I’ve been feeling so crushed by the devastation in the world right now that it’s taken me weeks to write this short piece and share it with you.
It was so heart-wrenching to read about another mass shooting. This time in Las Vegas. All the innocent lives lost. All the trauma caused. Again it’s a man who appears to have little connection with others, and who no one seems to really know. Someone who wasn’t visible. Who walked through life feeling, perhaps, unnoticed.
These shootings are devastating to us all. And while none of us knows how to prevent them, what we can do is start with our young boys and help them connect with us. And we can reach for them and allow them to show themselves, so they don’t feel invisible.
It’s bewildering to me that after every shooting, each one describing a boy or man who struggles to feel connected to others, we don’t connect the dots. No, not every lonely man turns violent. But we generally don’t hear about gregarious guys killing. Without delving into statistics, I think it’s fair to say that the isolation these men feel must fuel their actions, even if they’re not the sole cause.
Too many of our boys are keeping to themselves, holding in their hurts and struggles until they can’t hold them in any longer. At some point they explode.
We all do. But in 2017 we still have a MUCH higher tolerance for listening to our girls sadness, frustrations and disappointments. With boys we still tend to do anything in our power to shut those feelings down. “Man up!” “Quit crying like a girl!” “Pick yourself up!”
So, what are we going to do about it?
Here are 9 things we can do to help our boys stay emotionally connected to others, staving off those feelings of isolation that lead to hopelessness, unfounded fears, and in some cases, aggression.
1. Trade in time-outs for time-ins.
While our intention is almost always to teach our son a lesson about whatever behavior got him in trouble in the first place, isolating him this way often makes him feel like something is wrong with him. When he internalizes that feeling of “I’m not okay,” it becomes even more difficult for him to change his behaviors. And he feels alone in his struggle. When our boy’s behavior goes awry, it’s secret code for, “Come close and help me!” When we stay close when things are tough, our boy learns that we’re on the same team.
2. Spend one-on-one time together.
So much of the time with our kids is hurried or distracted. Spending even 5 minutes a day with your little guy will give you a window into his world, and him the feeling that you care to know. Set a timer and do whatever HE wants to do. You’re now the follower. He will feel seen.
3. Welcome roughhousing.
Physical play encourages laughter and brings us closer to one another. Whether it’s letting your little ones toss pillows at one another in fun (while you stay close to keep everyone safe), or jumping into the play yourself, the touch and laughter will build trust and connection.
4. Set limits lovingly (no shame).
Yes. It’s possible! Our boys will push the envelope from time to time (or much of the time), and it helps them feel safe when we are there to help things go well. Limits are not punishment. Instead of “How many times have I told you not to play soccer in the house!” How about “No soccer in the house, sweet boy. Let’s take the ball outside.” And then you take the ball outside. Your making his action stop will show him that when he loses control, you’re ready to keep everyone safe.
5. Show your love, even when you’re angry or upset with your boy.
We want our message to be, “Your behavior is not okay, but you are still a good person.” Try saying, “I love you, but I won’t let you hit the dog.” Your voice is firm, but loving. Again, you are committed to keeping your boy’s world safe until he can do it on his own. But you’re not confusing his poor behavior with his worth. So he won’t either.
6. Believe your boy when he says he’s scared.
Instead of convincing him there’s nothing to be scared of, or shaming him for being weak, acknowledge his fear with a hug or a loving look. Say, “I’ll keep you safe, sweet boy.” This teaches him that it’s ok to feel all kinds of feelings.
7. Listen to your boy’s feelings.
Even the ones that worry you or make you cringe. When feelings are strong, there is no “teachable moment.” Save the talking for after everyone’s calmed down. Instead, stay close and just listen. This will allow him to unload his backpack of upset and regain his ability to think well. He will sense the healing power of sharing his feelings with someone loving by his side.
8. Stay connected yourself.
It’s difficult to teach our boys the importance of connection and community when we are holed up in our house or office for days on end. Remember that you, too, need connection to thrive.
9. Get your boy professional help, if he needs it.
Trust your gut. Neither you nor your boy needs to slodge through alone. There is no shame in seeking mental health care. In fact, normalizing reaching out for help when we need it is just what our boys need us to do.
As we practice these tactics, we’re not only helping our boy build his emotional intelligence. We’re also working towards world peace. And on top of that, taking action in this way helps us move beyond our feelings of helplessness that might settle in as the heartbreaking headlines roll on.
We are human. We need each other. First to survive. And then to thrive.
Let’s work together to be sure to change more than just the date on tomorrow’s paper.
Please note: My heart goes out to all the victims of gun violence. Also, I am aware that there are many factors, including diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues, and gun laws that conspire to affect our public safety. I also want to acknowledge that there is not nearly enough support out there for parents struggling with young ones. The issue is complicated, and I don’t claim to be an expert. I just hope that these thoughts help bring the conversation of boys’ and men’s mental health to the forefront of public discourse. And that my suggestions help bring peace to our families and to the world.
Tosha Schore, MA, is mom to three young boys, co-author of Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, and creator of Parenting Boys Peacefully: A FREE 10-day Reconnect, where she leads a global community of parents committed to shifting their boys’ behaviors through connection.