I held my son, Evan, in my arms and asked him what was wrong. He shook his head before responding, “Nothing.” His eyes brimmed with tears as he inhaled and exhaled deeply; it’s a mechanism his father and I taught him to regulate his emotions during toddler meltdowns. Suddenly, he blurts. “I can’t cry!” Shocked, I pulled back and peered into his eyes. “You can cry, bub, whenever you want, you can cry,” I reassured him. And the floodgates opened. I wiped his tears away and showered him with kisses and wondered, why did Evan believe it was unacceptable to cry? Would he feel differently if he were a girl? And how can I support him and encourage him to feel all of his feelings?
Although I’ve always provided my son the space and safety to express himself, it is commonly taught in Latinx households that boys shouldn’t cry. I am mindful of this messaging and choose to raise Evan as a well-rounded and whole person. When boys express themselves in a healthy way, they “develop a deeper and intimate relationship with themselves,” April Mayorga says, a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, as well as a “greater understanding of their emotional experience.”
When expressive boys become emotionally in-tune adults, they are better equipped for meaningful interpersonal relationships. Esther Boykin, a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, believes it becomes easier for men “to navigate life’s ups and downs without withdrawing or acting out” when they learn to express themselves. That’s because they can share their love and affection with loved ones, including romantic partners, friends, and children, in a healthy way. “This kind of emotional awareness is good for not only boys but for the people who will love and connect with them throughout their life.”
What happens when boys hear messaging that crying is weak or something that only girls should do? They internalize their feelings because they feel ashamed, which leads boys to feel worthless and lonely. This suppression may lead boys to act out as they “struggle to problem solve in their future relationships or find barriers in expressing their needs in proactive ways,” Mayorga explains. “When we only leave room for boys to be angry or stoic then their more vulnerable feelings can come out as aggression, violence, and other destructive behaviors,” adds Boykin. When boys quell their feelings it can also lead to tragedy, as boys commit suicide at a higher rate than girls. “Most researchers and experts attribute this, at least in part, to the social pressure on boys to deny or suppress their feelings,” Boykin says.
Needless to say, Latinx families have a responsibility to encourage boys to communicate all of their feelings. Mayorga suggests acknowledging their feelings and providing boys with a safe space to communicate. You can “ask clarifying questions, normalize all ranges of emotions (instead of shaming or mocking them), and model their own expression of emotion.” In addition, it’s important for male adults to model a healthy range of expression. Female caregivers are often tasked with the responsibility of teaching emotional expression and understanding, but boys will often emulate male role models. That’s why Boykin believes it’s important for “boys to see and interact with older boys and men who are comfortable expressing emotion,” including dads, uncles, grandfathers, godfathers, coaches, and older brothers. Men should “talk about feelings openly and avoid dismissive language like “man up” and “stop crying,’” Boykin concludes.
There are also many tools and resources available to aid boys to fully express themselves. Boykin suggests creating or buying a poster with facial expressions to help younger boys name their feelings, or a feelings poster for older boys that can read, which “list dozens of different emotions that can be used to practice talking about how you and the boys in your life feel.” This can become part of your daily routine where you check-in during breakfast or on your way to school. “The practice of naming and expressing their feelings will go a long way in helping them feel good about being more emotionally aware.”
Another simple resource is to create a space in your home to promote safe and non-judgmental expression where boys can identify their feelings. For older boys, “using a thesaurus can be a great tool to use to expand the range of identifiable emotions,” Mayorga says, “rather than over-categorizing some emotions like anger, or even happiness.”
There are also films, like Inside Out, Up, and WALL-E, and books, like The Color Monster, Hands Are Not for Hitting, and The Way I Feel, that provide positive messages regarding emotional expression. Sit down and watch a movie or read a book with your son and discuss the characters and their feelings. Use the book or film as a frame of reference to ask how they feel throughout the day.
And don’t forget to praise your boys and the men in your life when they express their feelings, just like I will continue to do with my son Evan. Because Latinx boys need to be validated and held just as much as girls do.