5 Ways To Help You Raise Emotionally Intelligent Boys
1. Advocate for your son.
Advocating for boys involves, first, understanding the threat posed by the social pressures they face. With a broader understanding of male development, parents are in a better position to take a stand for their sons' well-being. For example, when parents notice boys being forced by peer pressure or other influences to make narrow choices, they can intervene to reinforce his power to travel his own path.
For most boys, these pressures begin practically from the start, when an infant is shushed for crying and told to be a "big boy." Later, if the boy plays with dolls or other toys coded as female, he is likely to be redirected or even shamed. Inviting girls to his parties or having them as friends often elicits the same kind of gender policing. Later still, on sports fields or school playgrounds, pressures mount for boys to conform to stereotyped expectations: to love competition, play through pain, seek dominance, and so forth. On an almost daily basis, through adolescence, parents will find plenty of opportunities to remind their son that he is known and loved for who he is and that he can think for himself about how he wants to express and explore his masculinity.
At such times, there are many ways a parent can help: running interference, normalizing the boy's struggles, making sure their relationship is a haven. For example, when the pressures to conform are overwhelming a boy, the parent can ask if he would like help handling the situation. They can brainstorm ideas for what can be done, partnering with him to think through the situation. As the son grows older, he may feel ashamed for needing help from his parents; at these times, recounting stories from one's own battles with gender norms can ease his feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. Sometimes parents become confused by competing priorities, such as between setting limits and warmly validating their son. I ask them to think first about the overall situation: What kind of pressure is the boy under, and how is it affecting him? Which does he need more: limits and lectures or welcome and respite?
2. Offer relationship for a strong sense of self.
Because the peer pressures of boyhood are so intense, it requires a strong sense of self to steer clear of negative norms. As parents, we need to remember that our connection with our sons is their primary fortification, preventing overcompromise. If they know that they are held in their parents' hearts, boys will hold them in theirs and, with them, their values. Strengthened, they will take on the world with greater independence.
How to cultivate a strong connection with our sons? One way is to learn the very particular skill of mirroring. Parents can practice this with a close partner, arranging to take turns sharing all that they admire and love about their sons. Be as specific as possible and tell stories about actual moments when your son revealed what a special person he is. Not only does such practice time prepare the parent for real-life opportunities with her son, but it also deepens her skill at validation and at offering genuinely positive regard unmitigated by worry or criticism. As a result, patterns of finding fault or getting hijacked by personal upset become more conscious and controllable.
3. Encourage emotional expression.
Emotional awareness and expressiveness develop in relationship. Boys can be expected to share their feelings only where they are protected from shaming and judgments. When barriers and threats are removed, boys do not hold back: They long to tell their stories. At first, their feelings can be raw and unpleasant, even angry, and may be directed at their parents. But it is in the relationship with an unconditionally loving parent that boys discover how to do the hard work of staying connected even when their feelings want to push everyone away.
The skill of listening to boys' feelings is both straightforward and challenging. Many parents try to listen despite having too much to do, with too little help and little to no attention for themselves, and carrying lots of unfinished business of their own. The stresses they endure can make them inattentive, irritable, and emotionally reactive when their sons behave unreasonably. But when merely reacting to our sons, we lose opportunities to get behind their behavior to the upset that is driving it.
4. Exercise authority.
Boys' groups tend to separate themselves from adults, actively test the limits and power of adult rules, exert pressure on their members not to snitch, exclude and mistreat girls, and encourage members to turn to digital devices and substances to deal with suppressed feelings. Parents of boys will need to set limits and guide them away from the values of the peer culture. Unless the parent properly manages the times when the son acts out, he will have a harder time learning to restrain himself.
Three qualities are essential when holding a boy accountable: emotional acceptance, behavioral containment, and prosocial guidance.
Even as they draw a line to check their son's behavior, parents must not react negatively to the emotions that underlie and drive inappropriate behavior. Anger, for example: It is one thing to set a limit on how anger is expressed—it never makes sense to allow destructiveness, threats, or violence, and it is usually a good idea to limit disrespectful language—but it is another to condemn boys for showing anger.
5. Promote autonomy.
The ideal of independence as a Lone Ranger–type isolation continues to be a powerful cultural image. But in healthy development, independence is less the goal than autonomy achieved through initiative, judgment, and confidence. To foster this end, parents must accompany their son through challenges without automatically taking over whenever he falters or makes a mistake. Rather, like a good coach, parents lend confidence and serve as safe receptacles for feelings of frustration or defeat as they arise.
In a counterintuitive way, autonomy actually emerges naturally in relationships rather than from pulling away or withdrawing. How ably parents manage both to stay connected to their sons and to be honest with them about important values and family needs may be the ultimate test of their ability to support their sons' independence.
While compromise and negotiation are always necessary in any relationship, apparent conflicts often evaporate when respect, listening, and the release of tense feelings are encouraged. There's likely always to be a solution in every conflict once painful feelings are cleared away. To strike a healthy balance between maintaining connection and supporting their son's desire to spread his wings, parents usually have to review how their own need for autonomy was handled in their families—and how these experiences bear on their relationship with their son.
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