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  • Writer's pictureBright Light Counseling Center

Man Up: The Impact of Gender Stereotypes on Male Emotional and Social Functioning

Updated: May 22


“Man up,” “boys don’t cry,” and “stop acting like a girl” are common phrases boys are likely to hear from adults, particularly from the men in their lives. These words get thrown about and casually dropped throughout childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. Even if you do not identify as a boy, I am sure you have heard these phrases before and are nodding your head along - “Yup, I have heard these words…these stereotypes before.”


Gender Stereotyping Begins in Infancy


infant male on white blanket with a hat

Typically, adults are more quick to respond to an infant female’s cry and tend to show a delayed response time in addressing an infant male’s cry; which is corroborated by a study conducted by the University of Sussex that concluded gender stereotypes may start as young as three months old.


This is further supported by adults often assuming an infant’s high-pitched cry is that of an infant identified as female and even attributing feminine characteristics to an infant with a high-pitched cry. This goes to show that gender stereotyping first begins in the family, before the child even begins entering public spaces and, therefore, being subjected to gender stereotypes by peers and other adults. (I think you and I both know it begins before that with all the questions - are you having a boy? A girl? And then all the baby clothes that tend to be gender stereotyped with blues and pinks. While it is easier to shop for a baby shower in greens, yellows, and purples nowadays, the stereotypes are live and well). Research indicates a child’s gender identity is often understood by the child by the age three. 


The Impact of Gender Stereotypes on Boys' Emotional Expression


Continuing with the gender stereotype that boys do not show emotion, boys subjected to this stereotype do not express their emotions. The most common emotion expressed by boys is often anger and even aggressive or violent behaviors. Anger is often the "safe" or "acceptable" emotion for a boy or male to express. With boys adopting male gender stereotypes, this often perpetuates loneliness and isolation.


teen males playing video games

In a video by NBC News titled “Toxic Masculinity In Boys Is Fueling An Epidemic Of Loneliness,” the subject matter of male friendships is explored. Within the video, it demonstrates boys desire to have friendships with other boys in which vulnerability and emotional intimacy are present. However, there is a trend, beginning primarily in early adolescence, in which boys are discouraged from this level of emotional intimacy in their friendships with other boys, because there is a fear of being perceived as “gay.” Males interviewed in the video recognize the influence of male gender stereotypes in that they believe they are not supposed to show emotions and are supposed to be strong. As societal expectations often pressure boys to conform to traditional masculine roles, which prioritize stoicism and emotional toughness over vulnerability and expression, males may experience a disconnect between their true emotions and the façade they feel compelled to maintain. If boys are unable, unwilling (or really told that it is not accepted, supported, or modeled) to share their emotional experiences with others due to the male gender stereotypes thrust upon them, this fosters loneliness and isolation, exacerbating mental health challenges.

Addressing Gender Stereotypes in Playtime: A Path Forward


I should mention the above information was derived from publications investigating the impact of heterosexual parents and society as a whole on boys and men. With that being said, this begs the question: What can be done about it? With infants and toddlers, it takes conscious effort to remove gender stereotypes from playtime. For example, this could be done by removing the label of “for boys” or “for girls” regarding this or that toy. Removing these labels gives young boys a breadth of learning experiences and the ability to flex various cognitive skills and problem solving skills by not limiting what they can or cannot play with. Children are observable learners and model the behaviors of their caregivers.


family discussing emotions in kitchen

Rather than dismissing the emotional experiences of boys, parents can engage in emotion coaching, which was developed by the renowned psychologist John Gottman. Essentially, emotion coaching uses moments of heightened emotional experiences to understand their emotions, problem solve, and develop more effective emotional responses. The key elements of emotion coaching are as follows: awareness of the child’s emotions, recognizing this as an opportunity for intimacy and learning, empathic listening and validating emotions, finding words to identify the emotion, and exploring healthier strategies to solve problems. Having greater emotional awareness will give the child greater emotional intelligence and security in his emotions, which will continue throughout their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. 


Perpetuation of Gender Stereotypes in Adulthood and Its Impact on Men's Mental Health


As boys grow older and become men, these gender stereotypes are further perpetuated in adulthood. For example, men are more likely to enter careers deemed as masculine (e.g., STEM) rather than careers in the caretaking sector (more so often deemed feminine). Moreover, the societal devaluation of caretaking professions as less prestigious or financially rewarding compared to STEM careers can deter men from considering these roles, despite their potential interest or aptitude. This perpetuates the gender imbalance in caregiving professions and reinforces the notion that certain occupations are inherently more suitable or acceptable based on gender.


Due to the aforementioned loneliness and isolation coupled with the pressure to be strong and not show emotions, it is understandable that suicide rates are higher among men than women. This societal expectation for men to embody stoicism and toughness often leads them to internalize their struggles and avoid seeking help or support when they are experiencing mental health challenges. As a result, many men may suffer silently, without the necessary resources or outlets to address their emotional pain, ultimately escalating the risk of suicide. This complex interplay between societal norms, emotional suppression, and lack of support underscores the urgent need for destigmatizing mental health discussions and promoting avenues for men to express vulnerability and seek assistance when needed.


man riding bike alone

Based on what I witness in my personal life, as a man, and the work with male clients, I observe this sense of loneliness and isolation as well as the desire to form emotionally intimate friendships with other men. However, due to the perpetuated gender stereotypes throughout the years, it is difficult for men to know how to even form these emotionally intimate friendships with each other. These stereotypes dictate that men should prioritize stoicism, strength, and independence over vulnerability and emotional expression, creating barriers to forming genuine connections. As a result, men may find themselves navigating a complex landscape where societal expectations clash with their innate need for emotional support and connection with others. This struggle underscores the importance of challenging and dismantling these stereotypes to foster healthier and more authentic relationships.


Cultivating Emotional Intimacy Among Men: Embracing Vulnerability


As for men, it is tricky to recognize and undo the negative impact of gender stereotypes that have become so ingrained throughout the man’s life. Cultivating emotional intimacy among men involves challenging societal norms that discourage vulnerability and emotional expression.


man in therapy

Therapy can play a crucial role in helping men cultivate emotional intimacy by providing a supportive and nonjudgmental environment to explore their thoughts and feelings. In therapy, men can learn to recognize and challenge the gender stereotypes and societal expectations that may hinder their ability to express vulnerability. In my work with men, I offer guidance and techniques to help men develop healthier coping mechanisms, communication skills, and emotional regulation strategies. Through therapy, men can also explore past experiences and traumas that may have contributed to their emotional barriers, ultimately fostering self-awareness and facilitating deeper connections with others.


By creating spaces where men feel safe to share their innermost thoughts and feelings, genuine connections can flourish. This process requires men to embrace vulnerability and authenticity in their interactions, fostering deeper understanding and empathy. Ultimately, cultivating emotional intimacy among men can lead to stronger friendships, increased mental well-being, and a more inclusive notion of masculinity.


My takeaway from my aforementioned observations in my personal life and therapeutic experiences is this: vulnerability begets vulnerability. In order to develop emotionally intimate friendships with the men in our lives, we must be willing to practice that vulnerability with men in which there is already a semblance of security in the relationship. This not only will encourage further vulnerability by creating emotional intimacy but also enhance security in our male friendships by feeling seen, heard, and understood.




Dawson, Licensed Professional Counselor


 

Disclaimer: Our content is on and related to the topic of mental health. The content is general information that may or may not apply to you. The content is not a substitute for professional services. This website does not contain professional advice, nor is any professional-client relationship established with you through your use of this website.


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