How to Help Boys Form Closer Friendships

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Gender stereotypes can influence identity development. We must show boys how to achieve emotional intimacy to avoid struggles in relationships later on.

A recent article in the Washington Post shares how teaching boys emotional intimacy will help them have more successful friendships later in life and avoid risky behaviors.

We’re limiting who boys can be, says Joseph Derrick Nelson, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College who researches how gender stereotypes influence boys’ identity development. “We think they want to be left alone, but they very much want to rely on and support their friends.”

If we want to lower the odds that they’ll struggle with relationships or risky behavior down the road, we must show them how to achieve emotional intimacy. Here are 10 ways parents can help boys defy stereotypes and form the close friendships they crave.

Draw parallels to sports
Many moments of intimacy are accepted in the sports context, Nelson says. When boys watch a football game, “there’s lots of sideways hugging and sitting close, but it’s not seen as inappropriate.” The same is true for athletes. “When someone tells his teammate, ‘That was a really great catch,’ it’s an expression of vulnerability, but I don’t think boys know it,” says Aziz Abdur-Ra’oof, a former NFL player who works with adolescent boys …

Help your son generalize the concept beyond sports. You might say, “Jon, you know how you didn’t like James when you first played basketball together, but then you realized he was a supportive teammate? When you approach people at school, think about that . . . and how it takes time to get to know someone,” Abdur-Ra’oof says.

Nurture their curiosity
Way asks the Listening Project participants to reflect on what’s happening in their own friendships, then interview someone they love. “Almost all the boys pick their mothers,” she says. The boys begin exploring the idea of friendship, asking questions such as “Who do you trust the most and why?” They learn how to be good listeners and follow up with deeper questions. She notes that people place a premium on empathy, but curiosity is just as important in a friendship. 

Capitalize on moments when boys cry
A parent once asked Reiner whether she should be concerned that her son cries frequently. “I said: ‘Crying is a window into us at our most vulnerable, and one of the few times you can sit down without pumping him full of questions about what he’s feeling. He’s clearly feeling sadness,” he says. “We can say: ‘You’re feeling a strong emotion right now that you probably go out of your way to hide all the time. What’s beneath the tears? If you’re ready to talk, I’m here.’ At the very least, you’ll bear witness and let your son know he’s not alone.”

Help them recognize friends’ boundaries
“Boys love banter, friendly insults and trash talking, and this is really the root of a lot of boy issues, because there are different tolerance levels for sarcasm,” says Ricky Stakem, a counselor at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda. “If a boy sees someone with a black eye and says, ‘Your face is messed up,’ that kid’s feelings might get hurt even if the first kid isn’t trying to be mean.” Explain that if a friend looks upset or stops engaging, it’s time to back down.

Purely physical interactions can be just as off-putting to boys, but it’s hard to avoid them. “Middle school boys will never quietly shake your hand,” Stakem says. “They’ll slap your back or give you a piggyback ride down the hall. Boys need human touch as much as girls, but they don’t want to be perceived as touchy-feely.” A boy who doesn’t like roughhousing might internalize his discomfort, says Jennifer Webster, director of school support and improvement for Montgomery County Public Schools. “If a couple kids tie a boy’s shoelaces together, he might feel pressure to laugh, but not have a great day,” she explains. Encourage sensitivity by asking your son whether he likes it when friends do something similar.


Read the entire article at the Washington Post.

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