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3 R's for raising emotionally healthy boys

Gen Z
Bixby Creek Bridge, Monterey, United States |

I grew up in the seventies, and from 1977 to 1982, The Incredible Hulk television series ran on CBS. You’d find me glued to the TV each week, awaiting the adventures Dr. David Banner, a brilliant scientist whose laboratory experiment goes terribly awry. From that moment forward, whenever he is under extreme stress, he undergoes a massive change and morphs into the Incredible Hulk — a tall, muscular, bright-green monster. After destroying whatever threatens Dr. Banner, he morphs back to normal human form, left with his broken memory, tattered clothing, and evidence of destruction. These transformations are quite troubling for Dr. Banner, and he begins a long journey of trying to reverse his condition.

Decades later, I have taken my own sons to the theater to watch the many reimagined versions of this classic story. Each time I watch an interpretation, I’m struck by how it mirrors the work I do as a therapist who counsels boys. I have spent the last 25 years sitting across from boys (and the adult who love them) at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville. I think many boys relate to the Incredible Hulk because they understand the tension of wanting to do good in the world while battling a monster inside. They know the impact of stress and what it’s like when it comes out sideways. They understand emotion evolving into a transformation with an undesired outcome. 

I’ve even had parents describe their sons as being like the Hulk. They report sending one guy to school and ending up with a monster at bedtime; these boys regulate with teachers and coaches, and then come unhinged at home with their parents. Recently a mom shared that reminding her son he had 5 minutes of screen time left resulted in his yelling, throwing the remote, and sobbing uncontrollably on the floor. She laughingly said, “He didn’t turn green, but I kept waiting for it to happen.” What is happening to our boys to trigger this?

When we get angry, our nervous system goes into higher states of arousal. We experience sensations in the body from increased heart rate, dilated pupils, adrenaline release, increased respiration, skin perspiration, and blood flow moving to the larger muscles. Sounds a bit like turning into the Hulk, doesn’t it?

The three Rs

Our job is to help boys learn to recognize stress as it registers inside them. We want to train them to observe and pay attention to the body sensations they are experiencing. As important as it is to recognize what’s happening, boys need instruction in how to regulate in these moments. If they struggle to do one or both of those vital tasks, they may have a “Hulk moment” and then need to do some repair.

Despite the body’s sounding alarms and sending signals, boys often ignore the signs and push forward until they find themselves in tattered clothes and full of regret. I’ve talked with thousands of boys over the decades who’ve described what it feels like on the other side of a Hulk moment. Boys share stories of yelling at their mom, shoving a younger sibling, or breaking an object in their home. I’ve heard adolescent boys describe unloading on a girlfriend, getting a technical foul in a game, or punching a hole in drywall.

The stories often involve blaming others for their mistakes, struggling to take ownership, and swimming in shame and regret. The image of Dr. Banner walking the streets teary-eyed and wondering what just happened comes to mind.

When I track through these stories, boys can often trace the events and identify where they got a signal they ignored or coaching from a parent they bypassed. They might even remember being told they were about to make things worse for themselves, and yet somehow the Hulk emerged.

Teaching the three Rs is something I’ve believed in for as long as I’ve been practicing as a therapist. It’s the kind of work I believe creates good growth. It’s not easy, and boys have a strong tendency to fall back into emotionally lazy responses. After all, it’s not that difficult to melt down like a toddler or to lose your mind like a teenager. Regulation is work. It’s effortful. But it yields good growth.

Learning to pay attention to the sirens and signals takes reflection, insight, and awareness. It’s much easier to ignore the signs and keep your foot on the gas. However, it isn’t safer to do so. Equally so, repairing a relationship is work. It requires a posture of humility and civility, and it’s much easier to swing between blame and shame. Blame is nothing more than discharged pain. Shame is self-contempt. Neither is a satisfying state of being. The work of relationship, though, is deeply satisfying.

The three Rs our sons need to know to be emotionally healthy are:

Recognize — notice how your body signals an emotional response

Regulate — employ calming strategies when the nervous system goes into higher states of arousal

Repair — take ownership and do any needed relational work

Understanding and practicing the three Rs may be the most important coaching we do with the boys in our care. These are the benchmarks of raising emotionally strong boys. As simple as they sound and as necessary as they are to his emotional and relational health, we are somehow missing the mark. With the right help, these Rs can become second-nature to our boys, giving them the emotional tools to build a strong life, without having to live in a post-meltdown state of shame and regret. Their Incredible Hulk can be tamed.  

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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