I received a question from mom who sadly was recently widowed. Her third grade son gets so frustrated when he can’t do something like fold a paper airplane just right. He goes into a crying fit for about ten to fifteen minutes, then seems magically fine. What should she do? Hug him? Try to talk to him? Should she be more worried that something bigger is going on?
I told her it’s best not to intervene in these outbursts when they are happening. Walk off and ignore whenever possible – and while it sounds mean – don’t try to hug or console at that moment. Wait until the crying spell has passed. The brain is undergoing an intense emotional release. The frustrations are layered in this case. There’s the immediate reason (paper airplane folded wrong) that sets her son off, but having lost a parent, particularly a dad, there are deeper and more complicated feelings that rise to the surface. Crying becomes an opportunity to release everything else. In my experience, it’s quite natural – healthy in fact – for boys to briefly “lose it/overreact” when they don’t accomplish typical “guy stuff” well (e.g., airplane folding or learning to skateboard, etc.). Not to worry, despite the seriousness of their crying, it’s a normal and healthy release.
Boys who have lost a parent will likely show more over-the-top reactions to simple frustrations. Again, it’s their way of letting out the emotional steam building under the surface. We all can appreciate that. And consider this… there will come a day very soon when most young boys stop crying altogether – or very rarely shed a tear. As boys grow they tend to express sad feelings and frustrations mostly through anger. So what can you do now? Better to teach them early on that channeling that anger into more productive positive ways is the better route – like getting outdoors for a run or shooting hoops. Talking about it alone won’t do much but frustrate them further. Telling them to move in some way and identifying it as “too much adrenaline” helps. For boys who aren’t around a dad regularly, get trusted guys to show your son the emotional ropes. A tutor, coach, boy baby-sitter, uncles. When good male role models show boys how to handle strong emotions, boys listen. They watch and learn, they imitate, wanting to please – and be like – these older, stronger men they will soon become.