Raising Boys: How to Encourage Emotional Expression

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I am a father of two boys and two girls and I’m constantly surprised at how different they are. One area that these differences are apparent is in how they express their emotions. My girls have no problem being open about their feelings and they’ve become better at articulating what they want the older they’ve become.

My sons seem firmly lodged on the other side of the scale. While they were more expressive when they were younger, nowadays they’ve become more and more reticent. It’s especially hard to get my eldest son to open up about whatever’s going on in his life.

As their dad, I know firsthand how hard it is for men and boys to talk about how they feel. Society has conditioned us to believe that experiencing and showing certain emotions is a sign of weakness and that’s not what “real men” do. As a result, boys end up bottling up their feelings and feel increasingly isolated from their families and the rest of society. They feel they have no one to talk to and that no one will understand what they’re going through. This then leads to increased incidences of teen depression, suicide and mental illness in adolescent boys and young men.

Interpreting My Sons’ Emotions

I decided to do things differently when raising my sons. However, before I could help them work through and express varying emotions, I first had to learn how to read and interpret them.

For instance, I noticed that my youngest son always had a physical complaint whenever he was faced with a new experience. He often had a headache or tummy ache on the first day of school or before a test. I gradually learned that this meant he was anxious or nervous.

My eldest son expresses nervousness or anxiety differently. He plays baseball and doesn’t like showing vulnerability of any kind. So to hide his feelings, he often gets defensive when I ask him how he feels about an upcoming game.

My sons both feel more comfortable expressing their feelings if we chat while doing something else. I’ve learned to have conversations with them while working on the car or doing some DIY projects together. This way they don’t feel pressured so they can relax and open up.

Helping My Boys To Express Themselves

After figuring out how to read their emotions, the next step was helping my boys learn to handle and express their feelings in healthy ways. Here are some of the things I’ve done:

1. Setting a good example. Kids always look to their parents for cues on how to behave and my sons are no different. With this in mind, I tried to set an example worth emulating. I started by getting comfortable talking about what I felt and becoming a more expressive person. Once my boys saw that I wasn’t afraid to share my feelings they started to open up a lot more.

2. Providing a safe environment at home. With society doing its best to convince my sons to bury their emotions, I knew they needed a place where they feel safe being themselves. At home, my boys know that they are free to explore and discover their varying emotions. I don’t tell them what they’re supposed to feel but I instead provide lots of opportunities for them to grow emotionally.

3. Listening to them. In addition to encouraging my sons to express their emotions, I have learned to listen to them even if I don’t agree with what they’re saying. I try not to judge or invalidate their feelings and instead offer support and room for them to vent.  

4. Setting boundaries. Although my boys are free to embrace and express all their feelings, I’ve made sure that they understand the difference between feelings and behavior. They know that they’re responsible for their actions and they can choose how to respond to their emotions. So while feeling angry and upset is okay, they know they’re not allowed to hit or lash out at others because of those feelings.

The outside world is trying its best to toughen up my sons. I hope that setting them a good example and showing them that it’s okay for a man to talk about and show emotions will, in turn, help them be more comfortable sharing and expressing their own feelings.

Tyler Jacobson is a happy husband, father of three, writer and outreach specialist with experience with organizations that help troubled teens and parents. His areas of focus include: parenting, social media, addiction, mental illness, and issues facing teenagers today.