Oct 31, 2009

Getting Our Boys to Talk: Teach the Language of Feelings

Why Don’t Boys Talk?

  • Boys don’t talk because they think it’s safer not to talk.
  • Boys don’t talk because they don’t want to reveal their vulnerabilities and be perceived as weak.
  • Boys don’t talk because they have not learned how to label or express their feelings in words.
  • Boys don’t talk because of their fear of being misjudged and permanently labeled.


Boys create a shield to protect themselves, to hide any appearance of having “soft” emotions. This shield takes the form of boys’ maintaining a veil of apparent competence, which makes it difficult for them to communicate freely and effectively about their fears or feelings, or even to ask for help. For boys the biggest insult is to be called a “wuss,” “fag,” or “mama’s boy.” Boys have a profound fear of failure and discomfort with intimacy that comes from their need to avoid being identified with such labels. For fear of being perceived as soft, boys reject qualities that they think will call attention to their feelings.

When parents do not teach boys the language of feelings, they are placed at a disadvantage in their ability to attach labels to experiences. By failing to ask questions that may reveal a boy’s fear, parents give their sons a non-verbal message that fear is not an acceptable feeling for a young boy to have or admit that he has. A fascinating study by Robin Fivish shows that mothers use fewer words, particularly words that describe feelings with their sons than they do with their daughters. Parents omit many feeling words while they talk to their sons, and what we don’t say can be as or more powerful than what we do say. The absence of a vocabulary describing a range of feelings makes our attempts to talk to our sons in adolescence even more difficult.

So what can parents do?

Parents must get the message across to their boys that understanding their inner lives empowers them, rather than makes them weak in order to help them to create a road map to guide their inner life. Boys need to learn the nuances of what they are feeling, for example, to be able to distinguish between anger and sadness or anger and frustration. Parents should provide their sons with the skills they need to connect with their feelings and channel their anger into productive alternatives. It is not difficult to see how boys, without these skills and vocabulary, turn to violence as a means of expressing themselves and proving their competence.

This narrow definition of masculinity places boys inside a box that limits their emotional and relational development. Healthy psychological development is typically marked by progressive acquisition and integration of new skills and qualities. In contrast, traditional male socialization, as described by psychotherapist, Terrance Real, reflects a process of disconnection marked by successive “disavowing” and loss of qualities essential to boys’ emotional and psychological well-being. This lack of emotional connection can influence boys to behave in disrespectful and antisocial ways toward their parents, teachers and peers.

If you are at all concerned, check out your observations with another adult/or a mental health professional. Don’t dismiss what you see. We need to call attention to the dangers inherent in “shrugging off” inappropriate behavior. One school administrator told us that instead of having “metal detectors” in school, they would be better off investing in “depression detectors.” An antidote for depression is understanding your emotions. This understanding has a protective value against depression.

Every family has operating principles and values that are unique to it and will affect what strategies work and which do not. We encourage you to be confident in teaching those principles and values that are specific to your culture and heritage. Even with those strategies that do work, flexibility, variety, and a sense of humor are critical to getting through to your sons during these turbulent years. Trust your instincts, and initiate and maintain emotional connections with your sons.

Where do we go from here? Strategies to Teach the Language of Feelings:

  • Label a feeling from an early age and interpret experiences from a feeling level to promote emotional intelligence. Teach the impact of behaviors and actions on others- for example, ask your son, “When you did that, how do you think I felt?”
  • Teach your boy to handle toughness and tenderness. Work to harness his energy in a way that includes his sweetness, vulnerability, loyalty and commitment, protectiveness, honor, and integrity. These are also genuine characteristics of boys. Praise them and acknowledge their acts of kindness.
  • Early on, parents need to try to teach their sons empathy, and they need to mentor them on relational skills. Initially, you do this by talking about your own feelings and theirs. Your personal stories will reach your child in a way that lecturing never can. No one listens to a sermon.
  • Teach by example. Try to resolve disputes calmly and reasonably without yelling. Talk about the reality of their lives and your own personal experiences. Share with them your successes and your failures. As our sons watch us handling our own challenging situations, they are learning how to handle theirs.
  • Share your feelings about the day, issues, and relationships. Remember regardless of what they may say, our sons still care about what we think. Discuss openly with your partner his or her feelings so children know it’s okay to express feelings out loud without feeling shame or embarrassment.
  • Remember that depression in boys may look different than what you expect. Pay attention to symptoms of male depression, such as losing interest in activities that he has previously enjoyed, increased isolation or agitation, and/or harsh self-criticism and self-medication with alcohol or drugs. If you are at all concerned, check out your observations with another adult/or mental health professional.
  • Be careful to avoid putting permanent labels on our sons because they have shared one particular comment or displayed one type of behavior. Instead, we need to give them the message that what they tell us they feel today will not forever define them.


Anyone who says these years are easy has never lived or worked with an adolescent boy. However, we believe that these years are also filled with wonder, tenderness, and opportunities for personal growth for parents. They contain experiences and moments to be treasured for those who stay involved, who stay connected.

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