First a disclaimer. There are some men and boys who are not only able to talk freely about their emotions but also enjoy doing it. We don’t want to generally portray them as being totally different from women in the ways they do their processing. There are some men who really enjoy support groups and talking face to face with others about their situations. We need to honor these men just as we honor others that might have a different path. Our job is to see how the men and boys we love are unique. Does he enjoy to interact and discuss emotions face to face? Does he emote freely? If so, then we have found his safe place and need to be with him in a manner that fits his nature. We talk about it. This is a win. Most men who enter therapy are able to talk about their emotions just fine. But they tend to have different ways to get there, even on a verbal level. Many men and boys, and some women and girls find this interactive mode more difficult. It is this population that this article seeks to address. These are the folks that have been misunderstood for too long. They have ways of processing that are significantly different from the default and it is our job to see if we can determine just where they do feel safe and offer them that safety when they need it. What we need to do is be as conscious and aware as we can.
It is also worth noting that there are very few people in our culture who are interested in listening to men’s emotional pain. Very few. The men described above who are more interested to process things verbally will often have to find and pay a therapist to hear them out. Even in therapy men’s pain faces discrimination with many therapists showing a bias towards listening to women’s complaints and emotions far more often then doing the same for men. Men are simply not accustomed to others being sincerely interested in their emotional pain and will often assume that no one wants to hear it. This is often difficult for women to understand since the people in her world have likely been more open to her emotions and worries. With this in mind it calls us to understand that a part of the problem is our own lack of concern and our lack of practice in hearing a man’s, and boy’s emotional situation. Think about yourself. When was the last time you actively listened to the emotions of a man you love, asked open ended questions and just listened in response without judgement?
Let’s get to the topic at hand. How do we find a person’s safety? Let’s tell a story to get us started.
When my children were young I had the opportunity to watch very carefully the ways they found safety and then told their story.
When my daughter was little she would come to me and say “Daddy, I need special time.” I knew just what that meant. She needed both a safe place and my attention. We would find two chairs that would face each other so we were face to face and she would proceed to tell me her stories. “Oh Daddy, Suzy said I was fat.” I would simply say, “Oh Julia” in a supportive tone. Then she would switch to another dilemma. “Daddy, Jill said she would never, ever, play with me again.” Again, I would offer her a supportive “Ah Julia.” After about 5 or 6 “Ah Julia’s” she would say, “Thanks Dad” and run out the door to play some more. What was Julia doing? She was setting up a way to feel safe, to get my attention and then to tell her story as I listened. Very wise for a youngster and very effective. She knew how to get a safe place and then process her story.
Did my son do that? Absolutely not. Luke had a very different strategy.
When Luke would come to me and say “I want to wrestle” I knew that meant the same thing as Julia saying “Daddy, I need special time.” I would tell Luke that he better be ready for me. He was just a little guy of maybe 6 or so and we would both posture and huff and puff and then the wrestling would commence. He would have me down and then I would have him down and back and forth it would go. At an unexpected moment he would raise his head up and say something like, “Jimmy got beat up today at school.” I’d say “Was it bad?” And he would respond that it was that Jimmy had blood on his shirt. Then back to the wrestling as fast as we had stopped we were back at it again. Then a moment later Luke raised his head and said “I miss Grandaddy.” My father had just died a few months back and I would respond that I missed him too. Then as fast as we stopped we were back to wrestling.
Can you see what Luke was doing? He was telling his story, a very intimate and sad story, in his own way and it made it that much easier for him to tell it as we were wrestling. It’s important to note that there were many wrestling matches where he never opened up about something of great import. It wasn’t like wrestling was a feeling machine. No, it was just a time when it was easier for him to tell his story, a story that might be difficult to tell under other circumstances. By my wrestling with Luke I was giving him that safety. He could then choose to use it or not. It was up to him.
So our job is to keep our eyes open and see where our children or our loved ones find safety, a safety that allows them to open up and tell their story.
Where are these safe places for boys? Let’s have a look at a couple of them.
One example of a possible safe place is when young boys go to bed. When a parent is present to tuck him in it’s as if you are on the same team. He has the covers pulled up and feels all tucked in and likely feels safe. It is this moment that sometimes boys will tell you what is on their mind. Things are quiet, no one else is around, they have a sense of safety and all of these things create a safe place for him. He may not say a thing but then again he might. As parents we want to be there at times like this and be ready and open if he is interested in bringing up issues or problems that he is facing that he might usually not talk about. Be very aware of the possibility that he may bring things up in a very indirect manner. He may not start by talking about himself, he may start by talking about a friend who has problems. Listen closely and ask open ended questions.
A time that is similar to this is when boys come home from school. If you meet them as they come in the door and have a snack ready you are providing a safe place. I have seen this repeatedly. When boys first hit the door as they come home they will tell you everything! But you must be there the moment they come in. Ten minutes later and it won’t work. Most parents don’t have that luxury but if you can swing it I think you will find a time where he feels safe and will be more willing to tell you the stories of the day. Another thing to keep in mind is that boys will rarely want to tell the same story twice. If he opens up to dad when he comes home from school he may not want to repeat the same stories again. Dad will likely have to relay the stories directly to mom.
Yet another potential safe place for young boys is riding in the car. This one is much more tricky since there are a number of boys who find the car to be less then a safe place. But there are many boys who will tell you many things when just the two of you are riding in the car together. It’s a place they may feel safe. Think of your own son and whether this may or may not be the case with him.
We can expand our examples a bit by looking at where boys feel safe in an active mode. Often boys will feel safe doing something together like playing a game of catch with a football or throwing the frisbee. The focus of the event is the frisbee or the football. Just toss it back and forth and if a conversation pops up you take his lead. If not, then just enjoy the game of catch and the opportunity to do something together. I am sure that your list is getting longer with various activities like taking a walk, a back rub, doing yard work together, or just about any other shoulder to shoulder activity. Any of these can be a safe place for a young boy.
One more place that needs to be mentioned is video games. Boys generally love to be playing and striving to get to the next level. The world disappears and they become immersed in a new world. All too often his love for gaming can become a family struggle with the basic theme being that he is neglecting his school work and just about every other thing in his life. So how can this be leveraged as a safe place? In an interesting way. Ask him to teach you his game. I have recommended this tactic to many parents and even moreso to grandparents. They find that the boy is more then willing to help them learn the game and as he teaches it gives him the experience of being the expert, of being the one who knows, the one who is listened to and asked for advice, the one who is in charge. This is often a new role for the boys and they love it. Think hierarchy. He is now on top and you are on the bottom. His skills are valued and sought after. When boys feel they are at the top of the hierarchy they are much more likely to open up about what might be bothering them. Even if they don’t open up the experience for boys to be on top and have their opinion valued is a huge plus in his development
Another idea for younger boys is to build a fort. Take the couch cushions and prop them up to make an enclosed space. Get inside the fort with him. It is very likely he will like this experience but it does more then just having him like it. It gives him a space with you where he feels very safe and contained. Bring a little snack into the fort. You might even get him to tell you a little story about your fort and what you and he are doing there. Is he protecting you? Is he the Commander of the fort? Get him talking about his story and through his story you will learn all about what he is thinking and feeling. Listen carefully.
The basic idea is to avoid the face to face talking, but instead go out and play catch, shoot baskets, take a walk, go fishing, anything that he enjoys doing that is active, moving, and shoulder to shoulder. Make the focus be the activity and the talking about things a side issue. As you are shoulder to shoulder ask questions that are indirect and not specifically about feelings. In other words, don’t just say, “How are you feeling about…” That sort of question might work well for a woman or a feminine type but it will tend to shut down the masculine. Much better to ask about what he is DOING. Keep in mind that even the best question may not open things up for discussion and keep in mind that the purpose of your activity is to be together shoulder to shoulder. Talking about things would be a bonus.
By creating spaces where boys feel safe and boys feel valued you are building up the probability of his opening up about what might be bothering him. And if he doesn’t open up you have had some fun in the process and had an experience that you both will likely remember.
Tom Golden, LCSW has written two books on the way men heal and has co-authored a third. Tom’s work has been featured in CBS Evening News, CNN, ESPN, The NFL Channel and many others. His latest book “The Way Men Heal” is available now at amazon as a kindle book. He offers online consults for women seeking to get closer to the men they love. [email protected]