How can we best support our boys when they are young and as they grow into men? There are many cultural messages for boys around feelings, so how do we navigate that territory? How do we stay respectful of our boys’ biology and neurobiology? We want to make sure we are creating the space for their emotions and really respecting that they’re different than we are as women and moms.
In this episode, Rebecca talks with Nathan McTague of The Center for Emotional Education. They discuss how emotion is actually processed in the brain, the real needs of children who are experience intense feelings, and how testosterone causes all kinds of “wonkiness” for teenage boys.
How emotion is processed in the brain
If we don’t get proper support when experiencing intense emotions, the wiring for dropping into a lower brain state every time emotion comes up is altered. The result can be adults who have to go on a long walk or need 3 or 4 days to calm down. When children have support and have top-down processing of emotion (access to their thinking brains), they wire to have access to higher brain functions when they’re upset. Younger kids can’t do it on their own and they need us to help them to train their brains to calm.
These days, there is an increase information and support for positive discipline, but even that better information doesn’t really include this piece of supporting children through their feelings. They create a safe space for cooling out. With younger kids, we train them to need that to manage emotion. But this is supposed to be co-processing. We don’t learn to calm in isolation, we need to learn to regulate our emotions in connection.
That’s part of why we get triggered in their emotions.
That’s the opportunity for us to link up and connect emotionally. It can be triggering for us at first. There’s a moment when we can’t tell who is having the emotion. As we work with that, we can really use the link-up as an opportunity to work it out and get to a brain state where we can work together.
In teenhood, it all gets wonky.
There’s a lot of reorienting going on in the teenage brain. We talked about Joe Despenza and the idea of neurons that fire together wire together, which has also said by Dan Siegel. The neurons that have been wired together get stronger. Where there are weaker connections, trimming happens. The pruning is supposed to make the brain more efficient but the pruning itself can also make the brain a bit wonky. How long does the wonkiness last? From approximately ages 14-25. (!!!!)
But the good news is that it isn’t all a mess in there the whole time. Different parts of the interruption happen at different times. Frontal lobe reorganization happens early and decision-making becomes less reliable, as well as self-awareness and staying with a decision they may have previously made. It may be hard for them to remember things they know work for them.
Nathan shared that his almost-15-year-old daughter no longer wants to talk about it when she’s upset. She’ll accept a hug, but doesn’t want to explore why she’s upset. They have found that just holding space with her for a while is helpful. She has realized that she knows talking about it always helps, but it doesn’t feel like the right thing at that time. She knows it helps, but that part of her brain is not online enough to guide her actions in the moment. This is not uncommon for parents of teens to run into.
Testosterone adds more complication
That situation can be more complicated with boys because of testosterone, which can shut down productivity. The emotion that comes with the surge of cortisol heightens the effect of testosterone and they can end up going more “gorilla.” Even if they’ve been used to coming to you and crying in your arms, they may start to have feelings that drive them to a more physical response. They can’t tell themselves not to feel that physical response. Thinking is so state-specific, so when they’re in a specific emotional state and the hormones are taking over, they can’t think their way out of it. The state our brain is in guides the way that we can think. So our children actually can’t get to the clear thinking they had previously used and understood. The thoughts are just not available.
Making space for the feelings
We talked about the need for making space for our children to just have their feelings, not trying to problem-solve right away. If we get better at it during some period of our child’s lives, when they become a teen it’s another layer of difficulty. They’re older, so we expect them to have more emotional wherewithal to not make the emotions bigger. There’s more access to logic in general. With older children, we can get tricked into thinking we don’t have to make space for the emotions and go more quickly into solving the problems that we think caused all of it. Because they’re still in the middle of the emotion, it’s sort of like throwing grease onto the fire. They’re not available in that part of their brain in those moments. The scrambling is still going on. And even finding the words to explain why they are upset can be really irritating to the emotional brain. It just wants to be held, connected with, allowed, made space for.
Nathan shared that he’s starting to do less investigating into the problems, shifting instead to just trying to figure out what basic emotion they’re feeling. Adding some physical touch, if possible, can be helpful because touch helps neural processing. Even as an adult, it’s still an irritating question to him to be asked, “What happened?” He says, “I don’t know! I’m just upset!”
Emotion doesn’t work the way we’re commonly trained to think of it.
It’s more like a basket we’re carrying around. All the emotional things that happen – toe stubs, bad traffic, having to go to the bathroom, all get put in the basket. Then some little issue comes up, we bend over to check it out and all the stuff in the basket comes tumbling out and we blame the last thing that happened. 9 times out of 10 when we’re feeling upset, there is nothing to actually fix. If we could just give ourselves the space to feel the feelings and sit with them, the so-called problem may just go away on its own.
When conflict came up with his kids when they were little, they used to always go to the Feeleez poster. The kids would take turns talking and pointing to the pictures to describe how they felt about what happened. They’d have their feelings, get some empathy around the feelings, then 90% of the time the issue would resolve and they could solve the problem.
We need to continue to do this with our teens and particularly our teen boys with their hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. We could do a greater service for them to have some space around their feelings. Maybe way after there has been space for the feelings, it’s good circle back around to the possible problem and see if something needs to be done. We tend to think that by going straight towards the issue and going straight to the root of it that it is a faster way, but it’s probably the opposite. Just being with how they’re feeling is actually a much faster route to getting back to a more regulated state. And it saves us a fair amount of energy going through the legwork trying to figure out solutions to problems that may not need to be solved at all.
What did you think of this conversation? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or you can email me.
Join us for Part 2 of this conversation with Nathan McTague next week!