5 ways to help your son manage his emotions
Mindfulness expert Dr Richard Chambers talks to Harb Gill.
There is a crisis when it comes to our boys and their emotions, says Melbourne clinical psychologist and internationally recognised mindfulness expert Dr Richard Chambers.
“The largest killer of Australian men aged between 15 and 44 is suicide and it’s because men have been discouraged from expressing their emotions,” says Chambers.
“So when they have difficult feelings, they ignore them or bury them because they think it is weak to feel, or they are worried they will be judged by their peers.
“Teachers are teaching boys social-emotional learning in class and there are counsellors at schools, but on the whole if boys cry or say they are sad, they’re going to cop it from their friends.”
Chambers, who helped develop the free Smiling Mind mindfulness app, says high-profile media personalities such as Gus Worland from Triple M have begun drawing attention to the hidden epidemic of male depression and suicide.
“This conversation is exposing cultural expectations and unwritten rules about being a man, an issue explored in the excellent ABC TV series Man Up, which screened this yer (available on iView).
“Male role models have traditionally been stoic, tough guys, and our sporting icons have historically buried their feelings to get on with the job and that has been seen as a strength.
“You see some of the AFL players long after their careers have finished saying they were depressed for years while they were playing but were unable to talk about it.’’
Chambers says mindfulness (which is all about focusing the mind on the present moment and includes, but isn’t limited to, mindfulness meditation) is particularly useful in helping boys deal with their emotions.
What can parents do to help?
Chambers has the following advice for parents, and stresses that the earlier you can start implementing these mindfulness practices at home, the better.
- Both mum and dad need to model emotional awareness
As a parent, the best thing you can do is clearly express what you are feeling without shame or judgment. Model that it is a strength to describe what you are feeling. This shows your son that expressing emotions is healthy. The goal of expressing emotions shouldn’t be to make other people do what we want, for example by making them feel guilty, but should be about clearly expressing ourselves for a sense of connectedness. By taking full responsibility for your own feelings, you can help encourage your son to do the same.
- Regularly ask your boys what’s going on for them
When you ask a boy how he is, you’ll often just get a “fine” in response. You need to go deeper. Do this by being curious about what your son is feeling and letting him know that there is no judgment. This creates a space in which he can feel comfortable talking about what he’s thinking and feeling. Subtle cues are important and if you are impatient, he will pick up on it. You also need to convey that it’s OK if he doesn’t want to talk – but perhaps gently revisit an important issue later. Talk about how it’s normal to experience difficulties and explain that adults experience these too.
You may need to experiment to find the best times to talk to your son. There is no ‘right’ way. However, your son might find it easier to open up during car trips when you are sitting side by side.
- Help your son become aware of what’s behind his feelings
Emotions point us towards unmet needs. For example, when we are angry (including being resentful, frustrated or irritable), it is pointing us towards boundaries that have been crossed or to unmet needs. Perhaps someone has said something hurtful and our need for respect hasn’t been met. Speaking from the level of anger, we will blame and accuse and it is likely that the other person will get defensive rather than hear what we are saying. But when we acknowledge the anger, we can ask more directly for our needs to be met. For example, we could say, “Could you speak to me in a different tone please?” You can model this to your son when your own strong feelings arise.
- Teach your son to be kind to himself
When things are difficult we tend to be self-critical and we often treat ourselves more harshly than how we treat others. Society encourages men to push on and not worry about their feelings.
The good news is that self-compassion can be learnt. Mindfulness can be used to recognise the critical self-talk and let go of judgments. We can then soften our inner voice and give ourselves permission to feel what we are feeling.
This might all sound a bit hippy, but research shows that students who fail a test and are then self-compassionate do better on the re-test. This is because they calm themselves and then get back to studying rather than wasting time giving themselves a hard time, which also makes them stressed, attacks self-esteem and leads to avoidance and procrastination.
Again, you can model and encourage self-compassion. Treat your son kindly, be patient with him and resist the urge to get into problem-solving straight away.
- Practise mindfulness meditation regularly (you and your son)
We can practise these strategies in any moment, but when we sit and meditate it gives us an opportunity to notice what we are thinking and feeling and to practise not reacting. There is a lot of research that shows that doing even 5 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day improves mental health and academic performance.
By getting your own meditation practice happening, you will become less reactive, which will make parenting easier. It all comes down to what you model to your son. You can tell him until you are blue in the face but it comes down to what you do. Your boys will notice the effect of meditation on you. The benefit is that you will feel better, and it will rub off on your son.
Dr Richard Chambers also runs regular mindfulness courses and corporate workshops.
Harb Gill is a journalist, university teacher and mother of a 14-year-old boy. She has spent a lifetime of inquiry into how to live consciously. Find her mindfulness column at harbgill.tumblr.com. This article is about Wellbeing
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY
Subscribe to Understanding Boys. It’s free!
Got boys? Sign up for tips and advice you'll actually use.