How to teach boys to communicate their emotions…that’s a chore in my house.
I am the parent of 2 boys. They are rough. They are loud. They are aggressive when they want to be. I have found my kids prefer to communicate with grunts, points, and interesting body language. Just the other day my youngest son, peeped his head around the corner and gave a “pssst” to get my attention. When I acknowledged him, he launched in to the this sequence of hand and shoulder gestures attempting to direct my attention to something in the kitchen.
The gestures reminded me of the hand signals the head of a SWAT team would use to tell his/her unit to spread out. It was hilarious, but I had no clue what he wanted. My oldest son is different. He likes to make loud sounds when playing with his toy cars, trucks, and planes. He is also loud when repeating his favorite lines from Turbo, Rio, or Jake and the Neverland pirates. He is loud when he is enjoying something and incoherently quiet when he suspects he is in trouble or has to do something he doesn’t want to do.In short, my sons are very creative and expressive in expressing themselves. That is, until it is time to talk about their emotions or recognize them.
When I ask, “Why did you hit your brother?”, the answer is something like, “because he took the toy from me”. It is the “cause” to the “effect”. Their responses are always in reaction to a stimulus. I call it the “Because he …then I…” syndrome. Most parents have had to teach the tenants of self control, integrity, or personal responsibility at some point in their lives when faced with this syndrome.
The biggest problem with this syndrome is that it never asks one to examines one’s own actions. Nor does it ever demand that one identify the emotion behind the said action. It is an excuse to justify poor choices and bad behavior. My husband and I decided to help our kids re-frame their stories and help them identify what was really going on. In the latest episode of the “syndrome”, we took our son aside and asked him a set of different questions.
Step 1: Ask why.
Why did you hit your brother?
Step 2: Repeat it back in a question.
So, you hit your brother because he took the toy from you? This shows you are listening.
Step 3: Throw them for a loop.
At this point your child may be anticipating you are going to start yelling, spanking, or putting people in time out. Throw off their defense responses with a question they aren’t expecting.
What feeling did you have before you hit your brother?
Step 4: Be silent.
Ask the step 3 question and then wait in silence for a long time. Your child will need time to process what you said and then think about it.
Step 5: Be the Emotional Tour Guide.
Depending on the child, he might not have an answer. This is where my husband and I help our son explore his feelings. We suggest a few anger words like “mad, upset, or angry”. We suggest a few hurt words like “disappointed, frustrated, or annoyed”. (Feeling word charts are great tools for this.) Because they are young we don’t go overboard on word choice. Once he picks a word, we ask him to think of healthier ways to get those feelings out. For them “shaking like crazy” or doing “Hulk smash” on the pillows are always favorites. More often though, we help them explore releasing the tension with their words. Believe it or not, a 4 year old can say, “I was disappointed because his turn took a long time.” The end result is that we are teaching our boys to not just have a feeling word vocabulary, but to also express those feelings in healthy words.
We don’t have to teach our boys how to curse, because they will learn that on their own. We don’t have to teach our boys to get physical, because some of them are hard wired on how to do that. We do have to teach our boys that anger is not the only emotion that exists. We do have to teach our boys how to find healthy release from negative emotion that doesn’t involve unhealthy aggression. And most importantly, we do have to teach our boys how to use their words. It takes consistency and practice to see results.
If we don’t make teaching boys healthy communication habits a priority now, fast forward a few years and our boys will be men learning this hard lesson in a couples therapy session. Or, they will be living with the consequences of breaking the law. Or, they will be a tyrant supervisor making some poor employee’s life a living nightmare.
What tips do you have for teaching boys to communicate their emotions in healthy way?