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How Telling Our Sons to ‘Be a Man’ Can Affect Their Mental Health

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“Be a man!”

“Man up!”

We’ve all heard these expressions used (usually when a guy is dealing with something difficult), and I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been a fan. Somehow, it always seems to imply that boys and young men should be strong, stoic and fearless — don’t share their feelings, don’t have feelings, certainly don’t talk about their feelings and quickly get over whatever situation has them down. You never hear someone say “be a woman” — I’m not even sure what that would imply — so why do we implore our sons to be to “men” when they are struggling or dealing with something difficult?

We’ve all seen men who have never been allowed to express their feelings and consequently don’t know how — it’s not pretty. When you stuff everything down and pretend it means nothing, it will always come back up… and then it means everything. It comes out in unhealthy ways because they’ve not been taught how to work through deep feelings or how to express their sadness, anger, frustration and so on in healthy ways.

I’m the only female in a house of males. They’ve seen all range of emotions expressed – I feel deeply and don’t hide my feelings. That might be expected, but they’ve also seen the same from their dad. My husband didn’t have the benefit of learning how to express his emotions in a healthy way from his father – far from it. His father had a long, simmering fuse and could blow at any moment. Growing up, my husband was always walking on eggshells or wondering if he was going to set off an explosion with the smallest infraction. He was expected to be “seen but not heard.” He was constantly on “red alert” in his own house and was determined that it would be different for his kids.

I’ve seen him be silly — something that wasn’t allowed in his childhood home.

I’ve seen him be so ridiculous that our boys were bent over laughing. As they got older, I’ve watched him coax them into talking about something that was troubling them. I’ve seen tenderness so kind between father and son that it made my heart ache. I’ve seen him cry – so have his sons – and no one was embarrassed or made apologies. I only saw my own father cry twice that I can remember – he was a military man and the son of a judge. He was brought up in a strict household where he was told to “be a man” very early on and often. My dad was very entertaining – an epic storyteller who would laugh loudly and unapologetically. It was infectious. This man who easily showed his positive feelings hardly ever showed his sadness, his disappointment or his tears. I didn’t find out until near the end of his life that he struggled with the exact same kind of anxiety I’ve dealt with. Knowing that made us closer — I only wish I’d known sooner.

We associate tears with weakness and expressions of struggle as something to look away from. How are our sons supposed to deal with the ups and downs of life if they haven’t seen it modeled for them? How are they supposed to know it’s OK to be sad if they’ve only seen their fathers cry at funerals? If they only associate deep feelings with their moms, then we’ve somehow feminized the expression of feelings.

We should let boys and young men be just that, and then when they are fully grown, they can “be a man.” “Being a man” should imply kindness, tenderness, expressiveness, silliness, humor, happiness, sadness, openness, being upset, anger, frustration, worry, disappointment, feeling annoyed, generosity, being caring, compassion and so on. It should imply “be human,” and all the emotions that come with trying to live your life.

College is a time for our children to learn and practice independence — they need to leave our homes armed with the capacity to handle whatever life throws at them, especially since we won’t be right there to pick up the pieces and put them back together. For them to be self-sufficient, they need to be able to process and deal with any situation — work through it and keep going. If they don’t know how to express how they feel, they may become isolated and feel alone, leading to depression. Mental health issues tend to be more prevalent in high school and college-age kids — they need strong coping mechanisms long before they leave the comfort of our homes.

When we stifle our children’s feelings, they will find ways to express them in inappropriate ways — or they will swallow them whole and they will eat away at them from the inside. We’ve all seen people “eating their feelings” or drinking in excess to self-medicate until they are numb. Our sons — just like our daughters — have struggles, heartbreaks, disappointments, losses and the men in their lives need to show them it’s OK to feel. It’s OK to express those feelings.  In fact, it’s not only OK, but it’s also necessary. They must be able to process what they are feeling so they can move on from it.

The roles of mothers and fathers used to be very much defined — how wonderful that we’ve evolved and we pretty much share everything. We all do what needs to be done and don’t worry about whose “job” it is. Nothing makes me happier than to see my husband hug his sons, hear them tell each other “I love you,” see them comfort one another, encourage one another, laugh, talk, tell stories and share all the ups and downs of life together. And reuniting after they’ve been away at college makes these times even sweeter!

They may do it differently than I would; “that really sucks” will never be my way of saying “I’m so sorry this is happening to you” but it accomplishes the same thing — comfort, compassion, support.  How sad it would be if I was the only one they could come to when they’re feeling down — if they thought their dad wouldn’t understand or was going to tell them to “man up.”

This parenting thing; we need to all be “in it together.” We need to encourage our husbands, our dads, our sons, all the men in our lives, to talk openly about what is going on in their lives — and not just the accomplishments, the wins and the happy parts. You may have to be subtle at first — it’s hard to change a learned behavior — but the benefits are worth the effort! Let’s retire “be a man” and “man up” as something we said when we didn’t know any better. Here’s to all the fearless men who show up and aren’t afraid to express themselves fully — we need more of you and so do your sons.

A version of this article was originally published on  

Pixabay photo via ambermb

Originally published: March 20, 2019
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