Gender Differences: Going the (Emotional) Distance

Different? Heck yeah! Our blog series on Gender Differences

“There is no such thing as a ‘child’: there are only boys and girls.” ~ Dr. Leonard Sax

Post 3: Going the (Emotional) Distance

We’re running a blog series on the differences between girls and boys, based on our popular podcast episodes, They Sure are Different! Parenting Boys and Girls in a Messy World and Parenting and appreciating the differences between boys and girls. We also recommend Leonard Sax’s classic book Why Gender Matters for more information and data on this issue. As parents we need to become students of our children: we need to learn all about them and know them well. We can identify our child’s temperament and love languages, but learning about your child as a boy or as a girl is probably even more important! This is because the differences between the sexes are the largest at birth and childhood, and decrease as the child grows.

Right now the culture is loudly proclaiming that sex and gender are different, and that gender is “fluid,” and changeable, and hundreds of schools are rolling out new guidelines institutionalizing these ideas. Against this confusion, we proudly and firmly say that boys and girls are defined and different–wonderfully different!

Parenting involves contemplating God’s plan that humanity manifests His image as both male and female, so learning about your child as a boy or as a girl is contemplating the image of God in them. Additionally, learning about and recognizing the differences between boys and girls can help us adjust our expectations and avoid frustration as parents. This week, we’re going to talk about emotions and how boys and girls manifest them differently.

The big difference is that the parts of the brain that are connected to emotions are further apart in boys rather than girls, and those microns of distance can make a world of difference. For girls, speech and emotions are more closely wired together, which is one reason why girls tend to more easily express their feelings verbally.

A boy, especially a boy who is upset, can be very frustrated if he’s asked to talk about how he is feeling because his speech centers are literally further away from their emotional center in his brain. Feelings have got a further distance to travel before they access speech!  The more upset a boy is, the more difficulty he has in speaking.

It’s not that girls are “more emotional”: it’s just that girls find it easier to express emotions in words. But don’t be fooled into thinking your sons feel less than your daughters. They might just not know how to communicate it. As a parent, you can acknowledge this and give them the tools.

Boys DO need to be encouraged to talk about their feelings and they can certainly learn how to, but parents should have realistic expectations: boys might need to express their emotions nonverbally first.  If your son is upset or angry, don’t expect him to talk it out, but he DOES need to get it out. Have him chop wood, take a run around the block, punch pillows, climb a tree, play basketball, kickball, or even play a decent video game. Encourage him to find a healthy and possibly productive safety valve to work out his emotion.  My own dad used to clean the garage when he was mad, and I have to say that’s a pretty awesomely efficient use of powerful feelings!  If you can understand your son and keep that connection with him, some boys will come back and talk things out verbally, once they’ve diffused the emotion that shut them down. So yes, you can talk with your son about his feelings, but do it second, not first.

One thing moms should avoid doing with their sons is “flipping out” on them by shouting and screaming. Most of the time, wild displays of female emoting just don’t make an impression on boys, and they tend to shut down. We’re not saying moms can’t get angry with their sons. In fact,  some situations of injustice demand you as the parent express controlled anger and displeasure. But don’t lose your cool – all it does is invalidate anything you are trying to say, especially when parenting an adolescent boy.  

Girls handle strong emotions differently than boys do.  Often girls need to verbally express what is going on inside them (even if they are an introvert!).  This can be done in a journal, with a trusted friend, or with mom or dad.  The important thing for parents to remember in these times is to LISTEN.  Do not try to fix their problem, do not moralize in the moment, and you may not even want to try to teach them the right thing to do immediately.  Emotional young women do not need to be told to “calm down”; they need to be heard, loved, and accepted.  After the emotions are out and you have stayed calm, that is when mom or dad can offer their perspective.  We have a practice in our family with our adolescent girls of creating a journal that is passed between Alicia and her daughters.  This gives the girls a safe place to express emotions and time to process mom’s answer to that emotion.  All of these channels are important, because if girls don’t learn to handle emotions correctly, angry words left unchecked can ruin friendships and reputations.  

And don’t forget to encourage your child of either sex to channel their emotion into prayer. Simple prayers like, “Help me, Father God,” or “Save me, Jesus” can be very effective. Also as they grow old encourage them to memorize and read the Psalms, where David the King channels the full gamut of human emotions into powerful songs that still speak to us today.

Emotions are lousy masters but amazing servants, and learning to master them is the job of every human, male or female. Recognizing our differences can help us better help each other. Teaching your children to manage emotions is one of the central tasks of parenting. Understanding these differences can certainly help!