Boys and girls often process emotions differently. When my daughter was young and in need of support she had a special technique.  She would come to me and say “Daddy, I need special time,” and I knew just what that meant.  We needed to face two chairs towards each other and she would talk about what was bothering her.  She might complain that her friend had said she talked too much and I would respond with a supportive “Ah, Julia.”  She might then tell me that another friend had told her that she didn’t want to play with her ever again and I would again offer support through a simple, “Ah, Julia.”  After about 5-7 cycles of “Ah, Julia,” she was ready to go!  Her cup was full and, she would say “Thanks, Dad” and off she would go outside to play.

What was Julia doing?  She was creating a “safe place” for herself.  One important aspect in healing is that when people are in trouble psychologically they will first look for a safe place.  Julia went a step farther.  Once she had the safe place she used it to tell her story.  Combining these two elements is the outline of the common path that most of us use in healing ourselves. Finding safety and then telling our personal story. Julia arranged for me to steward that safe place and then talked about what was bothering her.  Through this story-telling process done in a safe place she began to find healing.  One other common example of this process is attending a support group which acts as a safe place for people to tell their story and through the repeated telling balance is found.

My son, however, would not come to me and say, “Daddy, I need special time.” Absolutely not.  Why not? The reason is that sitting face to face is simply not safe for him.  Where do men and boys like my son feel safe?  More often, it is not when they are face to face, but rather when they are shoulder to shoulder taking action.  Think of the places where men feel close to other men.  It is most often when they are taking action and working on a common goal.  The more dangerous the goal, the closer the men feel to each other.  Wartime, police departments, fire departments, and sports teams at a championship are all examples of this.  Through working together, shoulder to shoulder, the men feel close to other men. Here lasting friendships are forged within that safety.

Would Luke ask for special time?  No.  He would come to me and say, “I wanna wrestle!” Keep in mind that he was in first or second grade, and I am 6’2″ and far from tiny.  I would say, “Okay, but you better be ready for me!”  Then the wrestling would commence.  At first he would have me down, then I would have him down. Back and forth it would go.  At some point during the battle, Luke would stick his little head up and say, “Jimmy got beat up at school today,” and I would ask if it was bad and he would say “Oh yeah, there was blood coming from his nose.”  Then the interlude abruptly ceased, and he growled loudly and attacked me with all his might.  A minute or two later, Luke might stick his head up again and say, “I miss Granddaddy.”  He was referring to my father who had died just a few months before.  My heart cracked open, and I responded that I missed him too.  In a flash, he would growl and attack again and was on top of me with all his might.

Luke was doing the same thing as his sister but was using the wrestling as a safe place to tell his story.  Boys and girls often find safety in different places. The general rule (not true for every child of course) is that girls will more often tend to seek out safety in INTERACTION while boys will more often seek out a safe place through ACTION [2].

Dr. Shelly Taylor, professor of psychology at UCLA, has spent many years investigating the possible neural substrate for these sex differences. She began by observing that most of the research on stress published before 2000 had been conducted on men [1]. Women had been left out for a variety of reasons, such as the concern that hormonal variations associated with the menstrual cycle might skew the results.  Taylor has now conducted many studies using only women as subjects.  What she found has changed our understanding of stress and the role of sex differences.  She found that most women do not engage the “fight or flight” system as readily as men; instead, they engage a different system, which Dr. Taylor calls “tend and befriend.”  Women, when stressed, will (according to Professor Taylor) tend to move towards others and move towards interaction.  This is very different from the masculine habit of moving toward action when stressed (fight), or moving towards inaction (flight).  Professor Taylor’s findings brought to mind what I had seen in Luke and Julia and started to make sense of these different strategies.

Dr. Taylor believes that these differences in the biobehavioral response to stress may be due, at least in part, to underlying hormonal differences between men and women.  She cites research suggesting that oxytocin plays a key role in the “tend and befriend” system in women. Some have called oxytocin the “cuddle hormone”.  What Taylor found was that though both men and women release oxytocin after stress, a women’s estrogen amplifies the effects of the oxytocin which increases her urge to affiliate (tend and befriend). The higher testosterone levels in men appear to blunt the effects of oxytocin, reducing the inclination to move towards others when stressed.

Dr. Taylor suggests that there are two basic strategies in response to stress: action (“fight or flight”) or interaction (“tend and befriend”). Luke and Julia followed the expected path based on their biological sex, with Luke preferring the more male strategy of action and Julia preferring the female strategy of interaction. Importantly, while this is common, it is not always the case. Each child is different and our challenge is to evaluate them individually based on their unique approach.

Boys and girls often process emotions differently. Being aware of each child’s unique way of finding safety and telling their story can only help in facilitating their growth and healing.

  1. Taylor, S.E. (2003). The Tending Instinct: Women, Men and the Biology of Our Relationships. New York: Henry Holt.
  2. Golden, T.R. (2000). Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing (2nd Ed.), Gaithersburg, MD: G H Publishing.

Male Disposability

trashThe sex roles that drove a man’s and a woman’s behavior for thousands of years had great impact on each sex. One of the impacts of the sex role on men was the attitude of disposability that developed over the years. By that I mean the tendency of people to be less likely to get emotionally close to men and to see them as expendable. Why would that be?

Imagine we are living long ago and the women were caring for the hearth and the children and making forays to gather while the men were more likely to go out and hunt. The relative danger of those two behaviors is not subtle. Going out to hunt is decidedly more dangerous and the liklihood of the man returning home after a hunt was much smaller than the same liklhood for the woman performing her daily activities. When we dont’ expect someone to return what impact does that have on our interest in making an emotional attachment to them? It diminishes. We are less likely to invest our emotional ergs into someone or something that we fear may not be with us. This was obviously not just around the issue of hunting. Men were expected to guard the perimeter and to repel attacks by intruders. This was a dangerous activity and again, increased the liklihood that the man would be dissappearing. We tend to not invest in folks who we fear will not be returning. Yet another example is war time. Men were the ones who were expected to go to war and die protecting the village/community/country.

This diminished investment is not subtle but very few people are aware of their own tendency to do this. Let’s try an exercise to evaluate your way of thinking. Has it ever bothered you that only males are expected to sign up for the selecttive service? That it is only males expected to go and die in case of a national emergency? Does that bug you? Okay, now imagine that congress in all its wisdom has changed the law and decided that we need to draft only girls and women until an equal number of women and girls have died in combat to the numbers of men and boys who have died. Would that upset you? Why? Do you value women and girls more than boys and men? How about if we decided to draft only Black people? Maybe only Jews? Would either of those groups being sacrificed upset you? Would you protest for any of those to not be the only group drafted? Can you feel in your bones how upsetting that would be? If you answered yes to any of those questions, how was your response different from thinking it is okay to draft only men? If you had a different reaction then you are likely holding some of that tendency to consider men and boys to be more disposable.

You can see this tendency in many places. Boys and men comprise almost 80% of suicides and yet we have no outcry or services specifically for this. Men and boys are over 90% of the workplace deaths in the Unted States but no one seems to notice. Over 97% if the deaths of U.S. servicemen in Iraq are men and boys and yet we hear no protest in support of men and boys or calls for equality. Men are the victims of domestic violence in considerable numbers and yet we have no services directed towards their needs. All we need to do is open our eyes to see the extent that men and boys are seen as expendable. It is all around us. Ever heard of the wife telling the husband she will go investigate the loud noise that awoke them from a deep sleep?

The age old sex role for men has trickled down into a straight-jacket that harnesses men to be the expendable ones. Most people are simpy unconscious of this and treat men according to their own unconscious programming. How abut you?

Next – Stereotypes