Celebrating Sensitive Boys and Men
I was raised by a sensitive man. He wasn’t afraid to cry openly. He felt deeply, and his family and close friends meant the world to him. I’m not sure how he fared as a child, but I do know that as an adult, he was a highly respected, empathic, beloved psychiatrist. It is understandable that his empathy and sensitivity drew him to psychiatry. This former football linebacker was only “tough” on the football field, or when protecting his wife and children.
It is not surprising that this sensitive man, my father, raised emotionally sensitive sons. My brothers have always been kind and caring, with close and meaningful friendships. I am grateful that compassion and sensitivity were cultivated and celebrated in my household. They are now emotionally and physically strong men, fulfilled and confident in their lives.
I suppose that it is also not surprising that I followed my father’s footsteps, entering the “helping” field of psychology, where empathy, sensitivity, and compassion are not only helpful, but necessary. And I married an emotionally sensitive man. It is perhaps his sensitivity that I find most appealing, most endearing. It is his sensitivity and ability to understand me on an emotional level that helps our marriage thrive.
Now I find myself raising sensitive children. Three beautiful, loving, caring, empathic, emotionally sensitive children. And I’m finding it is a very different experience for girls, as compared to boys. Girls are praised for their compassion and kindness. Boys on the other hand, feel pressure to be “tough” and repress their feelings. It was not always this way for my son. In his earlier years, he was praised by adults for comforting other children when they were upset. He was noted to be the first to console an emotionally or physically hurt child, comforting the child with a hug and a few words from the vernacular of a five year old. Somewhere over the course of time, these traits became less valued by our society, simply because he is a boy.
I am not talking about “mental toughness”, which is very different from “emotional toughness.” Mental toughness is more related to “grit”, motivation, endurance, and perseverance. Mental toughness is a desirable characteristic, and can help the sensitive child (and all children) accept failures and criticism, and help problem solve and achieve goals.
Why sensitivity is important
As humans, we are social beings. Perceiving that social support is available is crucial. Studies have shown that simply knowing that support is available can be more powerful than actually utilizing that support. Feeling connected is what helps us survive the harsh realities of the world. This is one reason why I facilitate the Women’s Walking group. I know that feeling connected as women helps mental health. This is also the major reason I founded The MotherDaughter Connection – to help foster the connection/bond between middle school girls and their mothers at a time when they need it the most. I will be that person to my three children in the home as my parents were to me, and I will help cultivate emotional connection in my children’s friendships.
Social connections help mental health. They help combat symptoms of depression and anxiety, increase empathy and self-esteem, and even improve physical health. My goal is therefore not to help my children “toughen up” or develop “thicker skin”, but rather to foster those wonderful qualities in them that are associated with connectedness: compassion, sensitivity, and empathy. I will prepare them for reality and responsibility, providing them with a home where they feel safe and secure.
I am determined not to crush my children’s gentle and kind spirits to make them feel less emotional pain in order to hurt less. While “sensitive” children may experience more emotional pain, this is often what inspires these children to become the world’s healers and heroes. This is what inspires the healers and heroes in the world to make the world a more loving place. “Tougher” children may experience less emotional pain, but this is at the huge risk of missing out on the good stuff in life. So no, I will not help my children to have thicker skin. At the risk of them being called a “crybaby” for crying in front of other children and having and showing emotion, I will continue to foster and cultivate their sensitivity and compassion.
A parent of a sensitive boy may want to read Ted Zeff’s “The Strong and Sensitive Boy”. Dr. Zeff talks about the positive qualities of sensitive boys. They tend to be conscientious, compassionate, intuitive, gentle, be peacemakers, feel love deeply, care about the treatment of people and animals, and be able to appreciate deep spiritual experiences. Dr. Zeff also points out that unfortunately, sensitive boys are often misunderstood and bullied, and when they do not conform, they are at risk for being ostracized and humiliated.
What parents can do to support their emotionally sensitive children
Children who are emotionally sensitive are at risk for being made fun of, being misunderstood, teased, or even bullied. Here are some tips to support your child.
- Teach your son to assert himself. This includes setting boundaries. Asserting himself need not be confrontational. Teach your son that there are different ways of sticking up for himself, including passive, aggressive and assertive. Speaking passively is not effective. This includes speaking with uncertainty, speaking in soft and insecure voice, and speaking in sentences that sound like questions. Speaking aggressively is also not effective and includes speaking in a loud voice, crowding others’ personal space, and presenting with an angry mood. On the other hand, effective assertiveness involves making eye contact, speaking in a calm tone, being firm when telling others to stop, and being upbeat when asking for something or to join in on an activity. Role play possible scenarios with your son, including specific social situations that have caused difficulty for him.
- Do NOT let others make you buy into the “blaming the victim” mentality. Being sensitive is NOT a bad thing. Often when a child becomes upset over the malicious actions of another child, and the reaction is extreme, the focus then becomes the sensitive child’s “overreaction”, rather than focusing on the negative behavior of the perpetrator. The victim is accused of being “too sensitive”, and that the whole situation would not be a problem if the child were not so sensitive. Do not let others, even well-meaning others, let you buy into this mentality. The sensitive victim is NOT the problem. The problem is the negative behavior of the other child, and that negative behavior is what needs to stop. Over the course of my 15 years as a psychologist in private practice, I am continuously saddened by my child clients’ perception that there is something “wrong” with them simply because they are sensitive. They are repeatedly given the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that emotional sensitivity is wrong and undesirable. This blaming the victim mentality has got to stop. My work with these beautiful children is to help them undo this message, to embrace their sensitivity, to help make it work for them, to gravitate toward others where their sensitivity is understood and celebrated, and to incorporate coping methods (below).
- Instill confidence. This is important because your son may deal with difficult situations with assertiveness, yet your son still might be excluded or teased. Children who are bossy or downright mean may still intentionally exclude your son with the intent to hurt him. This is where it is important for your son to have confidence. Teach your son to hold his head high and walk away, and to go to a trusted friend. It may be helpful to role-play various scenarios he encounters to help him find the words and behavior to use in these situations.
- Encourage humor. Your child’s message will be better received by peers if he is able to do so with a sense of humor. This is not to say that the seriousness of any situation should be minimized or made into a joke. However, a little lightheartedness and humor after standing up for oneself can help put others at ease, helping to make others less defensive, more understanding, and more accepting.
- Help build inner strength. Praise your son’s effort rather than the outcome. This will help foster strength in your son’s sense of self. Pay attention to your own self-esteem and self-talk, and keep it positive. Our children pay attention to how we handle our own disappointments, problems, and successes. Self-esteem is important because it serves as protection when your son is insulted and/or rejected. Point out all of the positive qualities about being sensitive. Mention world leaders and healers who have shown sensitivity (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Carl Jung, Deepak Chopra, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wayne Dyer, etc.). Praise your son’s sensitivity and help him to see it as positive. You could make comments such as, “You feel deeply”, “You express yourself strongly”, and “You have very powerful emotions.” Positive affirmations are also very effective. Post them on your son’s mirror, and keep some in the car.
- Help your son gravitate toward other sensitive children. Ask your child who he feels supported by in school. Find or create opportunities for your child to be with those children outside of school. The more of a connection he feels with a child outside of school, the more likely he will be supported by that child in school.
- Avoid situations that decrease your child’s self-esteem. Some situations are not avoidable, and with proper planning and guidance, navigating those difficult situations can help build character. However, there will likely be situations where there is no positive outcome, and your child feels repeatedly humiliated or experiences decreased self-esteem. If these situations are optional, simply avoid them and help your child to seek out more positive experiences that suit him. It is not expected or healthy to have your child shine in every situation. On the other hand, humiliation is hurtful and damaging, and nothing positive comes out of it when it can simply be avoided.
- Help your child cope. The goal is not for your child to feel less, but rather to cope better. As I mentioned before, trying to feel less hurt also comes with the risk of feeling less joy. So if your child tends to cry when experiencing intense emotions, this could pose social problems, especially for boys, and especially when they get older. First, help your son to become aware of his bodily sensations and experiences that come with being upset. His heart may beat faster, may be breathing faster, face feel flushed, lips twitching, and/or sweaty palms. Help your child to recognize his individual symptoms. The more that he is in tune with his bodily signals, the quicker he can employ relaxation techniques (below).
- Relaxation (calming down) techniques. The simplest way to achieve relaxation is to do deep breathing. This involves taking slow deep breaths, counting to two during the inhale, and counting to four during the exhale. Another strategy is to use visualization and imagination, and think about a favorite memory or experience. Also, if there is a particular type of situation that is repeatedly difficult for your child, plan for the challenge and help your child come up with the words to use. It is very hard for children to do these techniques in the moment when they are upset, and it takes practice. The best way to practice is to have your child practice them on a daily basis when he is calm. The more that this is part of his regular routine, the more familiar it will be, and the better able he will be able to employ the strategy when he is upset. Mindfulness exercises have also been associated with decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Here are some suggestions for incorporating mindfulness into your child’s life, and yours too! http://drpeggydelong.com/mindfulness-exercises-for-teens-and-tweens-and-adults-too/
The world does not need more tough boys growing into tough men. While I encourage developing mental toughness, I do not believe in emotional toughness. I refuse to toughen up my three children to make them feel less pain during adolescence. Instead, as I do with the children in my practice, I cultivate their compassion and empathy, I am there to help them with difficult situations, and I help them to cope when their emotions feel intense. But most of all, I create an environment where sensitivity, compassion, and empathy are valued and celebrated. This is what the world needs. More connection, more understanding, and more love.