Compared to the highly verbal emotional processing techniques typically used by women, men can sometimes come across as terse and “non-emotional.” If we have to summarize the differences between male and female emotional processing, we would say that male emotionality tends to be instrumental. In other words, generally speaking, boys and men tend to want emotions to be processed efficiently so they can be used and directed toward a performance for relationship goal. However, being instrumental about feelings (utilitarian and goal oriented) is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we work toward a balance and complementarity of human assets. This emotional balance is learned from a young age, which is why coaching young boys and men on healthy emotional processing is so important.
Listed below are four primary emotional expression methods commonly used by boys. Being able to identify and work with these emotional expressions can be extremely helpful when interacting with your sons, scouts or students. And who knows – they might even help a few marriages!
1. The Action Release Method
Boys frequently process and release feelings in quick burst of energy, and often in conjunction with physical movement. This means that sometimes it’s actually helpful to let a boy stomp out of the room if he’s upset, assuming he does so in a respectful way. 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.
After perhaps a half hour break, reengage him in a calm discussion. When you start talking about feelings, encourage him to pace around the room, if he wants. Let him fidget in his chair, tap his foot or hand, even look away and breathe deeply. His body is primed to move, and that is a great way to help him kinesthetically processes feelings.
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 and process activity in the emotive and then verbal centers.
Although long-term, continual stuffing of a boy’s emotions is unhealthy, suppressing and delaying impulsive reactions can be a temporary solution and show strong emotional intelligence and character; it can actually provide the distance necessary to cope safely with an issue. As a parent, you can acknowledge your son’s initial need for distance while still expressing a desire to help him verbally deal with that issue when he’s feeling more settled. Giving him a choice in when, where, and how to talk about the issue may enhance the feeling of safety necessary for him to open up.
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 boys view emotions from a safe distance—a less vulnerable and more analytical perspective.
For example, say your 10-year-old is missing his older brother who has gone off to college. When you bring up the subject, he may resist discussing his feelings. Later you may notice that the baseball mitt he used to play catch with his brother has been thrown into the back of his closet. You might pick up the mitt, turn it over in your hand, and remark how it’s too bad the mitt isn’t in use. This object can provide an opportunity for the boy to discuss his feelings of loss and being similarly discarded. He might express aloud his grief and sadness or he may not, but you can be sure that, in seeing that object in your hand, he is feeling a lot of emotion.
4. The Physical-Expression Method
This method shows up when a boy hits the tabletop to release anger or punches his fist into his other hand to release stress. This physical expression of anger maybe 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. Women especially have a great deal of understandable fear around this method due to the violence of some men.
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 much better able to do the cognitive work necessary to process their feelings.
The next time you need to address an emotionally charged issue with your son, remember these four emotional expression methods. Observe the way your son reacts to the issue and see if it fits within one of these four methods. If so, try to adapt your approach to ensure the best possible outcome for all parties involved. Coach him through healthy emotional processing and equip him with the tools he will need to be even more emotionally intelligent and composed in the future.