Big boys don’t cry
Health Secretary, Matt Hancock’s display of emotion in a GMTV interview last week caused quite a stir, but why? Would this have received so much scrutiny and mockery if it were a female leader shedding a public tear?
In 2020, it is astonishing that we still haven’t managed to achieve social acceptance of men showing how they feel. As a children’s mental health charity, Fegans experiences first-hand the damage of boys bottling up their emotions and if the disproportionate number of male suicide in the UK hasn’t already alerted us to a need for change in cultural norms, then what will?
Much of the media criticism questioned the genuineness of his tears, quick to mock his emotional response. This was one reader’s comment on the Express newspaper’s website; “Grow a backbone. Hancock's problem is he is too emotive. Either he's lavishing praise and enthusiasm in every direction and pouring honey into someone’s ears with excitement or now he's blubbing away like a love-struck teenager told they are being dumped.”
Why is it okay for girls and not boys to cry?
According to Professor Stephen Sideroff (department of psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences at the University of California) our disapproval of emotional expression and crying specifically stems from childhood. If we don’t see our fathers cry, and we are told to ‘man up’ in the playground then we quickly learn it is best not to show how we feel. The public’s response to Matt Hancock’s tears is yet another subtle reminder to men and boys that it is not okay to cry. Throughout history, emotional tears have been considered a weakness in many cultures, and it is often seen as a more feminine thing to do. In the past, masculinity suggested that all boys should be strong, brave and confident, and boys should not act in a way which is considered 'feminine'.
But this is 2020!
How far have we really come? According to one study by Professor Ad Vingerhoets, women cry between 30 and 64 times a year, whereas men only cry between 6 and 17 times. There is no physiological difference to explain why men should cry less than women.
Do male babies cry less than female babies?
This further highlights the impact of the social pressure we put on our men and boys.
Why is it good to cry?
Whether you are male or female having a good blub is scientifically proven to make you feel better. Humans are the only species who cry in adulthood and have emotional tears, in addition to functional tears such as when something irritates our eyes. It also releases stress chemicals from our bodies which are a natural pain killer, which all helps to make us feel better. We don’t just store our emotions in our heads but also our bodies, which causes imbalances if not released. "If you're hungry, you eat," Sideroff explains "You find food to resolve and address that imbalance." If we suppress our tears, our unprocessed feelings can lead to depression, lashing out at others or turning to addictive behaviours to numb our emotional pain. This can be particularly prevalent in high stress environments, (like being in the middle of a global pandemic).
According to Dr. Judith Orloff, author of "The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People "Crying is an essential form of relief" and it's crucial to process the loss, uncertainty and stress of the pandemic. This could explain why Hancock was moved to tears reporting the vaccinations being rolled out. We can all acknowledge that he hasn’t got everything right during the pandemic and let’s face it he is not blessed with the most likeable television persona, but I am sure we can all empathise with the immense pressure of managing the health crisis he has held responsibility for in this last difficult year.
So what can we do to help our boys?
Fegans’ therapeutic professionals are all in agreement that as parents it is our responsibility to create a safe space for our children to express themselves without fear of judgement, whether they are boys or girls. “Our children need to know that it’s okay to feel negative emotions such as anger, sadness and jealousy and to express that in a safe and healthy way.” One of the best ways to encourage this is to model it ourselves, kids look to us to understand what is ‘normal and accepted’; if Dads feel comfortable shedding a tear in front of their sons and Mums have the confidence to own and label feelings of anger in front of their daughters perhaps the next generation might actually have a chance of being more emotionally intelligent and secure than the generations before them. Dagmara Mendes De Oliveira, a counsellor with Fegans reflects, "in my experience of counselling boys and young men I have noticed that they often do not allow themselves to cry. Somehow, they believe it to be a weakness or that there is fear around what people would think of them. They might even judge themselves quite harshly for crying if they did have a good cry. In counselling we might explore general attitudes around crying, perhaps their own family attitudes around it and psycho-educate around the benefits of crying and the expression of emotional distress".
As a step in the right direction let’s start by celebrating (not mocking) the fact one of our country’s male leaders cried in public, as long as they were actually real tears of course …
Fegans, is the children's counselling and parent support charity that funds Dad.info. If you are concerned about how your boys are processing the stress of this year, or indeed have any other concerns feel free to contact them here to discuss parenting strategies or counselling.
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