Until recently, many men in our society have not been given permission to openly express their sad feelings and have not had adequate male role models or emotionally available men to guide them. Here's the problem with that: If we don’t start teaching our sons that it’s OK to cry, they will continue to bottle up their feelings and never learn to deal with their emotions in a healthy, mature way. This can have devastating long-term lasting effects on their mental health, relationships, and ability to connect emotionally to others.
Here are my top tips for teaching your son to cry.
Remind them that crying is good for them.
Crying is a natural, healthy emotional response and a crucial part of your son’s socio-emotional development. Explain how crying helps to release stress and that it is good for their health. Researchers have discovered that crying tears of sadness helps wash many types of stress hormones out of the system and causes the body to release a natural painkiller called leucine enkephalin.
Lead by example.
How comfortable do you feel with crying? What messages were you given about expressing your emotions when you were growing up? Were you ever told by the adults around you to "stop crying" or "don’t be sad," or "be brave"? So many of us have been conditioned by our culture to not cry, and as a result we struggle to connect to our tears. If we want to raise emotionally healthy sons, we need to demonstrate that we can handle our own challenging feelings. After all, our children learn more by what we do than what we say. So let your sons see you cry and show them that it’s a normal reaction. Whether we express frustration and anger around their behavior or respond to disappointment or sadness, we model that having the courage to face all of our feelings, however many tears they evoke—is a mark of real strength.
Make space to listen.
Create a safe home environment where your son can be open and honest. Let him know that you are always there to listen without judgment. Hold back on the impulse to offer solutions. There will be many times when all your son really wants is someone to empathize with and validate what he’s experiencing; he is not necessarily asking you to make things better or make things go away. By being there for your son in this way, you can help him to learn to face his feelings and appreciate the comforting truth that even the most troubling emotions eventually subside, no matter how scary they might at first seem.
Provide tools to manage big feelings.
Be aware that some boys will lash out in anger precisely because expressing aggression feels safer and more acceptable to them than revealing their vulnerability through tears. So give him the tools to manage feelings such as anger productively, e.g., take a 10-minute break to calm down or run around the block to let off steam. Teach your son that he does not need to do the tough-boy act in the playground and that there are alternative, respectful ways of dealing with conflict.
Nurture relationships with positive male role models.
Even if your son doesn’t have a father present in his life, it can be invaluable for him to develop a relationship with a "mentor" figure—perhaps an uncle, cousin, grandfather, stepdad, godparent, or other family friend. Young boys need mature masculine role models who can demonstrate to them that it’s not a sign of weakness to show they are sad sometimes. They need reassurance from these men that it’s OK to be vulnerable and sensitive or to express fear and compassion and that he will still be considered masculine and acceptable as a man.
Question what it means to be a man.
We’ve all heard the expressions "Big boys don’t cry," "Stop crying like a girl," "Be a man," and "Man up." We can’t control the messages that society sends our sons about masculinity, but we can be mindful about the way we speak to them. So discuss what being a man really means and challenge the stereotypical ideas that "real" men are tough and unemotional. Show your son that being a man is not about succumbing to peer pressure and that he doesn’t need the approval of alpha males or aggressive men. Be open to new definitions of masculinity and learn to see your son as a unique individual who will express masculinity in his own way. Help him learn to trust his own judgment and respect himself and others, particularly in the way he relates to women.
Interested in what it means to raise a boy in this day and age? Here's what wellness experts have to say about that.