5 ways dads can support their sons’ emotional wellbeing
This will probably come as no surprise to you: many men have difficulty in expressing themselves and talking about what is going on for them.
I believe that this is due, in part, to an embedded cultural expectation that men should be tough, unemotional and pragmatic. Although this is slowly changing, sadly, for the most part, men are still not expected or encouraged to spend time focusing on their feelings, or acknowledging that they may need support for their mental health and wellbeing.
However, there is an upside to this – dads could be the best people to support their own sons.
Dads, you are bound by many of the same pressures and cultural expectations as your son. By sharing your own experiences and acknowledging how difficult it can be to express yourself, you can let your son know that he is not alone.
As a father, one of the most important things you can do is simply open the lines of communication. Here are 5 tips to help you get the conversation started.
- Express yourself first
Perhaps your son is already expressive and open with you. However (and this is probably more likely), if he’s not a big talker, the best place to start is by expressing yourself first. Let your son know this conversation will not be a one-way street. By telling your son about a time in your life – the more recent the better – when you felt in need of help and support, you are sending him the message that it is OK to open up, and that acknowledging he needs help isn’t shameful or ‘unmanly’.
- Consider your environment
Time and place is important. Try not to put your son on the spot – he may become defensive if he feels it’s an interrogation rather than a conversation. A good time is just after or during an activity your son enjoys that you can do together: fishing, hiking, a game of chess. And make sure it’s just the two of you. Your son is less likely to open up if there are others around.
- Resist the urge to ‘fix’
Many men are problem-solvers by nature. When we see something that needs fixing, we like to give it a go. Resist this urge when having a conversation with your son. If he needs advice, he’ll ask. Or if he isn’t the type who’ll ask for advice, ask him whether he’d like a few ideas in navigating whatever situation he is in, and respect his response. He may just want to talk it out.
- Listen without prejudice
In more than decade of youth work, I have found that, generally, young men (and women) just want to be listened to and supported in making the best decision. Effective listening involves acknowledging your son’s experience, empathising, and avoiding judgmental comments.
You may not have experienced a similar situation yourself, but you would have felt whatever emotion your son is feeling – sadness, love, anger, confusion, doubt or fear. Use your own emotional experience to say to your son, “I understand where you’re coming from.”
Try not to judge your son’s feelings or the situation he is in. If you think he’s too young to be so upset over a relationship breakup, saying so isn’t going to help. The most important thing is that he feels understood and knows you have his back.
- Give it time
Don’t expect your son to open up to you overnight. It may take some time (and some role modelling from you) for your son to understand that his worth as a man isn’t diminished by needing and seeking support with his mental health or wellbeing.
Most importantly, don’t give up. Dads who role model and persist in helping their sons to open up and seek support are vital in changing young men’s ideas about, and attitudes to, their own mental health and wellbeing. The more your son expresses himself, the more he’ll feel empowered to make safer and more constructive decisions that will benefit him for the rest of his life.
Sam Loy is a youth worker with a wealth of experience working with young men and boys. He is a speaker and also produces the popular Human/Ordinary podcast. This article is about Wellbeing
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