Excerpt from page 28, Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons
“When girls successfully go through puberty they are nearly always considered to be women. They have no need to prove their “womanhood” to anyone. It is simply accepted. Not so with boys. Boys may successfully navigate the physical side of puberty but this does not make them men. Manhood is something that he must prove. Repeatedly. Scientists have dubbed this phenomena “Precarious Manhood” and state that manhood is not a condition that comes about through biological maturation, rather, according to David Gilmore, it is a “precarious or artificial state that boys must win against powerful odds.”23 They have studied this around the world and say that this is nearly universal. In a wide range of cultures a boy often faces a difficult task to prove his manhood and even when he succeeds he must continue to prove his manhood throughout his life.
Generally at puberty and beyond boys are expected to prove their worth. According to a leading expert on this topic, Joseph Vandello, “manhood must be earned and maintained through publicly verifiable actions.”24 This unwritten mandate leaves men and boys anxious about proving themselves. Vandello’s research has shown that men are indeed more anxious over this than are women and that in response to being challenged are likely to exhibit risky or maladaptive behaviors.”
The following is an excerpt from the section on teaching boys about emotions and focuses on helping him use his body to track his emotions.
Excerpt: Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons, page 90
“The other thing you can do to help is to get him to connect his bodily experience with the emotion. Boys are usually very aware of their bodies and this can be a great way to help them understand their emotions. Show him that when he is angry he will likely hold his breath a bit, will likely clinch his fists and have tension in his upper body and jaw. When he is anxious show him that his breath will be quick and shallow, and he may feel a little shaky and timid. When he is glad show him that everything is pointing up! Literally. Watch football players after a touchdown and you will see that they are pointing up, bouncing up in the air etc. Everything is up, high fives and all. Note also that the opposing team is looking downward, feeling the weight and burden of gravity. When we are sad the pull of gravity is heavy, we don’t want to move, and we can feel stuck. By learning the body correlates of emotions, he will be in a much better place to understand his emotions and identify them through his body experience. I have used this in my practice with adolescent males many times. They come in with a great deal of emotion but are having are hard time becoming conscious of what they are feeling. I just ask them what they are feeling in their body and they start explaining in detail. My arms are tight, my jaw is tight, or my upper body is tight. I’m just tight. Then a simple question like, when someone is feeling tight like that, what might they be feeling? Then bingo! Often times the realization is so sudden he will shout, “I’m Pissed”, with great satisfaction. He realizes he is angry and starts making connections.
It will be much easier to ask your young son about what he is feeling in his body. Asking about emotions directly will usually end in frustration. He will likely respond positively to the body question but not so positively to the feeling oriented question. Not because he doesn’t want to tell you the answer but because he doesn’t understand. This is at least in part the case since the emotions are confusing for him and admitting that will drop him in the hierarchy. Talking about his body is a much safer place. Just ask him, “What are you feeling in your body right now?” This is a non-threatening question for boys and may help to get the conversation going. Keep in mind that some boys will have a very easy time in naming and discussing emotions while others will be stumped. Know where your son falls in this area and adjust your interactions based on his strengths.”
A mom came to see me for therapy worried about her 12 year old son. Since her husband’s death her son played basketball. Lots of basketball. Morning, noon and night! When she would try to sit down with him and talk about his father’s death he would clam up and shut down. He didn’t want any part of it. This worried the mom no end. We talked about his relationship with his father and it came out that the boy and his dad played a good deal of basketball together. It was their way to connect. I encouraged the mom to go home and see if she could play some basketball with her son and watch what happened.
She came back the next week a changed woman. She said they played some and the son gave her a hard time about not being able to play like his dad. But playing ball made it easier for him to say he missed his dad. In fact it was the first time he had told her he missed his dad and the first conversation they had about his dad’s absence. They both laughed and cried as they played.
She found out something else that helped her to understand her son. He mentioned to her that the reason he kept practicing was he was trying to make the shot that his father had been encouraging him to make. He called it a “3 pointer” and it was normally out of his range. He had always been too small to make it from that distance. He told his mom with pride that he had made one of those recently and he wanted to make more. He told her that the first time he made the shot he stopped and said aloud “I did it dad” and then burst into tears. When we talked she realized that his playing ball was connected to his father’s death. In fact, the boy was using a very common masculine healing technique of using the future. He wanted to honor his dad by improving his play and making that shot something that was second nature to him. He wanted to do it for his dad. Can you see how this young man was using the basketball to connect with his father, and to honor his father with his improved play? He was using his action to honor his dad and this pulled him into the future. Can you also see that when he practiced to make the shot and even more when he did make that shot his memories and emotions surrounding his father would be front and center?
If this mom had simply placed her son in therapy she would never have gotten the closeness she found from that short game of basketball. As you can imagine, she didn’t really need to see me so much after that nor did her son. She knew she just needed to play a game of Horse with him and she could enter his safe place. Think about your own son. Where is his safe place? It may not be basketball, but it likely involves some sort of action or inaction. To learn more about these places and how they work you might want to get a copy of my newest book, Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons: Understanding the Unique World of Boys