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What little boys are made of

I’ve got a real soft spot for a young boy. He is bursting with joy and enthusiasm life. He is on full throttle from the moment he wakes up til he rests his sweet head on his pillow at night. He soaks up the world around him and the way adults and others in his world operate. Watching and learning how to be, how to behave, and mostly how to feel.

He’s been told he is too much for his teachers, so he must see a doctor and get some pills to calm him down and help him focus, so he is not so much for her to handle. It suits his parents as it will make their lives very demanding lives less so. They find it helps him focus at school, so they say yes.

What this teacher doesn’t know is what I’ve seen in his art since he was a tiny tot. This is a gifted and creative child, one with an immense well of emotions. But in our society this is not so acceptable for little boys, they must be strong and hide their emotions, especially when they are feeling sad, or frightened, or irritable, or really anything at all, especially vulnerable.

As I look around there are so many powerful examples of young girls coming into their fearless and bold new selves. There is no doubt the #shepersisted and #metoo movements have emboldened girls and young women to be all they were meant to be, and more.

But as Lily Howard says “if emotional literacy — the ability to identify, understand, and express our feelings and to empathize with the feelings of others— is to be gendered as “feminine,” we’re in trouble.”

I fear this is especially the case with boys. There is something not working for them, especially in Australia. Perhaps it is as Michael Ian Black warns that emotionally stunted boys become dysfunctional men who remain “trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.”

When you see that suicide is the leading cause of death in Australian men aged 15 to 44 — more than double the national road toll- there is something we need to do differently.

Helping men learn to be reach out, to be vulnerable, must start early on.

One of the best ways I know is by developing emotional literacy in boys. This helps them with greater self-awareness, improved behaviour management, greater empathy and better interpersonal relationships, founded less on power and more on mutual respect.

One art therapy technique I often use with those who are having difficulty in school managing their behaviour is one you can use at home.

- Take out some different coloured pencils, crayons, pastels – whatever you have available.

- Grab a piece of paper, draw some little circles and fill them in with different colours then label each with an emotion. Usually four or five will do.

- Next create an outline of a heart, depending on their age you can do this for them or let them do so themselves. Then ask them to colour in their heart with the different colours.

- Have a conversation about their heart and what’s inside.

These are two hearts, one just after a young boy had a fight with his sister (on the right) and one after we had talked about it (on the left).

What he discovered after the drawing was that feeling left out really hurts and makes him feel sad. And he realised there are ways of expressing this, instead of getting angry and fighting, that can help him.

In time what he comes to see is that he is as much his actions as he is his emotions. That the two are interlinked and that he has choices he can make. That he is made of strength and softness, courage and vulnerability.

Katherine Winlaw is a art psychotherapist and works with a range of clients in her studio in Brisbane.



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