“For years, popular psychologists have insisted that boys and men would like to talk about their problems but are held back by fears of embarrassment or appearing weak,” says Amanda Rose, associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri.
“However, when we asked young people how talking about their problems would make them feel, boys didn’t express angst or distress about discussing problems any more than girls. Instead, boys’ responses suggest that they just don’t see talking about problems to be a particularly useful activity.”
For the new research, to be published in the journal Child Development, Rose and her colleagues conducted four different studies that included surveys and observations of nearly 2,000 children and adolescents. Girls showed positive expectations for how talking about problems would make them feel, such as expecting to feel cared for, understood and less alone.
Boys, on the other hand, expressed no more negative expectations than girls, such as expecting to feel embarrassed, worried about being teased, or bad about not taking care of the problems themselves. Instead, they reported that talking about problems would make them feel weird and like they were wasting time.
“An implication is that parents should encourage their children to adopt a middle ground when discussing problems,” Rose says.
“For boys, it would be helpful to explain that, at least for some problems, some of the time, talking about their problems is not a waste of time. Yet, parents also should realize that they may be barking up the wrong tree if they think that making boys feel safer will make them confide. Instead, helping boys see some utility in talking about problems may be more effective.
“On the other hand, many girls are at risk for excessive problem talk, which is linked with depression and anxiety, so girls should know that talking about problems isn’t the only way to cope.”
The findings may play into future romantic relationships, as many relationships involve a pursuit-withdraw cycle in which one partner (usually the woman) pursues talking about problems while the other (usually the man) withdraws.
“Women may really push their partners to share pent-up worries and concerns because they hold expectations that talking makes people feel better. But their partners may just not be interested and expect that other coping mechanisms will make them feel better, Rose says.
“Men may be more likely to think talking about problems will make the problems feel bigger, and engaging in different activities will take their minds off of the problem. Men may just not be coming from the same place as their partners.”
The study was funded by the National Institute for Mental Health.