8 Tips for Raising a Sensitive Son

8 Tips for Raising a Sensitive Son

Experts share their best advice for finding the gentler side of your rough-and-tumble boy.


No matter how much you believe in gender equality, you can’t deny that sometimes boys just act differently than girls. But how much of it is inherent and how much is learned? And what is our responsibility as parents to actively encourage better behavior, even if it flies in the face of stereotypes and cultural expectations? If you think “boys will be boys” and there’s nothing you can do to bring out their kinder, gentler sides, read these expert tips to help you understand how and why it’s especially important to raise caring, considerate, emotionally healthy sons.

1. Recognize their innate sensitivity. While it’s true that some boys are just naturally less emotional and expressive -- particularly as they enter the teen and tween years -- that doesn’t mean they completely lack the capacity to show tenderness and warmth. “Boys are inherently kind and caring in addition to physical,” says Darby Fox, a family therapist specializing in children and adolescents. “It is our job to encourage emotional expression and strong boundaries ... to raise respectful, empathetic children, regardless of sex,” she says. That starts with acknowledging that boys are capable of feeling and showing emotional sensitivity.

2. Don’t train them to stifle their emotions. If ignoring your son’s sensitive side is bad, actively discouraging it might be worse. “While boys start out life more emotionally expressive than girls -- they cry more, fuss more, show more joy -- parents soon suppress these emotional gestures, even in boys as young as 6 months old,” according to Ronald Levant, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Akron and an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of men and masculinity. Levant says that stifling our boys’ softer sides is a disservice to them. “One of the greatest mistakes fathers tend to make ... is to assume that they need to toughen them up, to ‘make men out them.’” He says that line of thinking risks the boys’ otherwise gentle natures getting “lost in a sea of machismo.” When boys look to their fathers as models of behavior, it’s especially important for men to not only encourage sensitivity in their sons but to show it themselves.

3. Mothers have a special responsibility to fight stereotypes. Society at large has done much to discourage in boys what some would consider feminine or “girly” behaviors. “Cultural expectations of boys and men are heartbreaking,” says psychologist Carolyn AlRoy, who believes that changing this pattern begins at home. Part of what perpetuates the stereotypical ideals of the strong, silent type or the tough macho man is the way wives often treat their husbands. “Even enlightened women sometimes expect their spouses to be made of steel,” she says, and the effect trickles down to the next generation. With this in mind, mothers should not only encourage and celebrate sensitive behavior in their sons but in their husbands as well.

4. Teach boys empathy when they’re little, but don’t stop there. Toddlers of both sexes are notoriously self-centered, and all of them need help when it comes to respecting the feelings of others. Most parents put a lot of work into teaching compassion during the preschool years, but many let the lesson slide as kids grow older. “Teaching and modeling empathy is critical for toddlers and does not end,” says Fox. To raise boys who have consideration for others, keep using the techniques you did when they were small. “A great habit to get into is to ask your children to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and think what the other experience could be like,” advises Fox. Identifying and understanding the feelings of others is the first step toward your boys being able to carry themselves in a caring, respectful manner.

5. Talk, talk, and talk some more about feelings with your boys. “Boys, especially in adolescence, should always be encouraged to express their emotions,” Fox says. There can be real danger in raising a son who isn’t comfortable with his feelings, whether positive or negative. “Because boys are neglected emotionally in this way, they are more likely to go underground with their feelings,” says AlRoy, who warns that the consequences of this behavior range from them having a harder time dealing with disappointments or failures like breakups to developing harmful habits of self-medicating to deal with their emotions.

“When your children are frustrated or overwhelmed, spend some time with them and validate their frustrations,” says Fox. The key is to help them learn to deal with their feelings, not try to take those feelings away.

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6. Treat them as you want them to treat others. “Our boys need to be treated gently and taught to treat others the same,” says Fox, who emphasizes that it’s critical to start early with lots of nurturing, hugging, and laughing. “Affection is contagious and desirable; babies and toddlers give it freely. We don’t want this to stop, so it is important to encourage expression continually. It’s important to start saying ‘I love you’ early and continue always.” When your tween or teenager starts to pull back (which is completely normal and healthy), find other ways to keep them emotionally engaged. “Teenagers, especially boys, will stop kissing parents, but you want them to be able to hug or fist bump, [to show] some sign of connection,” she says.

7. Make kindness the rule. If practice makes perfect, make sure you give your son plenty of opportunities to engage in acts of kindness, on both a large and small scale. Start at home by showing kindness to your spouse and each family member, and insist that siblings treat each other with kindness too, says Susan Smith Kuczmarski, EdD, the author of three books on parenting and families. From there, expand your efforts to include the world at large: encouraging your son to befriend the lonely kid at school or commit to a community service project can teach him both the value of generosity and how easy it is to be kind. “The spirit of giving transforms both the giver and the receiver,” says Kuczmarski, which helps “widen our circle of compassion.”

8. Expect more of them. It’s OK to acknowledge that it’s often hard for boys to settle down, act with sensitivity, and behave with decorum, but don’t let that be an excuse to avoid teaching them to be better. When your son acts up, don’t take the easy way out by shrugging and saying “boys will be boys.” “It is a mistake to not expect boys to behave,” says Fox, who stresses that although it can be easier for parents to excuse their boys’ behaviors, doing so sends the message that they can do whatever they want. “Boys need to be held accountable for their behavior. Parents need to instill the same values and structure with boys as they do with girls,” she says. In short, children deserve to be brought up to be sensitive, caring people regardless of sex; no one gets a pass on being a decent human being. And while it might be a little harder to raise sons with this plan, the effort, if applied consistently and with love, will certainly be worth it.

How do you encourage your sons to get in touch with their emotions and show sensitivity to others?

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