The Most Important Emotional Lesson Men Can Teach Their Children Right Now
A few years ago, Justin Lioi attended the funeral of an acquaintance’s mother. Before the man delivered the eulogy for his Mom, he looked at his 6-year-old daughter sitting among the mourners and reassured her, “Daddy’s not crying, he’s just sweating.”
“Even at his own mother’s funeral, he didn’t feel free to show emotion,” says Lioi, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Brooklyn, New York, who specializes in treating men and fathers.
“I work with a lot of guys who are so disconnected with their emotions that we talk a lot about why they feel like they can’t cry or feel angry or show emotions in front of their kids,” Lioi says. “There’s such a fear that, ‘If I let it go at all, I’ll go down the hill into emotions I’ll never be able to get out of.’”
It’s a lingering stereotype for a lot of men that being stoic in the face of tough emotions is part of the job of being a dad. They feel duty-bound to make their kids, and partners, feel safe, and sometimes, that entails pretending they don’t feel sad, scared, or worried. The pressure to keep it all together is particularly high amid the pandemic; many parents are dealing with additional stresses about income and job security, keeping everyone COVID-19-free, and the day-to-day pressures of being cooped up together without normal coping mechanisms or much alone time. For a lot of fathers, keeping up a strong, positive front is challenging.
No parents want their kids to absorb their worries. But in addition to being difficult to keep up, that front can do your family more harm than good. But men must learn how to be be vulnerable and regulate healthy emotions. Those who feel stoicism is an essential part of being a man risk harming their own psychological health, the health of their relationships with their partners, and the emotional well-being of their children.
Vulnerable or Stoic? That Shouldn’t Be the Question
Although the ancient philosophy of Stoicism didn’t originally have much to do with gender roles or identity, it has evolved — or devolved — into one of the hallmarks of traditional masculinity. Experts debate the differences between “capital-S Stoicism,” or the Hellenistic philosophy, and “little-s stoicism,” a term that today is essentially synonymous with emotionlessness.
“It has become more of a colloquial term that we throw out when someone appears to not be showing much emotion. We generally talk about it in a negative way,” Lioi says. “But there are wonderful, important times to be more stoic, and times that are not. Finding that balance is important.”
Part of the difficulty in finding that balance, for some men, is because we live in an “either/or” society, Lioi says. Men might feel pressure to be stoic, or even to be vulnerable, and depending on whom you ask, either might be a hard sell.
“I see stoicism as an outcome, not something in our nature,” says psychologist Michael Reichert, Ph.D., author of How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men and the instructor of an emotional intelligence course for boys in high school.
“The boyhood we’ve constructed for young males is a very hierarchical struggle for dominance,” he says. “To be able to navigate that world and not be made into a victim is a useful skill. The vulnerable are the boys who get taken advantage of and bullied.”
Men who feel stoicism is an essential part of being a man risk harming their own psychological health, the health of their relationships with their partners, and the emotional well-being of their children.
Reichert doesn’t talk about stoicism or vulnerability in his course for boys, because those terms can come across as unhelpfully polarizing and gendered.
The terms he prefers are ‘honesty’ and ‘courage’, as in “having the courage to be honest about how you feel and what you need,” he says. “Those words work well with male audiences, because what boys are up against is a culture that will be quick to disparage them if they appear to be weak.”
Boys harden themselves at the expense of their connections to other people, which ultimately weakens them, he says. Instead of striving to appear “hard” and “tough” in order to get by in life, Reichert helps the boys see greater benefits to being “gritty” and “determined.” Feeling like they have grit and determination helps build confidence and emotional intelligence rather than making them fearful of expressing emotions, he says.
“To be gritty and determined about emotions doesn’t leave you open to being hijacked by emotions or feeling a need to suppress them,” he says. “Facing them and working through them requires revealing them to another person in an honest way.”
Honesty and authenticity is “radically brave,” agrees Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., a psychologist in Los Angeles. “To be completely authentic about who you are and what you’re experiencing, in the face of discomfort, is courageous.”
How to Express Healthy Emotions Around Kids
Many people — regardless of gender identity — didn’t have good models of emotional expression growing up. Well-intentioned parents might have, for example, never cried or argued in front of the kids. Although the intent was to protect them, it’s more helpful for children to learn how to deal with conflict in healthy, age-appropriate ways than to learn to deny it’s happening.
“A lot of my clients talk about the one time they saw their father cry and how uncomfortable it was for them, because it was not a thing that happened very often,” Lioi says. “But if we see our dad cry at a sad movie or funeral, it wouldn’t be so scary and wouldn’t feel like the world is crashing down when it happens.”
What this all boils down to is the crucial importance of regulating emotions, which is important for adults but especially for parents.
“You want to show emotions to a child,” Lioi says. “You want to show you can be sad or angry in a healthy, adult way. You don’t want to model holding everything in or that there are no boundaries, either.”
If you grew up in a household in which getting angry means you start breaking things or hit or yell at people, you learn it’s a dangerous time, Lioi says. But if parents can take a break after expressing themselves a little loudly then sit down to dinner and say, “I feel better now; how are we all doing?” they can normalize expressing anger and moving past it.
Normalizing this isn’t easy, of course. It’s hard enough regulating emotions while communicating with your partner without the added pressure of knowing your children are watching and filing away mental notes about everything you do. It can take some practice to get comfortable expressing emotions if you’re not used to doing it.
“Particularly right now, with the anxiety surrounding everything, kids look to us for their semblance of reality,” says Jennifer M. Clegg, Ph.D., a cross-cultural developmental psychologist and an assistant professor of psychology at Texas State University. “But honesty and emotional expression are two different things. It’s not helpful for me to tell my child I’m worried about losing my job; that’s not what we mean by being vulnerable.”
This is an important distinction. Parents can express emotions to children while keeping their feeling of safety intact, she says. It’s not about packing away your emotions. Rather, it’s matter of helping kids relate them to something they’re familiar with, Clegg suggests. When you’re feeling frustrated, for example, you can help them understand by asking your child, “Remember when you felt frustrated the other night because you had to stop playing and come eat dinner? That’s how I feel. But I’ll get over it.”
“Kids are social learners, but we need to give them tools,” Clegg says. “These conversations help build scaffolds for kids to learn healthy emotional expression.”
“Honesty and emotional expression are two different things. It’s not helpful for me to tell my child I’m worried about losing my job; that’s not what we mean by being vulnerable.”
Parents can help kids develop their own language and understanding about their own emotions as well. If children are upset or angry, you can say, “Let’s sit together. I see that you’re feeling a big feeling right now. Do you want to talk about it?” and “How can I help you calm your body?” to teach them about self-soothing, she says.
A clue that you might be oversharing, so to speak, with your kids is if they start showing care-taking behaviors toward you, Balestrieri notes. Parentification, or the act of relying on your children for constant emotional support, is important to notice.
“Parents should ask themselves if they’re making kids responsible for their feelings,” Balestrieri says. “If the answer is yes, it’s probably too much and could be reined in a little more. You can say, ‘Daddy’s scared, too, but I’m not going to let anything bad happen to us.’ If parents can redirect kids’ care-taking behaviors, they can show their true feelings without flooding the family system.”
The Way Forward
Healthy emotional regulation isn’t just good for your kids — it’s important for your health, too. You’ve likely heard that bottling up emotions is unhealthy. Well, they are.
“Emotions are energy systems. Every feeling has energy to it. That energy has to go somewhere,” Reichert says. “I always use the example of an athletic event: If you’re pent up with difficult feelings in the way, it’ll trip you up. Boys recognize that losing their cool can make you vulnerable.”
Pent-up emotions also can manifest as physical symptoms. Maybe you suddenly can’t perform sexually, or have stomach aches even though you’re eating really well.
“Maybe there’s something you’re not connected with,” says Lioi. “That’s a clue to investigate a little more.”
It might sound a bit odd, but try to find even five minutes a day to sit quietly and assess what’s going on in your body. Developing some awareness, Balestrieri notes, can do your physical and emotional health a lot of good.
“Emotions are energy systems. Every feeling has energy to it. That energy has to go somewhere,”
“Sometimes men are conditioned away from feelings and can feel frozen,” she says. “They might have a difficult time understanding and recognizing and naming emotions. So the first step is to develop that internal vocabulary and parse out the different emotions they’re feeling.”
For men who think that anger is the only acceptable emotion, Balestrieri encourages them to focus on where the anger seems to “live” in their bodies before they can learn how to express that and other emotions. Understanding feelings that come up to surface usually involves making “I” statements.
“Men unfortunately are more likely to externalize feelings, as in, ‘You made me feel this way,’” for example, she says. “It’s about learning how to recognize they’re worthy of feeling those feelings. A lot of men feel like they can’t feel fear, that anything that’s uncomfortable will destroy the family and make them see him differently.”
Also helpful is having strong male friendships, Balestrieri adds: “Even in the most secure coupleships, we still need support as individuals, strong connections with men you can talk to about your fears. With everyone home quarantining, this is a great time to check in with them.”
Collectively, people have a tendency to spend a lot of energy holding emotions in and not allowing themselves to feel all those feelings, the shame, guilt, and sadness, Lioi says. But that tight emotional coil just isn’t healthy for anyone in your family.
“There’s such a lack of trust that our emotions are temporary,” he adds. “But it’s such a release to be able to let go.”
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