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Opinion Our increasingly touch-phobic society is bad for children

Boys can sometimes have problems expressing their feelings – we must empower them so they grow into the kind of men our society really needs.

“I HAVE TO go meet these guys from another school tomorrow and I know they’re probably going to beat me”, so said a 16-year-old boy to me recently, and when I asked him how he felt about this he laughed and said “feelings are for girls, guys don’t talk about stuff like that, I mean of course I’m scared and I don’t want to go but I have to, I have to show that I’m tough and that I don’t care, that I don’t feel anything at all about it or I’m dead”.

The Representation Project, a movement that uses film and media content to expose injustices created by gender stereotypes to promote change, posted a video “The mask we live in” that questions what we, as society, are doing to our boys before we grow them into men. It’s a powerful video that repeats the types of phrases we say to our boys when they show emotion such as “man up”, “boys don’t cry”, “grow some balls” “be a man” to highlight how we have constructed a definition of masculinity that disallows boys feeling secure in their own skin.

Coming to terms with their own masculinity

I speak to groups of teenagers in secondary schools around the country and while we often talk and hear about the pressures girls are under, in terms of body image and sexuality, I am also hearing from boys how they are struggling to come to terms with their own masculinity, their own sense of self. They feel they have to be tougher, stronger, cooler, harder than others to be taken seriously as men. They take their lead from their peers and learn very young that vulnerability is not an option and so they hide their feelings behind a tough defence, concealing a constant and simmering anxiety.

But our boys do not know how to show their feelings and so they get trapped inside causing a tension that builds and builds reaching a pressure point that cannot be sustained. There must be a release and they will either turn it inward and harm themselves in some way or turn it outward in aggression towards others. We have to equip our boys with an emotional language that enables them to express how they are feeling without a need for their fists.

Nurture play

One of the best ways to raise secure, calm and contained boys is through a balance of rough/tumble play with nurture play. Generally (though not exclusively), fathers tend towards rough/tumble type of play; high-energy play and sports-based play. These are all very important for children. In rough/tumble play, children learn to engage with their aggression through physical contact without losing control of their emotions or impulses, in other words it helps build their capacity for self-regulation.

It is clear that (generally) fathers tend to promote more achievement with children whereas mothers tend towards nurturance – and it is equally clear that children need both in order to fully develop and grow into grounded and contained young adults. Both nurture and rough/tumble play have in common one of the most talked about and phobic ways of communicating: touch

The importance of touch

We are living in an increasingly touch-phobic society where we avoid touching each other for fear of litigation or accusation. In particular we avoid touching children (unless we are the parents of the child). This is something that concerns me greatly because when we advocate that touch is a negative thing – to be wary and suspicious of, to be avoided – we are leaving children wanting. The skin is the largest organ of the human body; we need touch to develop into fully functioning and caring adults.

Harry Harlow’s study on attachment in monkeys in the 1950s centred on experiments with giving or denying infant monkeys’ access to touch and the outcomes were undeniable. Where touch was denied, attachment could not develop and those monkeys displayed serious anti-social and emotionally stunted behaviours that could only be healed through positive, healthy, touch-based interaction.

We can see in Mediterranean societies where touch is open and commonplace amongst people that anti-social behaviour is significantly lower than in societies where touch is discouraged such as the UK/United States. We crave and need touch and if we cannot get it in a positive way we will seek it in a negative way, physical violence/aggression contains the secondary gain of touch.

Empowering boys and men

Rather than simply looking upon our youth as aggressive and/or unfeeling, let’s look long and hard at how we got to this place and how we can turn it around so we can help our boys grow into the kind of men our society really needs.

A seven-year-old boy I work with puts it best: “you know that stuff you told me about not keeping my feelings inside so I won’t get a tummy ache? Well it really works!” We have to help our boys engage with their feelings and empower them to show how they are feeling in a way that will not hurt them or anyone else, start today and give the boy in your life a big hug.

Joanna Fortune is a clinical psychotherapist and the director of the Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin. You can find out more at calling 01-6976568 or follow her on Twitter @solamh

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