Understanding the emotional language of boys

My two boys wrestle. They roll around on the floor, alternating who is pinned to the floor and who is on top. My oldest drags his brother around our home, all the while the little guy is laughing along gleefully. I have seen things escalate to aggressive headbutts and forceful shoves. And, I’ve seen them soften to cuddles, gentle pats and kisses.


My husband and I joke about our boys inability to be away from one another. Whether they are playfully roughhousing, kicking one another in anger, or sleepily snuggling together in our master bed, our boys are almost always engaged in some form of physical contact. Their emotional language is touch.

As a boy mom of more than five years, I have learned a fundamental difference between how young males and young females express themselves. I see this not only in my sons, but in other boys as well. Boys are are physical communicators and us female parents, teachers and caregivers need to respect that.

Before I go on, I will acknowledge the nuances of humanity, and recognize gender cannot be painted in a broad stroke. Discussing how gender identity is affected by social constructs, biology, family structure, genetics and more is something I’d rather leave to another blog post, or to others more well-versed in that area. I know what I say can apply to girls or gender-nonconforming kids. I am also well aware I am speaking in hetero-normative terms. I also think there is a distinction between the innate behavior of most males, which comes from years of evolution, and the societal gender norms imposed on most kids. The interaction I witness between the majority of boys is more primal and is not affected by whether they prefer trucks or wearing Elsa dresses.

My older son broke his remote control car. He loved this toy, and breaking it left him distraught and devastated. My son, who is normally quite the chatterbox, turned into an inconsolable ball of emotions. He wailed and cried for what felt like an hour, while I tried to calm him down. Not once during that ordeal did he verbalize his feelings, even though it was very clear why he was upset.

It is understandable that losing a favorite toy would be an intense emotional experience, and would render a child speechless. However, even more subtle events are often hard for my son to speak about. If he gets in trouble in school, I can read the shame on his face. He looks down becomes withdrawn and doesn’t want to talk. After some time, I can get him to share a bit with me, but only the most basic of information.

There is a culture of silence, when it comes to male expression of emotion. Generations of men were conditioned to keep their feelings to themselves, to toughen up, to “be a man.”  We need to think about how we as a society have let down our young men. However, in searching for answers, we must acknowledge their unique behavior and work with this information to better serve our boys.

We need to learn more about how boys share their feelings, recognize that often verbal expression is not the preferred method for males and learn to communicate with them in their emotional language. We must become more in tune with the subtle  (and often loud) signals our boys use to vocalize emotion. Most of all, we need to provide them with a healthy space to express those feelings.

Spending thirty minutes hitting a punching bag can be just as cathartic and effective as writing in a journal. Playing the guitar might prove more of an emotional release than chatting with mom.

If boys don’t want to talk, how will we ever know what’s going on? The thing is, I think boys do want to talk; they just need to do so in their own time. Once given the space to process their feelings, I believe boys — and men — are more eager to talk and listen. But, if they don’t want, or can’t use many words to convey their feelings, we, especially us mothers and other women in their lives, need to look beyond what they say and read and respond to their nonverbal cues.

My boys will be teenagers in a blink. They will have bigger issues and bigger feelings to handle. I imagined many one-word responses and lots of long silences. I do hope they will talk to me, but I will try to strike the right balance. I also know I have no idea what I am in for. I just hope I will have the strength and resolve to give them space when they need it and be there when they need an ear.



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