This is part 3 of a 3 part series on Men And Shame
As a parent of twin boys I am highly attuned to the importance of tending to the developing egos of my sons. There are a lot of unconscious beliefs we have about the gender of our children. Boys need less affection, girls need more. Girls are more subdued and boys are more active. Boys are tougher than girls. All of these unconscious gender stereotypes contribute to keeping young boys inside traditional masculine boxes. We must work hard to overcome these beliefs about how boys are and see the male child as their own unique human being.
Jared entered my office when he was 17. His head was down and he looked at me with disdain. I knew I didn’t have much time to build some kind of connection before I was denied access to what was happening to him. Jared had grown up in an environment of constant competition. His father, wanting to teach Jared the ways of the world, constantly challenged him by criticizing and berating Jared. Eventually, after trying for years to earn acceptance, Jared gave up on most everything. He no longer saw the point of trying, because, for his dad, it never seemed good enough. Jared was in turmoil and he had been taught by the men around him that he could not appear weak by showing his pain and hurt. As a result of all of this, Jared was failing at school and becoming more isolated from his social circles.
The child who does not have the unconditional acceptance and love of a parent—or someone, somewhere—will be less bold, less confident, more vulnerable to a host of negative influences (Reichart, 2019).
What dads mean to sons.
It is important to acknowledge what a critical role fathers play in their son’s life. A young boy who feels seen and validated by his father is much less likely to become conditioned to feeling shame. For many dads, the stories they have of needing to “toughen up,” their sons can lead to a form of emotional abuse.
I understand the anxiety around wanting boys to be able to handle the challenges of the world around them. For many men who become fathers they went through difficult periods, being hazed at young ages and having to fight to survive. They only want the best for their little guy but these attempts to harden their sons often work against them.
Dads have a strong impact on the lives of sons. Sons will look to their fathers to begin to develop a sense of what it means to be a man. If their father is berating, sarcastic, distant or abusive…this will be the most likely outcome for their young boy. Many fathers underestimate how their behavior is impacting their sons.
In his book When Good Men Behave Badly (which I have quoted extensively in this series on shame), David Wexler talks about the importance of fathers:
I have learned to never underestimate the power of a father’s approval of his son. I have witnessed even some of the most defended teen boys, who carry themselves with attitudes communicating disinterest and even disgust for what their fathers think of them and their tattoos and music and attitude, well up in tears when their fathers communicated sincere love and appreciation (Wexler, 2004).
Father’s need to take the lead in their son’s life by showing them a way out of traditional masculinity that revolves around emotional shutdown. This first means taking a look at their own pain.
Why fathers hurt their sons.
No fathers I have talked to start out with the intention to do any sort of harm to the people they care about. Much of their actions come out of the unconscious wounds they received from their own fathers. Men who grew up in abusive environments are not able to help their sons out of these traditional male boxes until they can see how they themselves are in them.
The cycle of abuse continues in many cases because any treatment of tenderness their son receives only reminds fathers of how wounded they are. A father, seeing his wife be kind and considerate to their son, may bring up the memories of how little he got from his dad and the wound flairs up again.
This can lead to the father lashing out at the son in the form of criticism and sarcastic remarks. For fathers caught in this loop they are not able to form healthy attachments to their sons.
David Wexler again adds some important thoughts. The broken mirror is the reflection that fathers didn’t get from their parents that was validating and affirming to their sense of self. Without this reflection they spend their lives with the wounded belief that there is something wrong with them. As I talked about in the previous articles on shame, many men attempt to get this reflection from their partners. When it doesn’t come they move into a shame cycle.
With fathers they are also wanting this validation of being a “good dad” from their sons. The same kind of cycle may happen. The father looks to his son for validation only to be denied. The father immediately lashes out at his son in order to save themselves from the pain of their shame.
How do we raise healthy boys.
For any father reading this my hope is not to shame your actions but to encourage you to find a way out. Father/son relationships are complex and have their own set of challenges. The pay off for investing in your relationship with your son is a deeper more connected love. It is also true that your son will have a more successful life of his own. Here are some thoughts on how to do this:
Make the relationship a priority:
We can get caught in the different things we want for our sons. We want them to be successful, kind, well-mannered and generally good kids. The best way to help that occur is to invest everyday in the relationship you have with your son.
Let your son be who he is:
A good way for a son to feel like he isn’t measuring up to his father is when he is asked to be something he isn’t. Fathers who want their sons to be athletes may push their little boys into places that they aren’t capable of being successful. Financially successful fathers may have expectations of their sons that are not realistic. The goal is to let your son be who he is rather than being what you want them to be.
Love when it is hard:
Children make a lot of mistakes growing up and this can be frustrating to anyone. Yet it is in these moments when the child has failed that they need us the most. Letting go of the disappointment allows a father to show up in their son’s time of need and be there for him.
When a father asks his adolescent son how his day is they are likely to get a one word answer. Stay in the conversation and ask more specific questions. Fathers can really help their sons feel validated when they really show interest in what and who they are.
There isn’t anything as validating as feeling listened to. When a father gets totally present with their son and hears his experience without judgment or evaluation the son is going to feel unconditionally loved.
Do your own work:
The wounds of a man’s past will show up in their parenting. Get help. Men think those things are over with but children have a way of bringing our pain to the surface. Daniel Seigel and Mary Hartzell in their book, Parenting From the Inside Out explain this well:
By freeing ourselves from the constraints of our past, we can offer our children the spontaneous and connecting relationships that enable them to thrive. By deepening our ability to understand our own emotional experience, we are better able to relate empathically with our children and promote their self-understanding and healthy development (Siegal, Hartzell, 2013).
Slowly but surely overtime Jared let down his defenses. Together, we started to create healthier, more supportive relationship for him. The change that really came was when Jared’s father was invited into my office to listen to his son’s pain. Sitting there, hearing Jared cry about the hurt he had from his father’s criticism, opened up a space for both of them to heal. Overtime Jared and his father were able to connect in a way that allowed Jared to feel the care of his father. This allowed Jared to begin to overcome his shame. Over several months Jared’s grades improved, he became more social, started dating and stopped the destructive behaviors. At times his dad will still go into old patterns of behavior but they have ways of working through this. Jared shared that because of his dad he is now starting to believe in himself again.
How This Shows Up In My Life.
I wish I could say that raising healthy boys is easy. In reality I know that at times my old patterns of shame arise in the moment. My work is to be mindful of them and not give into their self-righteous pull. As my babies grow and mature this will be more difficult. I have made a strong commitment to my sons, not in terms of their material well-being, but in being there for them and doing the hard relationship work. I don’t believe failing is the problem, it is not learning from my mistakes or repairing the missteps when they occur.
If you want to gets support in fatherhood head over to my website: https://www.wholehearteddads.com/
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!
My name is Bryce Giron Mathern and I’m the owner of Brass Balls Tender Heart. I am a licensed therapist in the Denver/Boulder Metro area. As a result of being passionate and committed to helping my clients have amazing relationships with their partners, children and other family members is primary. Therefore I have spent a big chunk of my life learning the skills necessary to create healthy relationships. If you are struggling in a relationship I encourage you to reach out for help. My belief is that through a process of healing old wounds and learning new skills people can build relationships that are nourishing and supportive.