A: Biologically, males and females at birth do not display many differences emotionally. Societally and culturally, we begin to treat them differently. In general, we tend to expect more emotional expression from girls and “train it out” of boys, so-to-speak, framing emotional expression as weakness. Society tends to discourage boys from expressing their emotions and showing emotional vulnerability.
These expectations have real implications for boys. They can prevent boys from having self-awareness about emotions and feelings or seeking help for depression, anxiety, social issues, or challenges at school, etc. The disconnectedness from these emotions can reinforce these issues and can manifest in a variety of ways including isolation, angry outbursts, and/or aggressive behavior. Later in life, the withdrawal, the mental health issues, and the aggression (or whatever the individual implications may be) can intensify.
Western society and media flood us with specific and targeted messages of what it means to be a man. But what does it really mean to be a man? A strong man? A good man? A real man? How do we counteract society’s generalized, yet narrow messages about masculinity and help boys be healthy, open, and expressive emotionally?
A: One of the boys in my team recently asked me, what’s the point of talking about my feelings? This young man had been navigating his world in the only way he knew how—that is, without being aware of or facing his emotions. I asked him, how is this going for you? His response was that things are not going well, whether at school, with his family, or with the behaviors he was turning to instead of truly facing or sharing his emotions. He wasn’t feeling heard in areas of his life and this came out as anger; not as a genuine expression of what he was dealing with. I shared with him that we’re not here to change who he is as a person, but rather to give him different skills to express how he’s really doing and who he really is.
During the course of his time with us, he is beginning to recognize that as long as his feelings and issues are left unaddressed or masked with anger or withdrawal, they will continue to bubble beneath the surface. They may manifest in other social, relational, or mental health challenges. It may hurt school performance or contribute to health issues and at-risk behaviors. Being in touch with feelings is about being upfront with oneself and with others. It is about meeting one’s needs and feeling secure in one’s identity, which ultimately leads to a healthier and more fulfilling life.
As a therapist working with adolescent boys, it’s important for me to have these conversations and to create a safe space for boys to begin to contemplate these issues and new ways of addressing—not masking—their feelings.
A: By simply being in a new and unfamiliar environment in the wilderness, boys must face emotions they’ve previously avoided or covered up. What they might have masked back home with an angry outburst or by retreating to their phone or video games, comes to the forefront in wilderness. There is an inherent vulnerability that comes with entering a new and unfamiliar space. This provides a natural springboard to begin this work and help boys to take a look at themselves, their feelings, and their emotions, without the familiar masks, distractions, and coping mechanisms they’ve utilized in the past.
The field guides play a huge role in the effectiveness of this environment. I have a lot of male field guides in my team who consistently coach—and most importantly, role model—healthy expression. They often re-define for boys what it can mean to be a man by the way they act, treat others, and share their emotions. For most students, their father is their main example of what it means to be a man. In reality, it looks so different for each person and we encourage them to find what it looks like for them. It’s about helping boys to identify their core values and how those values align with how they show up and respect themselves and others.
I also have female guides on the team. This provides perspective and opportunities for role modeling. Is also helpful as it encourages boys consider how they treat the women in their lives.
The peer group itself is incredibly impactful. With students in the team at all different stages of their process, they can look up to each other, encourage one another, and hold each other accountable. Coming from their peers, this is priceless. Each student coming in has a student mentor. The mentors show courage in expression and thus, new students feel safe to test the waters and begin to share, as well.
Wilderness therapy is an excellent way to really strengthen, understand, and be aware of one’s entire self. Students build physical strength by hiking mountains and navigating the wilderness. They break out of their comfort zones as they confront the elements, navigate new and unfamiliar challenges, and practice new skills. We celebrate this. And we celebrate the strength it takes to emotionally reflect at the top of a mountain: what did it feel like to push through a challenge, to have a difficult conversation, or to be vulnerable with the team?
A: Often in the beginning stages, I’ll ask students, what does being a man mean to you? What do you view as strength? The answers when they first arrive often revolve around being “strong”; not crying or displaying emotion. So often, I witness the boys in my group going through the motions instead of being in tune on an emotional level.
Emotions can come in so many different ways. It’s about being more self-aware and about understanding that sensitivity isn’t a negative thing. It is actually a strength. We’re helping boys build that foundation of understanding and expression from the ground up. They begin to see that sharing something that is difficult to talk about or something they didn’t previously have the words for is a form of strength. It’s really cool to see that shift!
I like to use a “feelings wheel” with my team. It’s a great resource with all kinds of emotive words. It helps boys express themselves as more than just mad, sad, or good and opens their eyes to what they perhaps didn’t even realize they were feeling. It encourages boys to think more deeply and deliberately about what they are truly feeling and opens the door to conversations and healthy expression.
In session, I will ask questions about how a student feels a certain emotion physically in his body. This body awareness is so key, because it can help boys to become more aware emotionally and more able to articulate and express their emotion in healthy ways. Yoga and meditation, in addition to body work in session, can also be really effective.
I also like to utilize a tool we call the “feelings dump”. This entails providing the team three specific times throughout the day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—to check in. This structure is helpful in that it creates a specific, intentional space for them to begin to share. Slowly over time, we remove that structure and the sharing becomes more organic.
Another tool is something called “hot spots”. I come up with specific topics for the boys to converse about at dinner. This is more like a story time around the fire. These topics may be somewhat surface level or slightly deeper in nature. Holding conversations in this way creates structure and puts healthy pressure on students to share, as opposed to avoiding or hiding. In a safe and gentle way, they are encouraged to take space to talk about things they’re excited about or things they may be more hesitant to talk about. Then, I’ll give them specific instruction to ask someone a follow-up question on a hike the next day. This creates a pathway of diving deeper into peer relationships, which creates a natural flow for opening up.
It’s so important to give boys that platform to share in these ways as it helps them to begin to feel more comfortable. This is one of the things I love about wilderness therapy. There are so many opportunities for creative intervention. For instance, I have boys that like poetry or writing raps. I tell them, why don’t you write a poem or rap about that experience? This can be so effective because it provides an opportunity to take a strength (i.e. rapping) to help in an area of challenge, weakness, or struggle. This often resonates for boys as we’re inviting them to utilize their strengths to express themselves.
A: Whether your son is constantly displaying behaviors associated with anger, is continually withdrawing to his room, or turns to some other limited expressions of emotion, my advice is to look beyond the behavior. What is actually going on? Yes, punching a hole in the wall is concerning; yes, isolation in his room all the time is also concerning. But what might be the source of the hurt or pain that has led to these behaviors? Is school or are social relationships causing distress? Perhaps they don’t have the words to say how they are feeling or they don’t feel emotionally safe or encouraged to share and express these feelings. So often, these emotions come out sideways as anger, aggression, isolation, or apathy.
I also encourage parents to consciously role model healthy emotional expression. This is so important. Demonstrate to your son that there are countless ways to feel and express feelings. Have conversations around values: your values as parents, your kids’ values, family values. Often, you’ll see relationships strengthen with this vulnerability. Encourage strength, courage, and authenticity in all facets of your son’s being—emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical.
I emphasize that it’s important for parents to tap into all of these areas not just for their son’s sake but for themselves as well. When I have phone calls with parents at Open Sky, they’ll often immediately want to know how their son is. This is normal. However, I challenge parents to first be aware of what they are feeling emotionally, to practice talking about it and to use the same skills we’re teaching their son.
Letter writing is a really helpful way to begin implementing these skills. I ask parents to incorporate “I Feel” statements, to reflect something their son wrote in a previous letter, and to even take some intentional, healthy risks with sharing that they might have had a similar experience or feeling as their son.
Maybe this is unfamiliar. Maybe this is not how they were parented. Maybe they don’t fully understand it. We sort through a lot of that. I encourage parents to dive into their own work, engage in therapy, and practice self-care. I also encourage them to engage in our other Family Services like Parent Coaching, Wellness Weekends, and Monday night parent calls. This can really have a huge impact, even when their child is far away in wilderness therapy.