Raising Emotionally Stunted Boys

by | Feb 5, 2023

I’ve met with hundreds of couples who were struggling to save their marriages. One of the most common statements wives make in those meetings is, “There’s just no emotional connection between us. He hasn’t got a clue what I’m feeling or thinking.”

In all too many cases, that statement has been entirely accurate.

But it was seldom because the husband didn’t want to understand his wife’s emotions. It was because no one ever taught him how to read and respond to emotions … either hers or his own.

Most men are taught to stuff their emotions so deep inside that they themselves are not aware of them anymore.

This process usually begins at a young age. When a little boy hurts himself and starts to cry, the typical adult response is, “Big boys don’t cry.”

When he voices fears, he’s told that real men are never afraid.

When he expresses uncertainty, self-doubt or a need for help, he’s taught to put on a show of confidence and to be more self-reliant.

These messages to “man up” typically start early in life, when boys’ hearts and minds are highly impressionable.

At three or four years of age, boys begin to modify their behavior to meet the expectations of the people around them. So when they’re taught that masculinity means hiding their emotions, being physically tough and never needing help, they steadily conform to those standards.

As boys perfect the art of emotional stoicism, they tend to grow into men who are numb to their own emotions and indifferent to the feelings of the people around them. But deep inside they realize that nobody truly knows and accepts them. This can lead to feelings of isolation, insecurity, depression and even suicide. As Martha Nussbaum writes:

“The current psychological literature on the life of boys in America indicates that a large proportion of boys are quite unable to talk about how they feel and how others feel-because they have learned to be ashamed of feelings and needs, and to push them underground.

But that means that they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it.

Often, they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life.”

Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two

As men grow older, they may eventually find a lot of “fun buddies.” They connect passionately on external things—telling jokes, enjoying sports or discussing business—but until a major crisis occurs, they keep their internal lives hidden, seldom admitting needs or weaknesses or sharing deep personal emotions.

They eventually meet a woman who admires their show of strength. Romantic passions create the illusion of an emotional connection, which moves them into marriage. They initially find pleasure in physical intimacy, doing things together, dreaming of the future and building a family.

But as life becomes more routine or stressful, the man’s emotional limitations are steadily exposed. Absent a conscious effort to learn how to connect at an authentic emotional level, couples will either resign themselves to a superficial relationship, build separate lives, seek intimacy elsewhere or give up on each other entirely.

These problems are greatly magnified when an emotionally stunted man marries a woman whose parents also failed to teach her how to manage and communicate her emotions in constructive ways.

Emotionally Stunted Pastors

This emotional deficiency is not cured by going to seminary. If anything, the expectations placed on pastors often increase the pressure to be all-wise, immune to emotional struggles and totally self-sufficient. This is why pastors can be some of the most emotionally and relationally isolated people in the world.

One of the ways this plays itself out is that many pastors are afraid to be open with other men in own their church about their spiritual, emotional or relational struggles. I see this all too often when I do seminars for pastors. Since I am a stranger who will soon leave town, pastors often pull me aside during teaching breaks and pour out their struggles and fears to me. I help as much as I can, but I cannot be a substitute for a circle of godly men who should be that pastor’s trusted circle of supporters and confidants.

Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys

You can help to change these patterns.

If you’re a parent, grandparent or simply have other opportunities to speak into children’s lives, you can teach and model how to have a healthy emotional life. Most importantly, encourage the children in your life to explore emotions within the safety of family relationships.

You can do this by practicing the principles described in Raising Empathetic Children. This can include talking openly about your own emotions, drawing out the emotional elements of stories, reading how Jesus and other Bible characters expressed emotions, talking with children about their own feelings, and even using simple role-plays to demonstrate how to understand and manage emotions.

Teaching boys (and girls!) how to connect emotionally with others produces many benefits.

Emotionally healthy children are less susceptible to peer pressure, isolation, depression and suicide. They are better at preventing and managing conflict. They find it easier to see other’s points of view and to work as a team. Best of all, they are more likely to form deep and lasting friendships, marriages and parenting relationships.

And someday, they may grow into the next generation of emotionally and relationally mature leaders in the church.

It’s Never too Late to Change

If you’re a man who did not have the benefit of this kind of teaching and modeling, you still have the ability to learn how to connect with others at an emotional level.

Our Discovering Relational Wisdom 3.0 online course is specifically designed to provide you with a solid understanding of the theology and neurology of emotions and practical ways to read, understand and manage your feelings, as well as those of the people around you. As one pastor recently told me,

“I’ve preached the Bible for years and felt comfortable engaging my people on a theological and intellectual basis. But I didn’t know how to really touch their hearts or connect with them emotionally. Relational wisdom is not only changing my effectiveness as a pastor but also helping me to experience the joy of closer relationships with my wife and children.”

You can experience the same kind of change … and demonstrate to the boys in your life that real men have both the strength and the tenderness (as Jesus’ tears showed, John 11:25) to harness the amazing, life-enriching power of emotions.

– Ken Sande

PS – To multiply these benefits even further, invite some other men or couples to study these concepts together by using RW360’s Discovering Relational Wisdom 3.0 Group Study materials

Reflection Questions

  • What messages did you receive as a child as to how boys and girls are supposed to handle emotions? How this those messages carry into your adult life?
  • What messages do you send to the children in your life, either through your words or example?
  • What messages does our culture send us every day about how men should handle emotions? How are those messages affecting our relationships and communities? If you’re not sure, see The Suppression of Boy’s Emotional Expression Is a Killer and How to Help a Man Who Struggles with Emotions.
  • Who are some of the happiest, most fulfilled and influential people you know? How do they express and handle emotions?
  • How would the people in your life be impacted if you learned to connect with them at a deeper emotional level?
  • What concrete steps do you plan to take in the days ahead to learn how to fulfill God’s design for you to experience, express and respond to emotions?
  • How might you be able to encourage the leaders in your church to grow in their ability to understand and engage emotions in a more Christ-like way?

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2023 Ken Sande

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