When I talk to parents about the differences between boys and girls, it is easy to tell who has only daughters. Those parents are usually visibly shocked when I mention that boys are at least as emotional as girls and possibly more. The stereotype is that girls are more emotional than boys, but those of us who are parents of boys know how emotional they are.
The difference is caused by the development of the amygdala, a very small portion of the brain that develops a bit sooner in baby boys than in baby girls. This portion of the brain is involved when an individual is expressing strong emotions or when someone around them is expressing strong emotions. The problem for little boys is that they don’t have the verbal skills to communicate these emotions and so they tend to run about, yell, throw things, kick, punch, or exhibit other forms of physical expression. Adults pay attention when a child says they are sad or upset or when that child cries. On the other hand, when a child yells or throws a tantrum, adults do not always get the point that the child is very upset, just not able to tell you. Saying “use your words” doesn’t help if you don’t have words yet. The girl is able to express her emotions in a way the adult can understand. The boy simply seems out of control.
Another difference in the amygdala occurs as individuals develop. When responding to emotional situations, all children use the amygdala at first. The frontal lobe is the portion of the brain where we make reasoned decisions and control our impulses and completes development in girls before it does in boys. As children develop, girls start using the frontal lobe to respond to emotional situations before boys do with the result that girls are better able to control their emotional responses sooner. Because the stereotype is that girls are emotional and boys are not, many boys never learn to air their emotions in constructive ways or even to admit that they are emotional.
A recent piece by Andrew Reiner speaks to this issue. In this essay, Reiner discusses the problem that many young men have in expressing their emotions. The stereotype is that “big boys don’t cry.” The result of being told that real men are not emotional is that they find it difficult to connect with each other and with women. The result is a generation of young men who feel isolated and disconnected from others. Their lack of emotional understanding results in individuals who find it difficult to recognize what matters to them and therefore what they want from life.
The research I have done indicates that the strongest tie for young men is to their male peer group. The problem is that they may have bought the sexual stereotype that emotions are not for men and so these groups spend their time having fun –using alcohol and drugs, engaging in risky behaviors, and treating women as sex objects. Any expression of honest emotions is seen as weak.
I was visiting a third grade classroom in a boys’ school one day. I had been in this class before and was surprised to see one student picking on the boy sitting next to him. The teacher kept trying to get the boy on track, but with little success. Finally, when the class was over, she dismissed the class except for that one boy. When the other boys were gone, she said to him, “What is going on? This is not like you.” The boy promptly burst into tears. I left to allow the teacher and student to deal with the problem without me around. When the boy left the classroom, he turned and hugged his teacher and then ran off. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. The teacher told me that before he came to school this morning the boy’s parents had told him they were divorcing. He just needed someone to pay attention to him. We discussed ways for her to help this boy and that she needed to inform the administration. As I left, the teacher said, “I’ve been teaching for ten years and this is my first year in an all-boys’ school. I’ve never had a boy cry in class before.” I told her to get used to it. In a good boys’ school, the students will find a place where they can be emotionally safe and while tears may not be quite as frequent as in a girls’ school, they will happen. I’ve had high school seniors cry in my office because their beloved grandmother died or they did not get into the college of their choice. No embarrassment at all, simply an honest expression of emotion.
Here’s the nugget: make sure your son feels comfortable expressing emotions. Teach him emotional words such as frustrating, upset, excited, amazing. Otherwise, he will be stuck with mad, sad, glad which will limit his ability to describe how he feels. When he becomes physical as the result of emotions, don’t stop him, redirect him. If he wants to throw something, give him a wet washcloth to throw – just make sure he throws it at something that won’t break. Soft objects don’t give you the same satisfaction when you throw them that something harder does, but the harder objects are likely to cause damage. A wet washcloth is just the right size to throw and has a great sound when it lands! Once he no longer needs to throw, ask him what he was feeling and what upset him so much. If he is little, he will tell you. If he is older, you may need to share some of your feelings with him so that he understands that sharing is OK. You will help your boy become a man who can express his emotions in an honest and caring way.