One of the signs of emotional health is being aware of emotions and understanding what they mean. Teens need to be aware of the emotions they are feeling as well as the emotions of others. Unfortunately, many in our society discourage their children from expressing their emotions in healthy ways. I believe this is especially true of boys. Boys are told not to cry because “crying is for girls.” These children grow up thinking they should not have strong emotions or that they are weak if they do. Everyone has emotions, and children need to understand that. They need to recognize and name the emotions they are feeling.
If your son does not talk about his emotions (“I am so frustrated…”), you can help. The first step is for him to recognize that he is feeling an emotion and be able to tell what emotion it is. You can help by providing possibilities—for example, you could say, “You must be really proud [angry, sad, grateful, frustrated] right now.” The next step is to recognize that others feel emotions, too. You might say, “I know you are angry with Terry, but he was really hurt by what you said to him.” Finally, he needs to learn appropriate responses to his emotions. “It is OK to be angry and take that anger out on a pillow. It is not OK to take it out on your friends.”
Middle school boys who are having difficulty expressing their emotions can often write about them. I once asked a particularly rowdy group of 8th grade boys to write a letter to me about why they were misbehaving. I asked them to tell me why they did not like class, why they did not want to participate, and what I could do to make the class better for them. I was amazed to find out that they did like the class, and their behavior was related to a wide range of emotions they were feeling about things going on outside of school. One student wrote, “My grandfather is dying and he is the one person in my life who really understands me.” Several wrote, “I am sorry I have been so bad. I really do like this class.” This was an enlightening experience for me. Once the boys wrote their letters, class went much more smoothly. They expressed their emotions in writing which gave me the information and empathy I needed to support them.
Having emotional awareness is important for developing healthy relationships. Parents can talk with their teens about the emotions they feel and how others might be feeling. Writing about the emotions a teen feels can also lead to better emotional understanding as well as knowing what is happening in your child’s life.
For more information about the importance of understanding emotions and how it affects school, read How Emotional Intelligence Is Linked To School Success.