How parents and caregivers can train boys to embrace healthy masculinity

Boys and men who strongly subscribe to fixed gender roles are known to have higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress, and lower self-esteem. — 123rf

To promote healthy masculinity, we need to first understand its nemesis, toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is unhealthy because the idea of manliness or manhood can, in itself, be a pressure-cooker.

The psychological armour of manly defence is usually reinforced by a list of underlying irrational beliefs, including the idea that men need not seek help because it implies weakness. Irrationality contributes to unnecessary distress, and it is therefore counterintuitive to strength, power and control – all of which are usually attributed to masculinity.

Our society has evolved into being very accepting of women displaying typically masculine traits of being brave, strong, independent and competitive. Given more gender equality in society, we see more women being breadwinners of the family, put in leadership positions and other roles that are traditionally carried out by men.

Girls are increasingly socialised to be competitive and independent as they grow into adulthood.

Yet, men are socially rejected when they demonstrate stereotypically feminine characteristics such as being empathic, gentle, nurturing and sensitive. They tend to be called weak, soft or worse, “sissy”.

In order for them to be more accepted, they need to maintain a tough, stoic, competitive and aggressive exterior to “save face”. So, such pressure to be manly becomes a barrier to getting help when needed, hence the label “toxic”.

Traditional norms

The Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men by the American Psychological Association (APA) states that toxic masculinity is “characterised as the adherence to traditional masculine norms that is harmful to men and those around them”. These norms include power over women, intimate partner violence, aggressive behaviours and emotional detachment.

Given its high-pressure concept, toxic masculinity is associated with increased mental health problems.

Boys and men who strongly subscribe to fixed gender roles are known to have higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress and lower self-esteem. They are also less likely to seek help or have a sense of social support.

Their distress tends to be maintained by a black-and- white way of thinking. It is no wonder that the prevalence of suicide tends to be higher among men worldwide.

Aggressive men also tend to face more problems in their lives compared to men who are not. Men who strongly believe that they have to always be superior to women also face more problems, compared to those who can easily collaborate with women.

These problems tend to be social and relational in nature and they stem from consequences of aggression and oppression. There is a higher likelihood of relationship problems and domestic violence, creating unhealthy social dynamics in general.

Therefore, it is very important to nurture boys towards healthy masculinity. What would this look like?

From a psychological perspective, it is to dispel the myths of manhood and to undo the toxicities that are barriers to better well-being.

These actions include teaching boys to respect girls as equals, and to empower them to support gender equality towards healthy collaborations between genders by challenging traditional gender norms.

Role models

Expose boys to men being vulnerable who are also successful and strong female role models. Show them that life still goes on when traditional gender roles are challenged. The world is not black and white but full of colours. Adaptation is key to survival.

Healthy masculinity is the opposite of toxic masculinity. It involves an attitude that accepts women in powerful positions, respects women and does not need to be aggressive in solving problems.

It also includes a healthy expression of emotions and an openness to seek help. Talking about emotions to boys since they are young can help normalise this. Emotional literacy is a protective factors in mental health.

Based on research on mental health literacy, we know that asking for help is one of the most important things you can do when life gets overwhelming. So one thing boys should learn is that it is very healthy to do so when they feel stuck.

There are plenty of models you can use as examples. In superhero movies, you have big strong heroes asking for help. In the Justice League movie, Batman built a team of superheroes to fight aliens because he knew he could not do it alone. In Avengers, Tony Stark, or Iron Man assembled a team of superheroes to defend Earth.

In the real world, there are many examples of successful and independent grown men seeking help and going on to succeed. In politics, in sports, and even in war, there is much greater advantage in working together. There’s really no shame in asking for help.

Breaking the cycle

While the above examples of help-seeking cite rather aggressive characters, it is also important to teach boys to break the cycle of violence and aggression. Many individuals with toxic masculinity grew up with models that reinforce rigid unhealthy male ideals. They are usually socialised to conform to traditional gender norms and a sense of male privilege.

It is important to address the root cause of toxic masculinity and to challenge the perceived norm of being tough with a license for violence, being a winner, and being better than women.

There is no shame in being emotional or in reaching out. Behavioural experiments carried out in many research studies involving men show that irrational beliefs about needing to be tough and strong all the time are themselves actual weaknesses. They show that seeking help is highly correlated with getting help, and also getting better towards thriving.

While we teach boys to have healthier masculinity, it is also very important to have a scaffolding of resources within the community for boys and men to have safe spaces. Such spaces and resources should help them dispute unhealthy beliefs about being male and to generate new and healthy beliefs.

Social narrative should encourage males to express emotions and to support those who do, by acknowledging and accepting them. Having a society that does not have a “man enough” concept would be a much friendlier one.

Men have more than enough unnecessary problems due to toxic masculinity. Gender-based health problems seem to disadvantage men because they tend to be less careful about well-being, more risk-taking, aggressive and less likely to reach out for help.

This sees men’s lifespan and overall quality of life at a significantly lower level than that of women.

Men have higher risk factors that increase their burden of disease and reduction of quality of life. Many of these are psychosocial risk factors that surround toxic masculinity.

We need functional men in this world as much as we need functional women. As parents and caregivers, let’s teach our boys to have a good health span and to challenge traditional social norms that perpetuate unhealthy beliefs about manhood.

Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon is a professor at the Department of Psychology, School of Medical and Life Sciences, Sunway University. He is a clinical psychologist by training and is passionate in promoting mental health literacy in the community.

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