If this was an identity parade we might line up the usual suspects: celebrity culture, social media, films and the idolisation of music and sports stars who portray a ‘successful’ image and lifestyle few can achieve but many aspire to. Our culture often socialises boys to express emotions such as hurt, rejection and betrayal in the form of anger. These things are surely significant factors but it’s too simplistic to stop our analysis there. In blaming these things there is a danger that we see the problem as ‘out there’ and there’s little that I can do to stop Nick Jonas posing topless and posting it on Instagram.
I see the fallout from these pressures on young people every day. I see them in my own life as well. On my best days I can pull it apart and run forensic studies on all the factors. On my worst days I’d love nothing more than to score a winning goal at Wembley, skid across the turf in celebration with no top on and my Ronaldo-like body on display (Cristiano, not the Brazilian one).
I often hear that boys don’t talk about their emotions. Then I go into my local schools and sit with groups of students and see the boys share just as deeply as the girls. What we have to do is create a safe environment which allows them to open up. Here are four things that have been useful in my work:
Show that you can help them develop strategies to cope when emotions get overwhelming. The boys I work with enjoy learning breathing techniques, appropriate exercise, and mindful colouring of Marvel characters.
- Honour what they value. Many of the boys I work with want to be seen as strong and courageous. So I often verbalise to young men that vulnerability takes strength and courage. They will feel safe if they know I will respect them no matter what. I respect vulnerability and I try to model it. What do the boys you know need from you in order to feel safe?
- Help them develop the emotional literacy to recognise and express what is going on inside.
- Talk about mental health and self-harm, and challenge stereotypes that shame men for talking about emotions that require vulnerability. We need to get boys talking and they will do it if we model it.
If we can put some of this into action for the children and young people we work with, we give them another option. We can help them choose to express their emotions in ways that build connection, when so many feel isolated.