Both girls and boys are restricted by gender stereotypes. However, their experiences of gender are different. Girls whilst often valued for their appearance first and foremost are widely encouraged to be strong and step into the masculine parts of themselves. However, we are far less comfortable with encouraging boys to express the feminine parts of themselves. This rigid male stereotype is particularly harmful to the mental and physical health of boys. Emotional expression, for example, is an incredibly important part of staying mentally and physically well but boys are not given the space to cry freely or be vulnerable. A survey of 1,000 young Australian men aged 18 to 30 conducted by The Men’s Project found that young Australian men who believe in outdated masculine stereotypes such as ‘men don’t show emotions’ were themselves at higher risk of using violence, online bullying, and sexual harassment, engaging in risky drinking and reporting poorer levels of mental health.
The most common theme I’ve observed across all the workshops I’ve facilitated in schools is that boys ignore or suppress their feelings whereas girls talk about them. Talking about our feelings is an incredibly important part of wellbeing and builds emotional resilience. When we share our feelings we relieve the weight of them and if the person we shared with is a good listener we feel supported. Boys often don’t feel safe to talk about their feelings or even have the language to do so. As a result, they are emotionally disadvantaged. Men are three times more likely to take their own life and far less likely to seek help for mental health conditions. Boys are absorbing messages about what it means to be a ‘real man’ from as early as three years old. All of us have to be deliberate in supporting boys to counter these harmful stereotypes and give them permission to talk about their feelings.
How do you give a young boy permission to express himself?
- Normalise talking about feelings. By talking about your feelings in an age-appropriate way and inviting boys to do the same you are removing any shame associated with expressing emotions. You are also providing boys with the language to talk about their feelings. This is incredibly important. We can’t express our feelings and ask for help without the emotional language required to do so. You should be talking about feelings every day, multiple times a day. It’s also really great to have a specific space or time of day to talk about feelings. It could be at the dinner table or just before you read a bedtime story.
- Support boys in developing healthy coping mechanisms. When I ask boys about the strategies they use when they are feeling sad or lonely most tell me that they distract themselves until the feeling goes away. This is an unhealthy coping mechanism because feelings never truly go away. Repressed feelings can turn into unexplained bouts of sadness or anger. They can also surface as mental illness later in life. A great way to process and release emotions is through writing in a journal. This could become a post-school ritual or maybe the last thing they do before bed. The benefits of journaling have been studied extensively and it’s hugely beneficial for both physical and mental health.
- Ask boys if they ever feel pressured to act a certain way or do certain things because they are a boy. An open and curious conversation around gendered expectations will go a long way in relieving some of the pressure placed on boys to be a ‘real man’. A great question to start with is ‘what do you think being a man means?’ you will probably be pretty shocked by what they come back with. Keep the conversation open and inquisitive. For example ‘is it true that all men drive trucks, because Aunty Jan has a big truck and she loves driving it?’. Boys will soon realise that you can be anything and everything regardless of your gender.
Jessica Sanders is the best selling And award winning author Love Your Body And Me Time. You can purchase a copy of her latest book, Be Your Own Man Booktopia and all Good bookstores.
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