What can we do to help our sons?
- Establish a safe environment to talk about the "boy code" as it comes up: Let your son know that all of his feelings are natural and that you do not expect him to tough it out. If he is looking sad, note it. Ask him if he is feeling depressed and let him know you are available.
- Stay connected: Actively work to set the stage for contact that can lead to discussions. He may not choose to immediately open up to you, but he may open up when you are doing an activity together. Make weekly dates with your son to have lunch together, see a movie, attend a sports activity or some other event of his interest. I found that my teenage son loved to be tucked in each night, although it took the form of massaging his back after football practice and sports injuries. It was during this time that he gradually opened up and talked to me about his day, his fears and things that were not going well for him.
- Go beneath the surface: Try to anticipate periods of transition or events that could be stressful to your son, even though he says "I'm fine, no big deal." Being rejected by a girl he asks out, failing to make the baseball team, being ridiculed for his sensitivity or drifting apart from a friend should bring some down feelings. Let him know you expect him to have failures as well as triumphs, and share your experiences of disappointments as well as successes. This will help him feel less alone with defeat and less likely to harbor feelings of shame because of it.
- Reward him for showing empathy to others as well as being able to express his vulnerable feelings when they arise: You might say, "I am proud of your ability to be a good friend," or "I am glad you can cry about that, it shows you care."
- Affirm the kind of boy that your son is, outside of gender stereotypes: Let him know that sensitivity, creativity and avenues of pursuit -- such as cooking and playing house -- are just as valuable expressions of himself as is the accepted rough housing or action play. In fact, it is worth pointing out that such homemaking skills are essential to a boy's eventual independence when he does leave home to live on his own.
- Do not confuse action with violence: A word of warning about seeing your son's natural aggressiveness through a distorted lens of fear, particularly in light of the recent school violence. Help your son establish healthy limits and avoid self-destructive risk taking, but assist him in finding healthy and constructive avenues for letting off steam -- physically, too. Karate, sports and punching bags can help him release pent up energy while respecting and caring for others.