While very young, males often emote in more similar ways to females, but males tend toward increasingly greater instrumentality in these methods as they get older. This is an interesting thing you can “study” in your home over the two-decade-or-more-period of raising children — it is, of course, easiest to study if you have both genders.
Here are eight methods that provide practical strategies for working with male emotional design.
1) The Action-Release Method
While girls often respond to a heightened emotional state by translating that state into words and verbally processing, boys don’t always have that capacity to the same ability, especially not in the moment. Many, instead will process and release feelings in quick bursts of energy.
This means that sometimes it’s actually helpful to let a boy stomp out of a room as long as he does so without disrespecting you verbally. You might want to resist your inclination to order his immediate return to discuss things and instead let him go for a run or immerse himself in a video game until he settles down.
2) The Suppression-Delayed Reaction Method
Boys will often suppress an emotional response — force it underground — in order to (a) focus on the immediate instrumental problem they need to solve or job they need to do and (b) give other brain centers time to catch up to and process activity in the emotive and then verbal centers.
As a parent, you can acknowledge your son’s initial need for distance while still expressing a desire to help him verbally deal with the issue when he’s feeling more settled. This is especially important when dealing with males who have been severely traumatized (for example, beaten or bullied). Speaking about the incident immediately can create additional trauma when a boy is not prepared. Giving him a choice in when, where, and how to talk about the hurt returns a sense of control to the boy and enhances the feeling of safety necessary for him to open up. Later, he may be able to talk with you about the incident because he trusts that you understand, respect, and know how to love him in the way he needs.
3) The Displacement-Objectification Method
Boys sometimes need a projected object or story with which to process their emotions. This object or story helps the boy view emotions from a safe distance — a less vulnerable and more analytical perspective.
Stories also offer excellent displacement opportunities, especially stories of heroes, sacrifice, and valor. If you have a boy who especially connects with stories and becomes excited and talkative when storytelling himself, look to stories he likes, including those in Scripture, to find a point of connection.
4) The Physical-Expression Method
This method shows up when a boys hits the tabletop to release anger or punches his fist into his other hand to release stress. This physical expression of anger may be the method that most worries parents and others. Too many men in history and in marriages have hit not just objects but people, shifting from healthy aggression or anger release to destructive violence.
However, just because this method has been misused does not mean it is an inherently wrong way to deal with emotions. For many boys, physical expression is the best way to clear their minds for productive processing. Often, in order to put their feelings into words, they must first put those feelings into action. Once the adrenaline has been dissipated through physical activity, they are better able to do the cognitive work necessary to process their feelings.
5) The Going-Into-the-Cave Method
Many males are not designed to immediately sort through and respond to complex and upsetting information. So with your son, it is helpful to recognize that timing is crucial when offering aid or asking to talk through an issue.
If the other person isn’t ready, he is not going to respond with the truths we are looking for. Pressing him to stay in the conversation may prove counterproductive. At the times when your son seems to prefer the cave-dwelling method, you can become a brain scientist regarding your son. Study and notice how long he needs to be in his cave. As you gather this data over a period of weeks, you will be able to adjust your expectations accordingly.
6) The Talking-About-Feelings Method
While understanding emotions through a male lens means expanding our approach beyond immediate verbal processing, boys still have a need to talk about their feelings. While some can talk about their feelings in an instant. Wherever your son is on this spectrum, generally, often boys get into situations where words don’t come as easily to boys as girls, so you may need to ask a few pointed questions more concretely with boys than girls.
You may need to basically feed your son with a direction for his feelings: “Are you angry?” “Are you scared?” “Did Jimmy do something to you?” You may need to help boys fill in the blanks: “It seems like you’re feeling angry.” And in most situations, it may be better to ask “What are you thinking” rather than “What are you feeling?” From there, you can fill in the thoughts for a while until feelings emerge. “Do you think Jimmy is sorry?” “Do you think your teacher overreacted?” “Do you think you overreacted?”
7) The Problem-Solving Method
Conflict, trouble, and uncertainty can cause stress. Finding a solution brings relief. When stressful feelings emerge, problem solving is a typical protective instinct for males, who often see emotions as design problems to solve. Instead of dwelling on the emotional pain of the problem, boys often move quickly toward crafting a solution that will help others and themselves. This actually helps them feel useful, needed, and heroic. By solving complex emotional problems with a simple and effective solution, they feel they are protecting the people they love.
If you notice that your son only goes into problem-solving mode, then you and his mentors most likely need to help him learn some of the other seven methods for processing feelings.
8) The Crying Method
As parents, we need to provide a safe environment in which a boy can use every method at his disposal to deal with his emotions, including shedding tears. At the same time, we should be sensitive not to pressure boys to cry when that act could subject them to ridicule. We may need to help them wait to cry until they are safe with us at home. Fathers can be especially helpful in providing a safe space for crying by telling stories of difficult times that brought them to tears. These might be experience of severe trauma or crisis or seasons of intense grief or failure. Adolescence is a time when boys are grappling for status and hierarchy position, so gathering power will mean expressing some feelings and repressing others. Providing male models of tearful emotions can be the single most successful way of freeing boys to cry when they need to.
The above is excerpted from Raising Boys By Design: What the Bible and Brain Science Reveal About What Your Son Needs To Thrive by Gregory L. Jantz, Phd and Michael Gurian. Dr. Jantz is the founder of A Place of Hope, The Center For Counseling and Health Resources in Edmonds, Washington.