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Raising emotionally strong boys

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What does it mean to be a strong man? Deadlifting your body weight in the gym? Fighting anyone who insults you? Refusing to shed a tear no matter what life throws your way? What if strength is marked by something other than physical stamina or emotional paralysis?

Devon Levesque has a few ideas about what it means to be a strong man. Devon is a wellness and fitness expert. His father was a bodybuilder. So was his grandfather. The whole family qualifies as classic “strong men.”

In 2020, Devon decided to complete the New York City Marathon. But his goal wasn’t to set records for speed or strength. Devon chose to bear crawl the marathon. Yes, you read that correctly. He crawled for 26.2 miles. 

Devon’s goal was to raise awareness of mental health and to raise funds for veterans. He wanted to start a conversation about both physical and mental strength because he knew the importance of both. When Devon was just 16, he lost his father to suicide. 

I know many men who are physically strong but not mentally strong. I know countless men who are vocationally strong but not mentally strong. I’ve even known men who were spiritually strong but not mentally strong. So how do we raise men whose mental health is strong? 

Struggle and strength

If struggle is part of life, we need to equip boys to name and navigate it. According to the statistics, we have a ways to go. According to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans under age 35. And though women are more likely to attempt suicide, men are more likely to succeed. In 2019, the U.S. suicide rate was 22.4 per 100,000 men and 13.9 per 100,000 women. 

We have to push against this reality on behalf of the boys we love. One of the critical issues in a young man’s mental strength is simple: identifying emotions. 

Boys are more likely to identify what they think rather than state what they feel. We must help them recognize how often they answer the question  “What are you feeling?” with thought rather than emotion. It’s important to understand both. Thoughts inform emotions. Emotions inform behaviors. All three are connected, but separate. Unless we understand the interplay between the three, we can get roadblocked for a lifetime. 

Three simple questions can help boys differentiate and determine a path forward:

What are you thinking?

What are you feeling?

What do you want to do?

Keep in mind two important rules of engagement as we consider asking these questions of the boys and adolescent men in our lives:

  1. It will take time and practice for him to answer well. These emotional muscles need both to grow and develop. 
  2. He can only answer these questions well when the blood flow is hovering around the prefrontal cortex, allowing him to think rationally and manage his emotions. 

The good news is that there’s one important exercise that promotes this kind of growth.

Writing and reflecting 

I’m on a mission to bring back journaling.

When one of my children was in first grade, every student kept a yearlong journal. They could simply write about their feelings and experiences, or work with a daily journal prompt provided by the classroom teacher if they felt stuck. Their teacher would write back to them, and it became this thoughtful exchange and sacred space for conversation and connection. At the end of the year, the teacher would send each student home with the journal. It was both a time capsule from the year and a reminder of a shared relationship. 

I remember my child sharing the journal with us, and I wept as I read months of conversations. It remains one of my favorite childhood keepsakes. 

Every one of us could benefit from journaling, particularly as kids spend more time posting, tweeting, and texting. They are putting their first thoughts out into the world rather than working through thoughts and feelings in long-form writing. Journaling allows them space to work through thoughts, feelings, and ideas in a more responsive way, while technology promotes a more reactive posture. 

Boys are quick to answer “I don’t know” to questions that involve them having to think or reflect. Writing it down forces them to develop their thoughts and, in turn, to become more psychologically minded. 

Journaling requires effort. It’s easier not to write anything down, just as it’s easier to say “I don’t know” in response to piercing questions. It’s easier to melt down than it is to develop practices that calm my nervous system. But doing hard things is vital to raising emotionally strong boys. 

Thankfully, most boys understand training. They also understand the concept of a coach. Every successful athlete had deeply invested coaches standing on the sidelines giving instruction and feedback. Emotional training is no different. Boys need coaching and practice. If they can’t receive instruction and feedback well from parents, they may need to engage an outside source. Many boys will resist that kind of training, but I’d argue it’s not just important, it’s necessary. 

Just like the right training and tools can produce growth and strength in your athletic game, the right training and tools in emotional identification can produce growth and strength in our boys. 

And not one bear crawl is required.

David Thomas, LMSW, is the director of family counseling at Daystar Counseling in Nashville, Tennessee (daystarcounseling.com), and the coauthor of ten books, including his latest Raising Emotionally Strong Boys: Tools Your Son Can Build on for Life (June 2022, Bethany House) and companion workbook for boys 6-12 years, Strong and Smart: A Boy’s Guide to Building Healthy Emotions. He speaks regularly around the country and is a frequent guest on national television and podcasts. He is also the co-host of the top 10 parenting podcast “Raising Boys and Girls,” with more than two million downloads to date. Thomas and his wife, Connie, have a daughter, twin sons, and a yellow lab named Owen. You can follow David on Facebook and Instagram @raisingboysandgirls and find the latest parenting resources at raisingboysandgirls.com

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