Being stereotypically tough, not showing weakness, fear or vulnerability—and not crying at all costs—are characteristics that have been drilled into the minds of boys for years. While this ideology is changing, we still have a long way to go. And in the meantime, this toxic masculinity narrative can have serious consequences, both mentally and physically.
“When you bottle those emotions they’re going to come out somewhere, and likely in unhealthy ways,” says Kelly Melistas, a child and adolescent psychologist at Henry Ford Health. “Boys who have anxiety or depression and aren’t able to talk about their feelings or get the help they need can end up turning to addiction, violence, self-harm and in some cases suicide.
"Completed suicides are more common in men than women, and right now we are seeing emergency department visits and suicide at an all-time high, especially between the ages of 10 to 24. We don’t want to blame all of this on repressed emotions, but there is also a correlation between bullying and abuse toward women and not having effective ways to cope with emotions and frustrations.”
Emotionally healthy people try to make sense of where their feelings are coming from. They ask themselves whether a particular emotion is helping or hurting them. Acknowledging and releasing emotions that are holding you back is so important for mental and emotional health.
Here, Melistas offers seven tips to raising emotionally healthy boys.
- Share your days. “Every day, in my family, we share the best and worst parts of our days,” says Melistas. “It shows our kids that adults have good days and bad days, too. You aren’t always going to be upbeat and happy and that’s okay. It also teaches kids communication skills and gives them an open platform to talk about anything and everything.”
- Don’t trivialize how they’re feeling. You might chalk up your child’s angry or sad emotions to developmental phases. But children have big feelings—and they are valid. “When we show our kids we’re invested in how they’re feeling, the likelihood of them continuing to talk about their feelings increases,” says Melistas. “If we’re sensitive, attentive and thoughtful, they’ll come back to us. If your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you when they’re eight years old, they most likely will not feel comfortable talking to you when they’re 17 years old.”
- Spend time with them without distractions. Give your child quality time together and let them choose the activity, whether that’s going for a walk, playing basketball or completing a puzzle. It creates a safe, open environment that allows them to open up in ways they might otherwise wouldn’t.
- Let them know it’s okay to ask for help. “One of the most important things we can do for our children is to demonstrate that they don’t have to deal with their problems alone,” says Melistas. “When I was growing up, the mindset was different. Our parents made sure we were okay, but they had more of a tough ‘you’re fine, keep going’ approach. That mindset doesn’t work for children in today’s world. There is a lot more they are dealing with and trying to figure out and it is causing increased stress.” If they don’t tell you they need support, look for it in behavioral changes—an outgoing kid who isn’t playing with friends, or a child with a hearty appetite who isn’t hungry. What’s going on inside is usually reflected on the outside.
- Defy gender norms. If you are married or co-parenting, let your child see an equal partnership. And if you’re a single parent, let them know they can do and be whatever they want, regardless of gender stereotypes. “Your kids are watching,” says Melistas. “We don’t think they’re paying attention, but they are. Dad can do the dishes, mom can mow the lawn. Dad can be a nurse, mom can be a doctor. We see it so much now with girls. We tell them to be strong, powerful, to break the glass ceiling and take these traditionally male jobs. But we aren’t seeing the reverse as much with boys.”
- Fathers, confide in your sons. Talk about the unique pressures and experiences of being a boy. “It’s just as important to talk as a family about cancer history as experiences relating to mental health,” says Melistas. “When your children see that you may have had similar experiences as them, it makes them more willing to open up—and they may feel comforted by the fact that their situation isn’t unique to them.”
- Give them a solid foundation to fall back on. Your kids might see themes of toxic masculinity in movies, TV shows, video games. You can’t put them in a bubble and shield them from everything, but you can give them the tools to know what is right and what isn’t. “We don’t want anything more for our kids than to be healthy, happy and well-adjusted members of society,” Melistas says. “In my mind, that’s the goal.”
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Kelly Melistas is a child and adolescent psychologist who sees patients through Henry Ford Health’s Pediatric Behavioral Health Integrated Care program.