Raising Boys to Be Emotionally Healthy

by Jaime Nisenbaum, Ph.D.

Raising Boys to be Emotionally HealthySome call it the “boy code,” others call it the male code or the masculinity code. Regardless of its name, every boy and man in this culture learns the code and adheres to it in more or less extreme ways. There are many versions of the boy code, but overall they all share the same premises. Boys and men must: 1) be independent, self reliant, tough, and aggressive; 2) not express vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness, hurt, or attachment to another person; and 3) avoid and reject all things that are deemed “feminine”.

Educators, sociologists, and psychologists are finding out that the restrictions that the code imposes on a boy’s emotional awareness and expression is causing severe problems for boys including increased school failure, depression, loneliness, isolation, and violence. Lower academic performance is one of the most visible symptoms of the problem that boys are facing: school-aged boys are twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, five times more likely than girls to have conduct problems, and six times more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity

Some of these academic problems have its roots in the initial gap in verbal skills and reading readiness between boys and girls. Girls in average reach a higher degree of verbal and reading acuity earlier than boys. However, aside from these learning differences, emotional immaturity and the ensuing lack of social skills is a major contributor to boys’ academic problems. A significant detrimental impact of the boy code is that it curtails the age-appropriate emotional development of boys. For example, we expect boys to show self-reliance and independence at too young an age, which precludes them from further developing nurturing and healthy dependency bonds with their caregivers. These closer bonds are the foundation for emotional and social stability, and this premature disconnection from caregivers results in a major gap in their emotional maturation.

Another negative impact of the boy code on the emotional development of boys is that while research shows that, at birth, baby boys are more emotionally expressive than baby girls, by the time boys reach school-age, they have already learned to hide and feel ashamed of expressing vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness, loneliness, and hurt as well as emotions that express their need for connection to others. When boys begin to shut off those vulnerable emotions in order to fit into the boy code, they start a relentless process of cutting off and disconnecting from part of themselves. When they do that, boys decrease their ability to be empathic, loving, and caring towards themselves and others.

Empathy, for example, is the ability to get into some else’s shoes, understand what they are feeling, and respond accordingly, which requires that we have access to our own feelings. If boys are taught not to be in touch their own feelings, how can they tune into the feelings of others?

To start reversing the effects of the boy code parents need first to examine their own biases, assumptions, and fears about the emotional expressiveness of boys, especially around vulnerable emotions such as fear, hurt, sadness, shame, and neediness. Parents may be surprised to find out how they themselves have internalized many of the oppressive messages of the boy code in terms what is a “real boy” and what they believe will subsequently make him into a “real man.” Secondly, understanding the role of emotions in the development of healthy boys and girls is paramount. Emotional communication is a vital ingredient in the link between parents and children and is the bedrock of connection and of nurturing relationships.

Let’s look at a very common scenario that illustrates these points:

Ben is a 5-year-old boy and he has just begun to ride his new bicycle without training wheels. He is doing great, but suddenly he hits a bump and falls. He doesn’t look injured, but I notice that he has a scared look on his face and starts to cry. With the best intentions in my mind and heart, I say, “Oh Ben, you are doing so great. This was just a silly fall. You are not hurt. Get up and try again.”

As innocuous as these words seem to be at first glance, taking a closer look the message embedded in this communication is an expression of the boy code that states, “this was nothing, toughen up, you are not hurt, no need to cry.” From Ben’s perspective, I completely missed his experiences of feeling scared, hurt, or surprised by the fall. As a result, he may feel invalidated, confused, and alone. After many messages like this from parents, teachers, and peers, Ben will likely learn that feeling scared is not an acceptable emotion for him to have in his repertoire of emotional expression.

A more effective and emotionally supportive communication would be to go down to the level of the child and say, “That was a big bump! Were you surprised or scared? Are you okay or are you hurt?” In this way, I would validate that something happened to Ben that led him to cry and I would engage him in a dialogue to elicit his emotional communication. As a result of that dialogue, Ben would feel listened to and acknowledged in his experience, would learn how to put words to his feelings, and would feel more connected and secure within himself and with the adult assisting him.

If you are interested in this topic, here are some additional resources:

Dr. Jaime Nisenbaum is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY 23623) working in private practice with individuals and couples in San Rafael, and a professor in the graduate program of psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He can be reached at 415.516.6244 or at jaime@jaimenisenbaum.com.