Jason had experienced the death of his 16 year old best friend to suicide two months prior. His parents were worried about him. They hadn’t seen a tear from him and that just didn’t make sense to them. He didn’t talk much about it either. They thought that maybe some therapy would be good for him. Jason didn’t think so. That was the last thing he wanted. So the parents went to see a therapist on their own to try and get some ideas about what they could do for their son. They were shocked at what they heard.
The therapist told them that with the onset of higher levels of testosterone in puberty that young men cried much less than their sisters. The testosterone basically diminishes the boy’s ability to get his tears flowing. He has the same emotions but no tears to release them. Apparently this impact of testosterone lasts for much of a man’s life. As his testosterone levels begin to drop he starts to get his tears back but even in his 60’s or beyond he may still not have the same access as his wife. There is a huge variability with this. Some men will have plenty of tears but most will be like this young man. The therapist basically said don’t worry about the tears, worry about his actions. Is he getting out? Is he being with his friends? They found out that Jason was more likely to be working out his grief with his peers than with his parents.
Learn more about this in Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons: Understanding the Unique World of Boys. There are many other reasons that Jason is not showing tears and not talking about his emotions. Know them and you will get closer and he will really appreciate it!
“My son wants to win. Nearly all the time. When he doesn’t he gets upset. He won’t quit playing his video game until he reaches level 22. Food, rest, drink, nothing stops him.” I hear this often from parents. They scratch their heads about their boys being intent on coming in first or as close to the top as he can make it. Why is this?
Improved research techniques have revealed that testosterone is less about aggression or violence, and is more about striving for status. Wanting to be on top. This has been fuel for men for centuries to compete against each other to do things such as explore, research, create music, architecture or just about any other endeavor. Cultures worldwide have been created through this sort of energy. So when you see your boys striving for status understand they come by it honestly.
13 year old Jimmy came home and slammed his books down on the counter. Mom asked him what was up and he marched directly to his room and slammed the door.
If you are the mom, what is your best option?
A) Tell him he needs to talk about this asap
B) Go directly into his room
C) Tell him he is acting ridiculously and to stop it.
D) Say, “I’m here if you want to talk” and wait for him to emerge.
E) Make him a sandwich.
F) Do nothing.
Which would you choose? D is most likely your best bet depending on your son. You let him go and hibernate for a while. This pulling back and secluding oneself is a tried and true mode for males to process upsetting material. It is particularly popular among teen boys. He would likely go into his room, flop down on his bed and start thinking about what is bothering him. And he would keep thinking about it. We call this “grinding.” He is literally grinding on his upset and telling his story over and over in his own head. Not too different from the more traditional female path of talking out the story except it is done in private and only in his own head. He may take 30 minutes or an hour (while you anxiously wait) and then emerge from his room in a very different mood. He may even say “What’s for dinner?”
By all means tell him what’s for dinner! Then ask him what’s up. Avoid asking him what he is feeling. One question that will help sometimes is “Are you dealing with something tough?” This question honors that whatever he is working on is probably tough.
The idea of fight or flight has been shown to be a primarily male response to stress. Jimmy’s was the “flight” path. Get away, get quiet, and grind on it.
For those of us who are more familiar with the “talking about it” approach this can seem to be not really healing. But it can be.
Here’s what you can do. The next time Jimmy is calm and in good spirits do some activity with him that he enjoys. Shoot baskets, play catch, whatever it is that he likes. During the activity, when you both are relaxed, ask him about what you can do that would be the most helpful to him when he goes to his room and slams his door. Listen carefully. He will tell you just what you need to know. You might even tell him that it is hard for you but you want to do what will be of most help to him. If he resists telling you what you can do you might want to tell him that you really want the best for him and what helps him the most and maybe you can talk later about this, or maybe email or text? The trick is to find out where he feels safe and go there to communicate.
He may not say so, but he will really appreciate your asking him this question. Most young men are used to being told they are wrong and this will seem like a breath of fresh air to him.
The first reason is that when boys go through puberty and get elevated testosterone levels their access to their emotional tears goes down. Basically, when boys are 12 they lose some of their connection with their emotional tears. My experience in working with boys and young men in therapy has shown me that they continue to experience the same emotional pain, but don’t have the tears as a way to release the pain. Boys that just a few years before could cry very easily, and did, now find it more difficult. The tears seem to have dried up. Big boys don’t cry.
The second reason is that boys and men live in a hierarchical world. The same testosterone that seems to have limited their tears now is pushing them to strive for status. Yes, for years scientists have unsuccessfully tried to tie testosterone in with aggression but that never worked out. The present view on testosterone is that it pushes boys and men to strive for status, to win, to compete, to come in first. So tell me, is crying in public a sign of winning or losing? If you cry in public do you appear dependent or independent? Clearly you look dependent and boys will work to avoid appearing this way since our culture, and most women, value them for their status not their emoting. Therefore boys and men will continue to strive for status in order to succeed and to impress the women.
If women were to suddenly shift and want to marry and have sex with men who were sensitive, and emotional you would likely see men change very quickly. But the way it is now, men are valued based on their status, how much money, power, prestige they might have. Crying in public is the antithesis of that. Big boys don’t cry.
“The following is an excerpt from the section on how boys heal. This excerpt focuses on healing through creative action.
Excerpt: Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons, page 53-54
I once worked with a young man whose girlfriend was killed in a car accident. The young man was distraught and crushed by her death. Shortly after the death he did connect with some friends and talk about her and how hard it was for him. As time went on he found he had a great deal of pain due to her death and he found some creative ways to work with it. He played guitar and he started to write songs about her. He didn’t share any of this with many people. He kept it mostly to himself (invisible to most) but the songs were about her and about their time together and they were very emotionally powerful. Can you imagine as he is writing these songs what might be happening to him? He was surely experiencing the emotions surrounding her loss but he was doing so in a way that had nothing to do with talking and everything to do with an activity that helped him move into the feelings and slowly release them. No one told him to do this. No one instructed him about what to do. He did it on his own without any direction. This is a great example of a young man using his creative action to help him with his emotions. He was telling his story through his creativity and his emotions and reactions were likely similar to what you might expect from someone else attending a support group.
How could you be of help to this young man? Would you ask him to sit and talk about his feelings about the death of his girlfriend? No. How about asking him about his songs? Which is your favorite? What is the newest song? Can you play one for me? The young man would be more likely to want to share a song than to sit and talk face to face about his feelings. As he played you can imagine the emotions would pour out. By focusing on his music you are entering his safe place. If he allows you to enter all the better but also know that he may not really want to share this. That’s ok too.
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.”
The book offers plenty of suggestions about how to be closer with your son. This excerpt is from the storytelling section and focuses on how to tell stories to boys where they are a character within the story. They love it!
Excerpt: Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons, page 72
“One of the things that young children love is if you tell stories that involve them as characters. This takes a bit of planning and creativity on your part but the payoff can be huge. The story can be whatever you would like it to be but for boys if there were an element of adventure and risk it will likely go over better. I would tell my kids what they named the “Ice Cream Story.” They loved it and would never fail to want to hear it again. Each time I told it we would add something a little different but the framework would stay about the same. The ice cream story was about my children and sometimes their friends (depending on who was present) inadvertently finding a huge storehouse of ice cream that flowed from faucets and an even bigger supply of cones and toppings (sprinkles, gummy bears, etc.) in the cabinets above the sinks. They would feast on these only to be nearly found out and then find ways to make things right. The story ends with the idea that they would return to that treasured storehouse whenever they wished and live happily ever after. In telling the story each child would be incorporated into the tale, i.e. “Suzy found the trail that led to the mysterious faucets and Jack ran to the nearest one and turned it on and what do you think came out?” They all scream at once, “Ice cream!” What flavor ice cream came from your faucet? Each child plays a part in the adventure and you can choose their part based on their skills and personality. Then again, listen to them as the story is being told and go with their ideas about their part. If you listen they will let you know what they want their part to be. If you are a creative type you can just make it up as you go. It can be great fun and everyone has a good time. Remember, you are not being graded either. Just relax and have some fun. If you mess it up, all the merrier. Boys love a mess. ”