His little arms wrap around my neck and he tells me he loves me. We tell each other that it is okay to have big feelings. We are the pair in the family that can feel happiness at a ten and anger at a ten. That day, I had been at a ten in anger and screamed at his father in front of him. I was taking the quiet moment in the evening to narrate what had happened that day. As he walked away to get into his bed, I was grateful. He is six years old and has learned to accept his sensitivity and the lessons his emotions give him. At that moment I wondered, is that good or am I setting my son up for failure? What I know as a therapist is that boys and men are not allowed by our society to feel big. Actually, the only feelings they are allowed to feel big are anger, guilt, lust, and sometimes love. Love with measure so as not to be accused of being “whipped.” If I continue parenting my son to accept and honor his emotional states, he will reach a point in his social group where he will feel different. So why do I parent him this way?
The first and most important reason is due to what I know and understand about neurology. Our brain develops bottom to top, right to left. Each of these areas has different tasks and objectives and for us to be able to use our brain to its full capacity it all has to integrate and work together. Dr. Dan Siegel calls this Mindsight. If I ask my son to follow the norms of our society and neglect or ignore the information his feelings are giving him then I am handicapping an aspect of his neurology. He needs to be able to feel, tolerate, and recuperate from an emotion to achieve emotional intelligence. Opting out or parenting away sadness so he can “be a man” only causes him to grow into a man that cannot feel, tolerate or recuperate from sadness, thus removing an aspect of his neurology that is needed for his brain to be fully integrated. I would point out that some of what we see in the headlines is a direct effect of asking a young boy to “be a man” and the injury to the full integration of their neurology.
Most infant mental health experts know that infants are born with a particular temperament. Temperament is the way we understand and approach the world and we are born this way. The nurses in the maternity ward are usually pretty adept at pinpointing if a baby is easy, slow to warm, or difficult (all labels of temperament). My son’s temperament is easy, however his emotional response is high intensity, meaning that he has intense positive and negative reactions to his emotional state, as well as high sensitivity, which makes him sensitive to physical stimuli of sounds, taste, and other aspects of his senses (click here to find your child’s temperament). If I ask him to not feel big to conform to the norms of the society around him then I ask him not to be the person he was born to be.
Finally, I know that feelings are not fact. I did not make this phrase up and I’m uncertain who said it first, but it is so very true. My son’s feelings and his expression of them do not make or break him. My task as his mother is to help him choose the actions he will take once he feels disappointment with high intensity. He does pretty well most days and it has been a pretty difficult road for us as a family to get here. The first time I found society’s rule about how boys shouldn’t be sensitive was from my son’s kindergarten teacher. She approached me surprised as she stated that my son had told her he was a sensitive person and she should not ask him not to cry. She told me this story with concern and a bit of judgment. But in that moment I was proud and I tend to hold that moment as proof that he may just be okay in the future when a friend calls him out on his sensitivity. I am still unsure how it will all work out. Society and cultural norms are pretty powerful and can become part of our psyche. For now, I will continue to accept my sensitive son. My greatest wish is that all boys would be allowed to feel the full gamut of emotions and that we as a society stop asking them to only be strong. I am certain it would change many aspects of what is violent, incomprehensible and disturbing in our culture today. We were designed to feel all of our emotions, both men and women. Let’s stop negating them.
Originally posted on the Good Men Project