Q: I just talked about this with you last week, mostly about what makes boys so different. You suggested I send you a question, so here goes. Why is it so much harder to get my sons to behave and be kind to others, and my daughter is much easier? The boys are 11 and 14, and she is 9, but she is definitely more caring and says how she feels. Both boys are more aggressive and talk back to me. When one looks upset and I ask how he’s feeling, I get “fine” or a grunt, and his brother teases him so they laugh it off together. I just don’t understand. I’m not so sure how much their father influences them but I’d like to know. So that’s my question.

A: For most boys, the risk of looking babyish, or being humiliated or shamed in front of others, in the company of a sibling, and/or especially with peers, requires suppressing feelings of sadness, hurt, or vulnerability. To “recover” from any emotional transparency, a boy needs privacy, rather than risking shame. When he finally emerges from isolation, having suffered in silence, his feelings have been internalized. As parents, we might only witness the withdrawal, without understanding the reasons or the distress signals. We can change this pattern if we respond differently to our boys, providing a safe environment in which they can stay connected to their feelings. We must also be aware of our own “trigger points” that elicit shaming reactions to them. At the heart of this is observing your son’s behavior, while maintaining an important boundary between the behavior and him. Your unconditional love and acceptance of both of your boys, regardless of their behavior, are needed for building healthy self-esteem. 

You mentioned their father’s possible influence. Some dads easily provide positive support and acceptance, while others fall short of meeting our expectations, spending much of their parenting years being reminded of their own shortcomings. We must remember their importance to our children, the valuable role they play in their upbringing and the different lens of the world they offer them. When we share that lens, by showing support, and a willingness to understand the difference, there’s room for complementary parenting.

Dads provide something quite different, while no less important. When they have space to navigate, we can learn from their life experiences, providing a better chance to share our parenting experience. Understanding how boys are being traditionally raised helps moms soften their expectations of their children’s fathers. Although we know that men and women think and behave differently, it keeps us stuck when we expect that we can and should change that. Dads are an integral part of our children’s lives. Their view of the world offers a distinct filter for our child’s feelings to be expressed, heard, and processed. 

A documentary released in 2015, “The Mask You Live In” (which you can now watch on Netflix), is a film about boys from every kind of background, describing how they suffer from our culture’s limited definition of acceptable masculinity. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly urge you to do so with your sons. You can’t help but be impacted. Considering the long-range effects of this “boy crisis,” I urge everyone to watch this film and think about how we can change the way we raise boys, given our unrealistic expectations. The pressure for boys to always be strong requires them to suppress their emotions. The fact that such a large part of life experience is about hurt, sadness, frustration, disappointment, and many other vulnerable feelings, boys miss out on developing their emotional intelligence. 

Being actively involved with your boys, whether playing games, reading together, hiking or biking, etc., helps build connection. This in turn provides a framework in which boys can eventually feel safe enough to share their feelings, their vulnerability. Be patient, listening to what they may offer. 

Q: I don’t understand some of what you’ve said about behavior is your “clue.” I punish my kids when they act up and they usually mind me after that for a while. They know I mean business. You’re right that they’re probably afraid of me as I yell at them a lot. But I would like to try to understand what you mean about their feelings causing them to act the way they do. 

A: I hope this will be a more helpful explanation. This is always a great question, given this approach might seem like a “foreign language.” There certainly isn’t only one approach, but many creative options for parenting challenges. Blaming our child, such as “you’re making me — ” or “you need to calm down” then shifts to compassion and empathy with: “My child is having a problem (instead of he is being a problem). How can I help him?” Typically, when things escalate, our expectation is that our child, not us, must regain control. 

I advocate for connective communication, which requires ongoing practice and more practice. Initially, this may seem awkward, particularly if our experience growing up was significantly different. Gaining cooperation means changing our perspective and our response. To successfully influence our child’s behavior, getting to the root of the problem is what’s needed. Her emotions are driving the behavior, which is all we see on the surface. If she’s in balance, her behavior will indicate that and we won’t feel a need to address tit. However, when your children are “acting up,” that indicates they’re emotionally out of balance — something is blocking them from being successful. By punishing them, as you mention, they may “mind” you; although without attending to the root of their behavior, the feelings will be deflected in some other way — perhaps covertly, such as with sibling fights, lying, or withdrawal. 

An example of connective communication: Your child resists getting ready for school, day care, or camp. Daily battles are frustrating and annoying, with both of you defeated before starting your day.

Connection: “We seem to have a tough time with our morning routine. I know you would like to just stay home and hang out here. I need to go to work. We both get angry and upset. Let’s think of a way we could make our mornings go better.” First hear the emotions, letting your child know you understand, then follow with problem-solving. 

Collaboration redirects the focus from him/her being the problem to including him/her in coming up with a solution. Diffusing power struggles and problem-solving together helps to increase self-esteem. You’re basically saying, “I value your opinion.” Children are much more committed to the outcome when we include them in the process. No one wants to start the day with stressful battles. 

When we trust that our children want to do well, we can then share power with them, providing opportunities for them to make some of the choices that impact them. They usually have some good ideas when we involve them in the decision-making. Try brainstorming ways to compromise, shifting a stressful situation into a calmer, more positive one, partnering for success. 

The key to connective communication is truly hearing and accepting feelings, without judgment or criticism, while also ensuring our needs aren’t compromised. Our children learn valuable lessons when we respect their opinions and encourage their participation. When our child’s behavior seems out of control, “manipulative,” it can be difficult to assume an objective perspective. Yet that perspective is what we need to understand that behavior is the clue to our child’s emotional state. Getting to the root helps us discover what’s causing the behavior. We focus on what’s not working well, rather than on our child’s strengths. Our job is to adjust the situation to encourage our child’s success, helping him navigate through challenges. Every child wants to be successful, and does well if she can. Children’s self-esteem depends on how we communicate with them, providing visual, verbal, and emotional feedback.