Your son returns home from school. He’s quiet, but collected.

“How was your day?” you ask.

What he wants to say is, I'm having a hard time at school. I feel like I'll never measure up to the coach's expectations. I'm scared I'm losing my friend to someone else. It's hard to keep going. I just don't think I can do this any longer. It's too much.

When he finally speaks, however, his words are simple, yet convincing: “Fine.”

Rather than risk being perceived as weak or fragile, he’ll put up walls whenever necessary.

While you may never know exactly what is running through your son’s mind at a given moment, you can build a better understanding of the world he lives in, learn to create a safe space for him to be heard, and set him up for an emotionally healthy life.

The cost of telling boys to “man up”

If you’re wondering why your son has become so secretive about his emotions, it helps to look at the culture he lives in and the language that’s often used with good intentions.

Phrases like “man up” have been around for decades, and for decades parents, teachers and coaches have used terms like this to motivate boys. But according to Karin Gregory, director of counselling at Focus on the Family Canada, these good intentions can sometimes have negative effects.

There is a translation process, explains Gregory. When a parent says:

  • “Be a man,”
  • “You’re fine,”
  • “Man up,” or
  • “Boys don’t cry,”

boys may interpret that as:

  • “I can’t have feelings,”
  • “I can’t be a weakling,”
  • “I can’t be afraid,” or
  • “I can’t feel like I need help.”

The parent may mean, I'm trying to tell you to step up and take responsibility, take ownership, says Gregory. But what a young boy will often hear is, You're not measuring up.

Jennifer Antonsen, a counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada, notes that urging boys to “man up” can have a domino effect on boys. “It can bring embarrassment, shame, sadness, confusion and eventually a shutting down. To hear those words would mean that one’s emotions are negative or undesired; they are to be stifled, hidden, ignored.”

And that’s an idea, Antonsen adds, that’s directly contrary to biblical truth. “The emotional part of who a boy is is part of God’s good design – it’s something to be valued and embraced.”

Learned behaviour from not-so-great modelling

“The ideas we have emphasized in socializing children – we could call it the ‘playground culture’ – have traditionally leaned toward “boys can take pain, girls are all about mushy feelings” and don’t mix up the two,” says Gregory. “If you as a boy get hurt and you cry, you will get ridiculed, so you suck it up. Whether you banged your knee or your feelings got hurt, it’s not okay to feel that feeling. Boys are socialized in that way by our culture. The world is not always kind, even among seven-year-olds on a playground.”

Even though God created boys to experience a wide gamut of emotions, boys are inundated with messages that they’re not to feel those emotions.

Home or familial settings can perpetuate this “suck-it-up” mindset. For example, a boy’s father may have witnessed emotional stoicism from his own father, who witnessed it from his father, and so on. “If I don’t see my dad experiencing his own emotions, navigating and handling them successfully, I’m not learning to do that well,” says Gregory.

When these patterns aren’t broken, they tend to be repeated in future relationships. “In the long term, it makes it difficult for boys to have close male friends,” says Antonsen. “These men won’t know how to feel or connect with their emotions well, let alone express them to their wives. They won’t know how to have hard conversations, how to resolve conflict in a healthy way, or how to share a different perspective in a safe manner.”

Antonsen adds that this often impacts marriages as well. “I have heard from quite a few wives who share that this type of expectation was placed on their husbands growing up,” she says. “It brings shame, hidden feelings, an inability in the long term to express oneself, and even to a larger degree an inability to allow oneself to feel those emotions.”

Reconciling our faith with mindful reflection

While a number of factors may cause young boys and teens to feel uncomfortable in getting in touch with their feelings, this discomfort can also stem from misinterpreting Scripture.

“As believers, we don’t have a tradition of understanding feelings well,” says Gregory. “There’s a disconnect between what we teach our kids and often what Scripture is really saying. The Bible says, ‘In your anger, do not sin.’ But lots and lots and lots of generations in the Church have experienced that as, ‘it’s a sin to be angry.’ The Bible says, ‘Don’t be anxious,’ so we say, ‘stop being anxious.’ We need to be able to understand what we feel in the true context of the Scriptures.”

Leaning into our feelings can actually help us understand them more. And boys should be encouraged to take time for self-reflection – to really think about what they might be feeling.

“A lot of Christians get really distressed when they hear a word like ‘mindfulness,’ but mindfulness is really just the world’s rediscovery of what Scripture has always understood,” Gregory explains. “Phrases like ‘Take every thought captive,’ ‘Think on these things,’ ‘Be still and know that I am God” – the world repackages that as ‘mindfulness.’

“This [concept of mindfulness] has opened up for men, often who are not within Christian circles, the idea that mental health is important; I think Christians can be late to appreciate this,” Gregory adds.

The dangerous side effects of shame

When young boys experience shame under the umbrella of secrecy, it can become a self-perpetuating cycle. Suppressed feelings which aren’t acknowledged or worked through – especially if there’s not a sense of safety in expressing those feelings in one’s home or church – almost always lead to depression, even in young boys, which fuels a sense of boys not feeling safe.

For example, if your child is scared of thunder in the night, you may feel the urge to quell their fears by saying, “It’s fine, you’re safe, there’s nothing wrong.” But this can create a disconnect between what they feel and what they are told. If this is what “feeling fine” is like and they are told they are “safe,” they won’t know how to deal with these feelings the next time around.

This kind of “emotional discrepancy” can lead to emotional unhealth. “It means boys are feeling alone, disconnected and emotionally isolated,” Antonsen says. “They are feeling like something is ‘missing,’ but not even knowing what that is.”

Several common fears that young boys experience can then feed this cycle of secrecy and shame:

  • getting in trouble with their parents
  • being disciplined by a teacher
  • not performing to his coach’s standards
  • losing a meaningful friendship.

When one of these fears becomes a reality, an unhealthy way of coping might present itself – pornography consumption being a common outcome. The young boy may not intentionally seek out explicit material but will enjoy the relief it brings from his feelings. At the same time though, the guilt of disappointing his parents or God will only fuel a sense of shame.

“The more stress they feel, the more the shame cycle grows, and it can become problematic, even to the level of an addiction,” Gregory explains. “Most people we talk to who have a pornography addiction or any kind of addiction, it can be traced back to a place of trying to cope with big challenges, big feelings, big issues, but not having an effective, healthy way to cope. So this counterfeit thing becomes the attraction and then it becomes the ensnarement, and then it becomes the addiction.”

It all goes back to those primary feelings boys may have been told they shouldn’t feel – anger, frustration, fear, sadness – and not being able to ask for help with those feelings. They can’t ask for help because they’ve been told that those feelings are sinful, or that they should toughen up. “When there’s no guidance for that, there’s this increased risk for addiction and everything that may bring in time,” says Gregory.

Cultural changes

Even though family and cultural histories tend to discourage boys and men from expressing their emotions, our counsellors see many positive shifts in our world today.

Public role models are opening up more, including famous figures, pastors, youth group leaders and teachers. “More public conversations are happening with the knowledge about stereotypes, the importance of emotional and mental health, and an emerging desire and awareness that healthy relationships require emotionally healthy men,” Antonsen says.

Gregory points to mainstream awareness movements like the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, noting its reverberation across social media and communities. She also notes our growing understanding of the complex connection between our bodies, brains and behaviours, and the importance of mind-and-body interactions and soul care. “Current and younger generations have more opportunity to name feelings and emotions than people did in the past,” she says.

A way forward for parents

So what’s a parent to do? It starts with small, intentional moments of connection. “When families only have time to check in briefly with kids and not have regular, deeper heart conversations with their kids, that can be a barrier,” Antonsen notes.

Ideas for parents:

  • Create time to connect with your son once a day. Whether it’s on the drive to or from school, or before bed, make it a priority to check in with him.

  • Ask open-ended questions, with first words like What, Who, or How.

  • Follow up with feeling-based questions: How does this make you feel? Why do think you feel this way?

  • Share about your own feelings and emotions. Vulnerability invites vulnerability. You can still maintain healthy parent-child boundaries, but by opening up about your own fears or worries or anxieties, it will help your son know that they are not alone in experiencing these God-given feelings.

If you feel you need more support in demonstrating emotional vulnerability with your son or about how to react when they do open up, please feel free to contact us for a one-time complimentary counselling consultation.

Related resources

Todd Foley is on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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