Aaron was asleep on the couch in my office. I decided not to wake him, even though I don't advocate napping during counseling. But Aaron had just spent several minutes intensely sobbing and unable to speak and so a short nap seemed reasonable.
Experiencing calmness after an emotional storm can be therapeutic. This is partly because holding back strong emotions requires physical effort. When strong sad or painful feelings are present, the body seems to want to naturally express those feelings, as if to unload an extra burden. Holding onto emotions may cause a lump to form in your throat or stinging in your eyes. Letting sad or painful feelings come out can be a great relief.
Research shows that identifying and expressing feelings of sadness, fear, or emotional pain promotes health. This is true whether people write, talk, or nonverbally express emotional pain. The body, unburdened by the need to inhibit or suppress feelings, responds with improved immune functioning.
Generally, boys and men have more trouble acknowledging and expressing painful emotions than girls and women. Some people believe this difference partially explains why males are more violent than females. Others have suggested that inhibiting sad feelings contributes to the fact that, on average, males die younger than females. Most researchers and theorists agree that inhibiting sad, hurt, or fearful feelings is a health liability for boys and men.
It could be argued that biological differences cause males to have more trouble expressing painful feelings (perhaps higher testosterone levels interfere with emotional expression). However, it’s also obvious that boys are systematically taught to inhibit certain feelings. For example, one study showed that mothers—yes, even mothers—were less emotionally responsive to baby boys than baby girls. There also are many gender-based emotionally hardening edicts present in our society, summed up in the old expression: “Big boys don't cry.” The message to boys is loud and clear: To be accepted, you need to walk, talk, and act like a man (which does NOT include crying because you've gotten your feelings hurt).
For boys and men, it’s socially acceptable to experience and express anger, instead of sadness, fear, or hurt feelings. Male teens I work with often brag that they DON’T cry—they just get angry or seek revenge. They're thoroughly socialized and proud of it. In an interesting contrast, I've talked with men who tell me—with regret and not pride—that they haven't cried for 20 (or more) years. They worry about their inability to cry and speak of it as a loss. The spigot, having been closed so many years ago, feels rusted shut. They want to cry, but don't know how.
It’s sad that society does this to boys. But it’s especially sad when parents, sometimes inadvertently, other times intentionally, discourage boys from experiencing and expressing emotional pain. It’s also sad when boys are encouraged to be aggressive—instead of sensitive (because, as you know, boys not only will be boys, they must be real boys). Instead, parents need to be a safe haven for the full range of their son's emotions.
The following suggestions may be helpful to parents who want their boys to learn that big boys should cry.
- Don’t be afraid that if your son cries, he will turn out to be a sissy.
- Let your sons cling to you—to both mother and father—for comfort and security. They’ll grow up and distance themselves from you on their own. There's no need to push them away.
- When your son looks distressed and you ask him how he's doing, he'll often respond by saying: “Fine.” If so, continue to be gently curious. Keep listening. Let him know you're interested. For boys, the first few “Fine” responses are often a defense against their emotions.
- Spend time with your sons. Do active things together. Boys often talk best when they're hiking, biking, hunting, fishing . . . or cleaning the kitchen.
- Never let there be any doubt in your son's mind that you love him.
Because of society's harsh condemnation, when boys or men cry, it can be a harrowing experience. Years ago, I worked with Michael, a Vietnam veteran. He was macho and angry. He told me of a 60 Minutes episode about how Vietnam vets were never welcomed home by American citizens. He was pissed about how his country had treated him.
At the end of the hour, I stood up, reached out, shook his hand, looked him in the eye, and said, “Welcome home Michael.” In response, his anger melted away, his eyes filled with tears, and he fell forward and gave me a short hug. Later, he told me he was ashamed of this embarrassing emotional outburst.
Everyone in our society needs to be open to loving and hugging our boys. We need to let them cry openly and without shame. No one should feel ashamed to experience natural feelings of hurt or sadness. Boys should be helped to accept and experience their feelings. They shouldn't have to go to counseling to learn to cry again.
John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D. is a counselor educator at The University of Montana. You can follow his personal blog at johnsommersflanagan.com