November (or as some say, Movember) raises awareness for men’s health, and specifically, men’s mental health. In celebration of this important cause, we’re going to talk a bit about fostering emotional intelligence with young boys! Men experience mental health issues just as much as women; in fact, six million men experience depression annually and men are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than women. We have made great strides in raising mental health awareness in recent years, however, there is still immense stigma and unrealistic expectations, stereotypes, and societal stress that stop men from getting the help they need and support they need.
We want to encourage young boys (and girls and non-binary children) to have strong emotional literacy, know it’s okay to cry, and okay to ask for help. That said, while we are talking about men’s mental health today, the advice we’ll give today is good for girls, boys, and non-binary people! All children are healthier and happier when they have strong emotional resources and are able to tune into all of the varied and intricate parts of themselves.
So where do you begin? First, model and teach an emotional vocabulary. Babies are not born with words for their feelings or an understanding of what they are experiencing; this is something they learn from us. So from the beginning, practice putting words to their experiences - yes, even if they are not speaking yet. Something as simple as, “You seem sad!” or “This is disappointing; it’s okay to cry,” can go a long way. Talk about your own feelings as a way to model the wide range of emotions humans experience and show ways to process them. If you cry at a sentimental part of a movie you’re watching together, try saying, “I’m crying because this part made me feel sad/happy/remember what it feels like to be a kid.” Answer questions they might have. These interactions give your children permission and an idea of how to express and process emotions in a healthy way.
Another great way to develop emotional literacy is to purposefully choose books and stories that model emotional expression and management. There are some amazing books that talk about each different emotion, and as you read them, you can ask questions about your child’s experiences with those feelings! We like B is for Breathing, The Boy with the Big Feelings, and The Feeling Flower. A quick google will show a variety of great resources for all different emotions, depending on what you want to help your child with.
One of the best things you can do is to commit to supporting your child through their feelings and helping them learn coping skills. Not only do we want children to understand their emotions, but also how to deal with them in a healthy way. Remember, even the big, hard emotions are good and natural. It’s what we do and how we process these emotions that matter! Give your child room to explore his strengths and weaknesses in a safe environment, and try to not judge or shame him for having feelings. Knowing how to calm down, self soothe, or sit through hard feelings is a life-long skill and not something we are born with!
You can teach specific emotional management skills throughout your child’s life. For example, when having a tantrum, encourage your child to take deep breaths and take these breaths with them. Or, if they aren’t ready for that yet and are too dysregulated, try to model calmness and validate their experience: “I can see you are really mad. You want to play with that toy, but it’s not your turn, and that’s frustrating. We’re going to wait until the timer dings to trade.” Remember: though no one enjoys a tantrum, their experience is absolutely normal. When you offer your child validation, empathy, and skills, you are providing them a life-long gift! Two of our favorite visuals for deep breathing are bubble breaths, where you breathe in through your nose and blow out through your mouth as if you were blowing bubbles. Another is having your child pretend to blow out slowly as if they were blowing up a balloon - this helps them extend their breath even further, regulating their parasympathetic nervous system and helping them be able to use their more rational brain and get out of their emotional state!
Finally, make emotional intelligence an on-going conversation and goal in your home. Every age offers new opportunities to talk about feelings. Plus, as children grow, they will face more complex challenges and bigger feelings. As we often say, bigger kids, bigger problems! So remember that emotional conversations and skill-building are a daily practice. Talk about feelings when your children are young, incorporate problem solving when conflict arises, model empathy, share your own emotional process when appropriate, and remember: every small thing adds up! Your power as a parent is incredible, and you are doing a great job. If you need help, reach out! We’re always here.