PARENTS

This Is Why Boys Need More Emotional Support Than Girls

They're not "tougher."

11/17/2017 11:31 EST | Updated 12/08/2017 09:26 EST

When you read about gender stereotyping children, it's usually about behaviours like girls opting to play with dolls and boys preferring trucks. But what about other differences?

Recent and past research sheds light on gender differences in the brain and its development, and it's these studies we should be looking to when it comes to thinking about the kinds of emotional support we give our children, especially our boys.

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In a 2000 study entitled "The Fragile Male," Sebastian Kraemer states that baby boy brains are actually more fragile than baby girls'. Even in the womb, boy brains are more reactive to maternal depression and stress, while at birth, baby boy brains lag behind girls by a full six weeks.

Research has also shown that boys have higher cortisol levels (the stress hormone) after a traumatic birth where they were separated from their mothers, or their caregiver was unresponsive.

Kraemer argues that female brains have an early advantage that stays with them throughout childhood, while boys struggle and trail behind in a variety of areas.

As boys age, they can continue to struggle, which, when compounded by the lack of emotional support, only gets more serious. Although scientists go back and forth on this, it is thought that males are more prone to dyslexia and difficulty with reading and language, making school and learning difficult. Boys are also more likely to have childhood onset conduct disorder and are two to three times as likely to have ADHD than girls.

In adulthood, Canadian men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women, and while men are just as prone to getting depression as women, they display it differently so it can be tougher to spot the signs.

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However, while it's clear there may be gender differences in brain structures and development, the brain is also strongly shaped by experience. We call this amazing phenomenon neuroplasticity.

Kraemer's research shows that parents nurture their baby boys less than their girls. Why? Well, partially it's because boys are more demanding, which can cause more distance between parent and child and cause problems for the child down the road.

"Boys tended to be too excitable, and mothers did all they could to soothe and settle them, at some cost to their development," notes Kraemer. "The care of boys is generally more difficult and therefore more likely to go wrong, adding to the deficits already existing before birth. Since most of the growth of the human brain takes place after birth, some early environmental stressors could lead to disadvantage for boys being 'wired in.' In any case, in boys the formation of secure attachment to a caregiver is more subject than in girls to parental unavailability, insensitivity, or depression."

In adulthood, Canadian men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women, and while men are just as prone to getting depression as women, they display it differently so it can be tougher to spot the signs.

In addition, we have a harmful cultural stereotype which views boys as being the tougher and stronger sex. Parents simply provide less emotional nurturing for boys than girls because they assume they don't need it.

It's these toxic masculine stereotypes that are reinforced in young boys that can harm them as adults. "Young boys are taught early that expressing their emotions is taboo. This causes long-term harm to their relationships with each other and with people of other genders," Jessica Raven, executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, previously told HuffPost Canada.

So, our boys are getting a double whammy: they have the more vulnerable brain, and they get less supportive parenting. It's these differences in emotional support in the first year that Kraemer claimed are linked to men's greater mental health challenges later in life.

Researchers found that men who subscribed to societal gender norms, which are prescribed at birth, saw their mental health decrease and their tendency to find help drop, reports the CBC.

Watch: Signs Your Child Is Mentally Healthy

Dr. Allan Schore of UCLA supports Kraemer's claims. In his 2017 paper entitled "All Our Sons: The Developmental Neurobiology And Neuroendocrinology Of Boys At Risk," Schore states, "In light of the male infant's slower brain maturation, the secure mother's attachment-regulating function as a sensitively responsive, interactive affect regulator of his immature right brain in the first year is essential to optimal male socioemotional development."

So what exactly does all that psychobabble mean to parents like you and me who are busy raising a boy? The concept Schore is trying to explain is that humans are shaped by the relationships they have, and that parents help develop the emotional capacities of their children by the relationship they have with them.

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Loving, trusting, responsive, and intimate relationships help children understand, express, and detangle their emotional experiences. This aids in the development of social skills for understanding, caring, and getting along with others. It just so happens that boys need more help with this process than girls do, and most especially in the very first year of life.

Schore suggests we lobby for longer maternity, paternity, and family leave, so infants can be with their primary attachment figures longer. We need to cuddle and coo, smile and vocalize, and play peak-a-boo with our infant boys!

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Here are some suggestions to ensure your boy is getting the emotional support he needs:

  • Rather than thinking boys don't show their emotions (which is not true), see boys as struggling to show their emotions, and help them open up by encouraging them, letting them know it's OK to show their emotions, and listening.
  • Encourage them to pay attention to their feelings and create a home where it feels safe to express all our feelings.
  • Never shame them for their feelings. Don't say things like "Big boys don't cry," "Stop being dramatic," "Don't be a girl," or "Act like a big boy."
  • Teach emotional regulation in the moment. Try your best to stay calm — when we aren't calm, we can't transmit any calming influence. Don't take their behaviours as directed at you personally. Remember that simple excitement can be mistaken as anxiety and trigger a fight, flight, freeze response.
  • Recognize that boys need more, not less, care than girls.

Once again, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That first year of life is critical in the right brain emotional development that our boys need so much in order for them to grow into happy, healthy men. Cuddle and attune with your baby boys as much as you can!

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