Can boys share their feelings with one another? Is it okay for them to say that they love each other? There are a wide range of expectations that boys pick up around how they should act, and how they should act with others. Often, these expectations include not expressing emotion, unless it involves anger or humor, or devaluing reliance on others.
Boys can’t always just be angry, though, and not everything can be a joke. In fact, there are a whole host of negative health outcomes associated with interpersonal isolation and internalization of emotions (or bottling them up inside).
So what options do they have when their perceived expectations of how they should act run dry? In a recent article in the Washington Post, school counselor Phyllis L. Fagell laid out nine steps that adults can take to help model healthier emotional and social connections for their younger compatriots. These steps were originally written with parents in mind, but seven steps have been adapted here to fit the mentoring context.
Draw parallels to sports
For many boys, sports are one of the few venues in their lives where moments of interpersonal support and closeness are accepted. Concepts of teamwork are often key to success, and they can express empathy via insight gained through their own personal achievements or disappointments. This gives them an understanding of what their friends on the team may be feeling after a particularly rough game or play.
These lessons, learned on the field, can be applied outside the lines as well. As Aziz Abdur-Ra’oof, former NFL player, is quoted as saying in the WaPo article, “You might say, “Jon, you know how you didn’t like James when you first played basketball together, but then you realized he was a supportive teammate? When you approach people at school, think about that . . . and how it takes time to get to know someone.”
Nurture their curiosity
Find opportunities to help boys reflect on the people around them that they care about. What do they like about them? What don’t they know but would like to know? Curiosity can be just as important in a friendship as empathy.
Acknowledge the moments when boys cry
If you are in a mentoring relationship where your mentee is able to cry in front of you, whether it is regarding a tough loss in their sport or a friend said something hurtful, being there for them and willing to listen to what they have to say can be a big first step in getting boys to talk about the underlying emotions.
Help them recognize their friends’ boundaries
It can seem like boys don’t interact with each other if they aren’t insulting each other or swapping friendly insults. This, though they may describe it as normal, can be an issue when someone pushes the envelope a little too far. Use these moments to explain that, if a friend seems to be upset or stops engaging, it may be time to cool it on the jokes.
Give them an emotional vocabulary
By expanding an emotional vocabulary, you are helping your mentee to better understand his feelings during particular events or exchanges. A good friend lets them borrow one of their games? That’s a demonstration of trust that he’ll take care of it and bring it back. Helping your mentee put names to these experiences can go a long way in helping them make sense of their own emotions and talk about them with others.
Teach them to repair relationship rifts
This one can be difficult, in that it may seem easier to just walk away from a difficult situation in a friendship. If your mentee is having friend troubles, talk to them about a time you had a difficult period with a close friend of yours. How did you resolve it and rebuild your relationship? You can help to set the blueprint for your mentee to follow.
Challenge the definition of a ‘real man’
Talk to your mentee about what they think it takes to “be a man.” Sometimes being perceived can be seen as risking their safety. What can you do to provide a space where they can open up and be themselves in a way they may not be able to elsewhere?
This may also require that you think about your understanding of what it means to be a man. If you are a male mentor, do you express a range of emotions with your mentee? Moments of disappointment or success?
Adolescence and the teen years can be challenging and confusing for what seems like a million different reasons. By helping your male mentee become more comfortable with his emotions and his connections to those around him, you can help to give him the tools he may need to experience healthy and happy friendships and relationships as he grows older.