How To Support Your Son’s Emotions

Support you son’s emotions by attending to his non-verbal cues, helping him put words to what he’s feeling, validating his emotions, and offering practical support.

why boys don’t talk about their feelings  

In my work as a counsellor parents often tell me they are worried about their son because he won’t open up. They can see that he’s struggling but he won’t talk about it. For more on getting your son to talk read my article How to Get Your Son to Open Up. It covers why boys often have a harder time expressing themselves and tips to make it easier for them. This article focuses on how to create an environment where your son feels safe to express how he is feeling.

This can be a challenging task because boys brains are not wired to express emotions verbally as well as girls, and they have also likely had experiences of being shamed by others when they do show emotions. Adolescence is a time where boys are experimenting with who they are and they are highly sensitive to judgment and criticism. For boys especially if they show any vulnerability or emotion they will likely be teased relentlessly by their male peers. Boys are often sensitive and have many emotions, but by high school they learn to keep them inside to protect themselves from being hurt. 

HOW DO i get him TO express emotions?

To help your son express his emotions you must learn to be an emotion coach. Emotion coaching involves helping your son to label his inner experiences with words and then validating his emotions. Validation is a skill whereby you convey to your son that you understand what he’s going through and that his emotions make sense to you. This skills is the foundation of emotion-focused family therapy a method that helps families to connect and support each other’s emotions. If you validate your sons emotions he will feel safe to express even more of what he’s experiencing inside.

quanity time leads to quality time

Before you can become an emotion coach for your son you need to spend time with him so that you will have opportunities to notice when he’s experiencing emotions and then offer support. If you only talk to him for a few minutes after school everyday he won’t feel comfortable enough with you to even begin to express emotion. Check out my article on How to Connect With Your Son for some idea’s. I encourage parents I work with to try and spend 10 minutes a day and 1 hour a week focused on trying to connect with their son through shared activities. Once you’ve done this you can move on to the next step of attending.

ATTEND to his non-verbal cues

While spending time with your son pay attention to changes in their body language and behaviour as clues that to what he might be feeling. Look at what they’re doing, facial expressions, and changes in their demeanour. Irritability and rudeness might be a sign that underneath they’re experiencing some other emotions like sadness, anxiety, or shame. You know your son better than most and will probably already have a pretty good idea if something is off with them.

LABEL his emotions

“Labelling” means to put words to what you think he might be experiencing. Boys often have a hard time explaining their emotional experience so if you ask them “How are you feeling?” you’ll probably get a shrug or “I don’t know”. Instead offer a guess “I’ve noticed you’re spending a lot of time in your room lately, it seems like you might be feeling sad?”. He may disagree, this is fine, keep guessing until you get it right. You can use an actual list of emotions and get him to point at what he’s feeling. Reflect what he says back to him to make sure you’ve got it right. Once your certain you understand where he’s at emotionally you can move on to the next step: validation.

VALIDATE His Emotions

Validation is communicating to the other person that the emotions they are feeling are normal and make sense to you in their situation. You can do this by saying “It makes sense to me that you feel that way because ______”, or “I don’t blame yourself for feeling that way because ______”. This can be exceptionally challenging for parents because often children’s emotions create an emotional response in the parents which then makes it hard for them to validate the emotion. For example if your son says “I feel like no-one cares about me” (something many depressed people say) it can feel like a slap in the face to a parent who cares so deeply for and wants the best for their child. Remember their feelings aren’t meant to be an insult to you, they just are.

Validating Is Hard for Parents

I remember one mother I was working with who found out her son texted a friend saying he hated living at home. She was personally offended and took his phone away for a week which caused damage to their relationship. I understand why she did it, she was trying her best and felt disrespected by her son’s careless words. But we don’t control how we feel. We can control what we do in response to those feelings (our words) but the underlying emotion just is. You may not like their emotion, but by accepting it you convey to him that all emotions are acceptable.

what VALIDATION IS NOT

Validation is not agreeing with his perception of his situation. Using the above example you could say “It makes sense that you don’t like living here because we’ve been having a lot of conflict lately, I don’t like it either”. It doesn’t mean that you agree that your home is a bad place to live, it means that you understand the reason they are feeling that way in the moment.

Validation is not agreeing with behaviour. If you set a limit with your son and he yells at you you can still validate his emotion without validating his bad behaviour of yelling. You can even validate their emotions from when you have to set limits “I get that you’re mad right now because you want to see your friends and I grounded you, but it’s not going to change your situation”. Once somebody feels heard and validate they are more likely to be open to help from others, which is the next step.

OFFER PRACTICAL SUPPORT 

Once you have identified and validates his emotions you can offer practical support. You’ll know he feels validated because his emotional intensity will probably decrease and he will be calmer. At this time you can ask him “How can I help?”. He may not want practical help but offering it will show you that you are there to help him solve problems as well. If there is an issue that needs to be dealt with but they’re emotionally exhausted try and schedule a time to discuss it later, so you can help them be more effective in dealing with the problems that may have led to their emotions.

COMMON ERRORS

In my work with parents these are the common errors I see when parents are trying to validate.

Wrong timing 

If your son is misbehaving address the behaviour before validating. You can’t set validate his emotions if he’s actively doing something that he’s not supposed to. You will be too distracted and he won’t be open to what you’re saying. Set a boundary, and then if he gets mad give him an hour or two to cool off. Then approach him and see if you can validate some of his emotions.

Skipping labelling and straight to validation 

It’s easy to assume how your kids is feeling and try to validate right away but this can backfire. If you guess wrong they will automatically feel invalidated and more upset. Even if it seems obvious how they’re feeling always make a guess first before validating the emotion.

Skipping validation and going straight to problem-solving 

It’s normal for parents to want to make their kid feel better by fixing it. This is a common trap husbands also fall into when comforting their wives. Even though I know this I still sometimes find myself trying to problem-solve for my wife when I know it’s the last thing she wants. People don’t want help if they don’t feel understood first.

Judging their emotions 

The most common reason parents judge their children’s emotions is because it brings up negative emotions in themselves. If your kids says they feel like no-one cares, that is an affront to the parents sense of competence. How can you feel that way after all I’ve done for you? But when kids (or adults) feel judged they shut down. Remove any hint of judgmental tone or body language or your efforts at validation will be doomed to failure.

Becoming Defensive 

If you feel that your child is judging you as a parent you may become defensive. While this is normal human behaviour it will make it impossible to validate them. When we become defensive we tend to attack others which is the opposite of validating them. If you feel yourself getting defensive try and understand why and address it before continuing to validate your son.

The essence of validation is taking a Non-judgmental stance

Validating is a difficult skill to master. There are multiple steps to do it well, but the most important core of it is being non-judgmental. As a counsellor I know that if my client feels judged by me in the slightest they won’t be open and honest about their experiences. If they’re not open and honest I can’t do my job. It’s the same for parents. If kids feel judged by their parents they won’t feel safe to open up. And if they won’t open up the parent has no opportunity to support them emotionally, even if they desperately want to.

Watch your words, tone, and body language closely and remove any hint of judgment. You can still disagree. You can still punish them when appropriate. But never judge their emotions or their choices. If you can do that you’ll create an environment of safety and have the opportunity to support their underlying emotions, and deepen your relationship in the process.

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