On most days when my sons return home from school I ask, “How was your day?”
And on most days the answer is the same: “OK.”
Even when they are clearly not.
My sons rarely offer a deeper glimpse into their emotional lives voluntarily. Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time around boys knows just how hard it is to get them to acknowledge or talk about their feelings.
It’s an almost universal belief that men aren’t as emotional as women. But just because boys and men are less adept at communicating emotions, doesn’t mean they don’t experience them.
In truth, men experience just as many emotions as women do, and as deeply. But their way of processing and responding to them is very different.
Certainly, the way boys are raised and socialized plays a role in shaping their emotional lives. But according to experts, at least 50% of the differences between how males and females experience and express emotions is rooted in our biology.
Both boys and girls have a “sensory register” in the brain, which pulls information from our five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and turns it into emotional responses.
In females, there are seven to nine centers in the brain engaged in this process.
In males, there are only two. This means that less of boys’ brains are engaged when the world is giving them emotional cues.
While women tend to recognize and understand how they are feeling rather quickly, it can take men hours, days, or longer to realize how their feelings are affecting them. Fewer emotion-processing centers makes it more difficult for them to process their emotions and make an intentional, appropriate response.
Another brain-based difference in the emotional lives of boys is in the way they translate feelings into words.
The frontal lobes of adolescent males develop later and aren’t as connected to verbal centers as female brains are. This helps explain why often boys’ initial reaction when faced with strong emotions is to react with actions instead of words.
While taking action to problem-solve can be a good thing, it can also lead boys to make rash and destructive decisions. Without allowing themselves to first “feel” their feelings and taking the time to analyze them, an action-first response can be counter-productive or even harmful.
According to Dr. Gurian, there are three key takeaways for parent, caregivers, and those who work with boys:
1) Boys aren’t programmed to respond by communicating or vocalizing their wellbeing;
2) Boys are predisposed to take action as a first response; and,
3) In the quest to help young men identify and express emotions, it’s also important to manage expectations. Sometimes it’s OK to let their answer simply be, “OK.”