Growing up I realized early on that there was a stereotype that strong men don’t cry or show emotion. A phrase I remember distinctly from my childhood was “stiff upper lip”. This meant putting on a brave face no matter what because doing otherwise showed a sign of weakness. It was a fallacy I believed for many years until I realized the toll it was taking on my mental well-being.
I was 15 years old when my mother passed away after a long, hard battle with cancer. At her funeral, I had a wave of emotions, but I felt I had to hold it in for fear that my friends would think I was weak. I wanted to portray that I was tough and strong, yet inside I felt isolated and alone. I still regret not crying at my mother’s funeral. My grief stayed bottled up for years and would come back later in different forms and shapes.
It wasn’t until four years after the death of my mother that I was really able to start releasing the pain. I met my best friend and future wife at university and our relationship created a safe space where I finally felt okay to let it all out without fear of judgment. I will never forget how freeing it felt to share my feelings. I had been carrying around emotional baggage and didn’t even realize it. It was like turning on a faucet for the first time. There was a trickle and then an explosion of delayed emotions.
I’m one of the lucky ones. For some, there is no release and these emotions can instead manifest negatively. These bottled up emotions can lead to mental health challenges, self harm, unexplained rage or anger, alcohol abuse or drug addiction. It’s like a bottle that you can only fill so much before the top bursts off. Working for an addiction treatment provider, I hear about these stories all too often as these men struggle to find a way to cope with the emotions that they never learned to express or process as young boys. Research has shown that mind-altering substances can become a coping mechanism for stress and difficult emotions, providing a temporary respite from reality and everyday life.
As a father of two young boys, I have made it a personal imperative to show them that emotional honesty is a sign of strength, and I encourage other fathers to do the same.
1. Lead by example
In recent years, I’ve been encouraged by the number of men in power who are publicly showing emotion, including President Joe Biden who on a number of occasions has shed tears. What a powerful message this sends to our boys. If the man with the highest title in the country can cry, so can we. Even in our homes we must show our vulnerability. I have cried in front of my boys over the death of a loved one, and I’ve made a conscious decision not to hide my tears from them. I think my dad would have walked away during these emotional times so as to not let anyone see him, which is common for men of his generation. I’m consciously working to change that.
Beyond showing sorrow, it’s important to show our children a range of emotions. I remember coming back from a long business trip to China, and I decided to surprise my oldest son at his school. It was a 10 day trip and the longest I had ever been away from him. Just upon seeing him again, I became very emotional and my elation manifested itself in tears. When we lead by example our boys will follow suit and won’t feel ashamed of expressing how they feel because we have set the standard.
2. Create a safe space for sharing
We must foster an open dialogue with our boys by giving them a listening ear and providing understanding and empathy. I make a point of asking my boys questions so they have an opportunity to share how they are feeling. I encourage them to express themselves and let them know it’s ok to cry. I will tell them, “I know you’re having a hard day, or I know this is really difficult for you and I’m here for you.” It’s important to help your children dig deeper to get to the root of their feelings. I don’t want my boys to say one day, “my dad always listens to me and he’s supportive, but I can’t tell him what’s really going on.” If you can assist them with identifying what they’re feeling and why, they can learn to process their emotions instead of letting them fester.
You also want to create a judgement-free zone so they see you as a safe space for sharing. Let your boys know they can talk to you about anything. Bottled up emotions as children can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms as adults. Researchers have found the unresolved adverse childhood experiences can impact the risk for addiction.
3. Be mindful of your language
Avoid phrases, such as “stop crying!” I know this can be really difficult especially if they’ve been crying for awhile and you’re feeling frustrated. However, be mindful that your language could unintentionally be sending a negative signal to your child that it is wrong to cry or that they’re being ridiculous for crying this much. You must pay attention to how your words could be interpreted and their impact. This may take practice. I even have to catch myself sometimes. However, realizing that the downstream impact of the things you say, and how they could affect your child for years to come should be a wakeup call.
One of my greatest hopes is that as my boys transcend into their teenage years and adulthood, they feel comfortable showing emotion and as a result, don’t have repressed emotions. I didn’t find that freedom until I was an adult. Already at ages four and seven my boys are very comfortable expressing their emotions and sharing their feelings. Sometimes we will spend a whole car ride just talking about what’s going on in their lives. I challenge all of us to reflect on the legacy we want to leave for our boys. Embracing emotional honesty is one of the gifts we can give them that will last a lifetime.
Stephen Ebbett is a father of two boys. He has more than 20 years of experience in leading digital marketing initiatives across a number of verticals. As chief digital and marketing officer of American Addiction Centers, he oversees the company’s traditional and digital marketing efforts to drive census and help solidify AAC’s position as a leader in the industry.