Fears for tears: why do we tell boys not to cry?
Encouraging boys to suppress their emotions and be tough and stoic can have damaging consequences for their mental health in later life
“Crying is a very healthy expression of feelings such as sadness and disappointment. If we tell boys not to cry, they may begin to suppress, avoid or shut down these emotions.” Photograph: iStock
The art of manliness is a school many boys veer towards the older they get.
From a young age, they are encouraged down this route by a culture and environment which cheers a laddish and overtly masculine mind frame. But the male gender stereotype sticks a label on to boys that can stifle their emotional development. Phrases such as “big boys don’t cry” and “be a man” are thrown at them, damaging their self-worth and belittling their self-image. We say the adage is long gone, but traces are left of a bewildering toxic masculinity that negatively affects our youth. Boys shouldn’t cry.
Where is it written on our skin and bones that crying, showing emotion, is a strictly feminine concept?
Author and teacher Fiona Forman holds an MSc in applied positive psychology. She is co-author of the Weaving Well-Being programme and delivers parent and school talks on children’s wellbeing and resilience. She recounts how there are dominant elements of our contemporary culture that still value emotional toughness and restraint in men.
“Traditionally, men were seen as being weak or unmanly in some way if they expressed themselves through crying,” she says, “hence terms such as ‘man up’ and insults such as ‘Mammy’s boy’. Although this view of masculinity is thankfully changing, it is still hard to shake off the entrenched cultural values that we have all absorbed. In some ways, we may feel we are protecting boys from the judgements of others and preparing them for the so-called ‘real world’ by telling them not to cry from a young age. It has always been more socially acceptable for girls to cry, so we are more likely to comfort them rather than telling them to stop.”
Boys grow into men who are often seen to be less open about their feelings in comparison to women but because they may not talk, does not mean they don’t feel. Despite being culturally more accepting and hopeful that men will share their feelings, the fear of being perceived as anything other than masculine affects our understanding of their emotional state. With increased rates of depression, suicide is a leading cause of death of young males. After the age of 16, the rate increases.
According to the Samaritans, in Ireland, men are four times more likely to take their own lives than women, with the highest suicide rate for men aged 25 to 34 years’ old. Research into suicide rates has recognised one reason for taking their own life is often cultural. Men are expected to be stoic, strong and non-emotional. In fact, the media’s portrayal of men often suggests that to be emotionally strong means burying emotions that appear to make you look weak, for instance crying. The alpha male paradigm is destructive.
According to Forman, the first step in healthy emotional development involves both boys and girls learning to accept that all emotions, including the so-called ‘negative ones’ such as sadness, disappointment, frustration, worry and anger are completely normal and don’t need be avoided, suppressed or feared. The second step is teaching them how to express all their emotions constructively, rather than destructively.
“Crying is a very healthy expression of feelings such as sadness and disappointment. If we tell boys not to cry, they may begin to suppress, avoid or shut down these emotions, as they are not encouraged to express them,” explains Forman.
“This can lead to boys becoming disconnected from these feelings and absorbing the message that it is not okay for them to have them. Over the long term, this can have a negative impact on their ability to manage these emotions and, of course, this will have a negative impact on their mental health and possibly on their ability to form close, open and honest relationships as adults. They may also begin to internalise the damaging stereotype that to be a ‘real man’ they need to be tough and invulnerable, which may be completely at odds with their authentic selves, which may be sensitive and gentle.”
We tend to parent our sons and daughters differently, engaging in and encouraging their emotional development differently. We must remember that childhood is a crucial time for their emotional growth as it is in these early years that they learn to understand and regulate these new strong emotions they are attempting to comprehend.
Boys have a tendency to suppress their emotions, run away from them or stomp them out. If we believe this is how our sons are managing their emotions, we are limiting their understanding of their feelings. We aim to teach our children to be resilient but, as Forman advises, there is a common misconception that being resilient means being tough or unaffected by strong feelings, which is a very unhealthy response. We need to teach children that being resilient is being able to feel and express our feelings and having the inner strength to cope with them all.
We cry because it is a healthy release for all of us. It helps us to self-soothe, releases chemicals like oxytocin, endorphins and stress-relieving hormones. It is calming, mood-enhancing, pain-relieving and overall beneficial to our wellbeing. Crying is also considered to be attachment behaviour, encouraging bonds and supports from friends and family.
“As a teacher,” says Forman, “I’ve often witnessed the wonderful way children respond with genuine feeling and concern for a friend or classmate who is upset and crying. The message that we are not alone in our distress is one of the most powerful ones we can give to each other – it helps us to bond and connect with each other on a deeper level.
“When we send children the message that it is okay to feel sad or upset and to cry, and we soothe and comfort them, we are validating their experiences and feelings. That is the first step towards processing these big feelings, recovering from them and learning how to self-soothe. Healthy emotional self-regulation cannot develop unless children are encouraged to express their emotions openly as a starting point.”