Gender Differences: Managing Aggression with Boys and Girls

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 4: Managing Aggression with Boys and Girls

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.

Boys have a mighty need to learn self-control. Dads who play and wrestle with their kids teach them the ground rules of physical play-fighting so that a boy learns the limits of his strength and appropriate play behavior (ie: don’t poke people in the eyes). This is crucial, because boys often need to learn the rules of relationships through action, not words. Acting out aggressively actually helps boys be less aggressive! A boy who is “quiet” might not know how to handle his aggression and might actually lack self-control. So allowing boys to appropriately channel bodily energy and aggression is good and helps them orient themselves in the world. Again, it’s one reason why dads are so crucial to parenting.

Interestingly, boys often engage in physical fights but those fights are seldom emotional. Boys who have a fight might become better friends as a result of the fight. This is again, not true of girls. While girls fight less, their fights (particularly verbal ones) can be more bitter and relationship-ending.

Strong emotions in boys (and men) can trigger the “fight or flight” response. If he becomes angry, a boy will either “fight:” yell back or become physical, or take “flight,” which in most cases just means shutting down or walking away. A boy (or a man) can find it difficult to process and respond while he’s upset. So parents, if you’re yelling at your son and he gets upset, wait until you both calm down. Otherwise he won’t even hear what you are saying. Teach your son how to react correctly by giving him a time-out if you see he’s upset with an invitation to come back when he’s ready to talk or listen.

A word about video games: we are frequently asked about boys’ obsession with video games (remember how the male brain is focussed on motion and speed). Physically aggressive play is better for boys than video games, because encounters with reality teach him more (and non-physical encounters can make him overestimate his abilities even more!). Avoid games with moral inversion: when a game rewards you for doing something bad, it can mess with your physiological responses. We don’t often think about how often physical responses of shame (sweating, anxiety, tension) stops us from doing or saying bad things: doing evil even in a video game can put a wrench in those responses. Pro tip: Dads, play video games with your son, and if the game violence makes you uncomfortable, throw out the game. Stay involved in your son’s game choices. And limit their activity in favor of physical activity whenever you can. Dr. Sax comments, “Playing a violent sport like football or lacrosse can build many virtues in a boy: courage, physical endurance, and camaraderie, among others. No video game can do that.”

When girls get angry, they react differently than boys: girls tend to focus on the relationships and want to talk out what’s going on with them. Girls need to talk out their emotions, acknowledge their feelings, and recognize the appropriate action to take. A girl’s proficiency with words has a downside: words are powerful, and girls need to learn how to use them appropriately and correctly. Gossip is a real pitfall for girls and women in general: they need to learn self-control regarding their words. Most of all, girls need to learn how to be in charge of their own feelings and not let them rule.

Girls usually manifest what’s called “alternative aggression” or “passive aggression”: an anger that they don’t feel comfortable showing which comes out in other ways: snarky remarks, poor attitude, gossip, etc. And remember that girls can be bullies too. Often, Dr. Sax notes, bullying girls can be very socially skilled and comfortable with adults: the inverse of boy bullies, who tend to be socially awkward and nervous around adults. Girl bullies can also be very clever about hiding their traces from adults, so be aware that if your daughter is bullying others, you might not pick up on it right away unless you watch her carefully. 

How can parents use this knowledge of aggression in their parenting? For boys, give them room to work out conflicts physically. Don’t intervene all the time. Especially with brothers, they need to fight sometimes. But of course, if the power differential is too great, step in and help them to see that. Usually, most ten-year-old boys don’t beat up their five-year-old brother, but they will beat up their 8 or 9-year-old. Silently observe first and see what happens, especially with friends who are arguing. 

With girls, help them navigate their feelings and relationships by helping girls talk through their conflicts. Don’t intervene in their “friendship problems” all the time: if you do, they will never learn. While allowing them to express their emotions, encourage them to limit them. They can’t apologize for how they feel, but they should apologize for what they say or do if it’s mean or sinful. Help them discern the difference between a feeling, a temptation, a morally good action, and a morally bad action. Mother Church is a great help in helping us pick through the massive clouds of emotion and aggression and discern. The best way to do this with girls is for mom to model the process herself by giving them a window into her own emotions. (“I’m really mad at this situation right now….I’m going to take this to prayer…I changed my mind about my initial response. After praying and thinking about it, here’s what I’m going to do instead.”)

Take your daughter’s emotions seriously even if there is no outward sign of conflict. If your daughter is experiencing aggression, even within her friend group, pay attention to it. Studies show that girls tend to be a bully or be bullied by girls in their close friend group. Be aware of this, and keep your daughter’s friendships on your radar.  

Teach boys and girls the skills of relationship repair. For girls, learning to say, “I’m sorry: that was wrong of me. Please forgive me,” is important in bringing the subtleties of female interactions to the surface. Girls also tend to globalize criticisms from friends, peers, parents, and teachers. If they fail in something, they can think, “It’s because I’m terrible at everything: I’m a terrible person.” Or if a friend fails them, they can similarly overstate the situation: “They’re just a bad person and everything they do is bad” instead of recognizing and isolating the hurt or the flaw. The ritual of asking forgiveness is very precise and that can help girls to see that they have failed in one area, but not in all areas. They need to learn to forgive others in the same way.