Teaching boys resilience
By Justin Coulson |
Emotional resilience for boys

Helping boys become resilient isn't easy for parents. Boys are ‘supposed’ to be tough.Parents of young boys, up to around the age of 8, well know that little boys are not tough. Instead, young boys cry easily, struggle to regulate their emotions, and express fear.

Yet there is enormous social pressure from parents, relatives, and peers (particularly older siblings) for boys to grow up and be more of a ‘man’. By the time of adolescence, if not before, the impossible standard of masculinity creates hidden pain and vulnerability in boys.

Boys learn from a young age to make their emotions and put on a stoic false bravado. Those who are able to do so are generally seen as cool, tough, and are often well-like by their peers. They are sufficiently masculine.

This powerful expectation that boys ‘should be’ strong has real potential to harm resilience in males from the age of four or five years right through adolescence. Why?

When a boy experiences an emotion that is not sufficiently masculine (according to his peers or parents) he will often be teased if he expresses it. For example, a boy who is afraid or sad may cry.



“Mama’s boy.”


When a boy is told that his emotions are inappropriate he begins to question his worth. He asks himself, “Am I alright?” He recognises that those around him are questioning how he feels. When parents tell a little boy to ‘grow up and stop being such a cry-baby’ or to ‘stop being such a sooky la-la’, they undermine his trust in his emotions. He begins to question his ability to regulate his emotions and thoughts. And he begins to wonder if he is a normal and worthwhile person.

These ‘manly’ responses do not engender masculinity. Instead they promote a false bravado, put on to disguise the pain, fear, or sadness a boy feels.

These responses may ‘toughen’ him up, but they do not build resilience. In contrast, they create a wall of impenetrable ‘toughness’ that creates the appearance of invulnerability and masculinity but they leave the boy alone to deal with his emotions, and relationships challenges. As he gets older, he also has to be tough enough to shut everyone out, but deal in isolation with the school issues, drug problems, and depression that invariably come to the ‘tough’ guys.

Boys are doing more poorly in school than they have done in the past, and particularly in relation to girls. Boys are at greater risk of low self-esteem, depression, and even suicide. These are hardly signs of resilience in boys.

So how can we promote resilience in our sons?

Parenting tip#1: Boys need friends they can count on

We become friends with the people we spend time with. This seems a simple and obvious statement, but do we ever stop to think about who our sons are playing with? The friends our sons need to be able to trust should have similar values to those emphasised in your family.

Furthermore, the strength of the relationships our boys share with their friends can provide them with crucial support as they encounter challenges and look for ways they can share their difficulties. Supportive friends will allow the charade of masculinity to fall when things are tough. They will allow another boy to be vulnerable, soft, and human without picking on him for being emotional or ‘wussy’.

Parenting tip#2: Boys need family they can be real with

A 9 year-old boy was trying to get the attention of his father. After several attempts his father growled at him, shoved him, and said, “Go play in the traffic, you little &%^*#!”

Resilience studies have shown in graphic and powerful ways that if a child has just one key person in his life that he can rely on and feel close to, who will support him when he is down, and who will encourage him to bounce back from difficulty, he will likely be resilient. The critical factor in resilience research is closeness to mother or father (or both) and feeling loved and wanted by family members. Boys who do not have these relationships struggle with setbacks, and rarely have resilience.

When feelings of sadness, love, fear, happiness, or vulnerability can be shared with family members and peers without a boy being concerned he’ll be shamed or ridiculed, then resilience can be fostered. This requires us to stop worrying about helping our boys to be boys, and for us to treat them as people who are growing and learning – just like we are as parents.Relationships matter for resilience.

Find more stories about emotional resilience for children:

Find out more about bullying:

Read more about school friends:

Ready Set Learn


This article was written for Kidspot by Justin Coulson, Ph. D. Justin is a relationships and parenting expert, author and father of five children. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at happyfamilies.com.au.



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