishment.

So what if we could do more as parents, guardians and caregivers to safeguard our boys and to help them as much as a possible in a world that requires so much of them? We must, of course, fully acknowledge the fact that it would take a lifetime to undo decades of psychological entrenchment of what it means to be a “man” and the ideals of masculinity by which boys are forced to abide. But this should not hamper us in our pursuit of educating and nurturing our boys in such a way so they learn that having feelings is “ok” and that expressing their emotions doesn’t  make them “less of a man.” 

We may not all be psychologists or professional counsellors but as parents, guardians and caregivers we can certainly be the best teachers to our boys. Remember that children in general are like sponges and they will absorb everything. This means that our actions and the things we say and do around them will affect how they will think, feel and behave.

Here are some suggestions for how to help your boys cope with their emotions:

*STOP making damaging comments like “only girls cry,” “you are a man and you have to be tough,” etc…. Crying is a normal, natural and healthy way of dealing with our frustrations. When boys are told to not show their emotions, they will find other ways of releasing their frustrations. This can take the form of isolation, self-harm and aggressive behaviour, like bullying in school.

*Try physical affection frequently: Instead of reserving hugs and kisses for our daughters, we need to realise that our boys also need love and reassurance in the same way. A hug can replace a thousand words but more importantly it serves to let our boys know that we care and that we are there for them. Hugging them will provide them with feelings of comfort, security and protection.

*Talk more to your boys: First, letting them know that they can come and speak with you about anything will be beneficial to you both. Don’t wait until a problem arises to speak with them. Having constant open and non-judgmental communication means that you’re leaving the door open for them to always come to you when they need to offload. Be their friend albeit without letting them forget that you are also their parent.

*Try alternative forms of punishment: We have evolved as a society which means that we can also find more effective ways of disciplining our boys without reverting to “licks.” Physical punishment isn’t always effective and some children, boys in particular, get so used to the “belt” that they “expect” and “accept” it as a way of pacifying their parents… but it never really solves the root of the problem. An effective alternative would be the removal of a favourite activity. If it’s fun for your son to use his tablet or go to play outside, then cut it out when they display undesirable behaviour. They will eventually associate the removal of their preferred activity with their bad behaviour. This allows them to reflect and think twice before engaging in any undesirable behaviour in the future.

*Let them know that physical force should be the last resort: Discuss alternative ways of conflict resolution with your boys. Of course there’s nothing wrong with sending them to that karate class but we need to teach them that it is not ok to solve their problems by resorting to violence. Let them know that physical force should be used as an absolute last resort. If your son is being bullied, take the matter to the principal. Choosing not to engage in a fist fight doesn’t make him any less of a man; it just means that he chooses a non-violent approach to conflict resolution.

*Seek professional help for your boys if you see certain signs: Remember, boys are human beings too and they have emotions. Don’t assume that they will “suck it up” and “get over it” just because they are boys. If you notice a change in their behaviour, or if they are experiencing poor appetite or lack of sleep, are isolating themselves, are engaging in self-harm or destructive behaviour, then it is time to seek professional help. But remember, if you establish early lines of communication with your boys, they will more than likely come to you when they have a serious problem.

Also remember that change doesn’t happen overnight but paying more attention to our boys and treating them like human beings with emotions as opposed to “powerful,” “privileged” and “emotionless” creatures will enable them to open up more, feel loved, protected and secure with the understanding that they too have feelings which they can express. This will ultimately result in healthier coping skills and less violent and aggressive behaviour as they become men.

Alicia Roopnaraine is a Psychologist at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation’s Psychiatric Department. You can send questions or comments to her at aliciaroopnaraine@gmail.com

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