One of my favorite stories about learning to understand the opposite gender happened in college when I was dating my husband. My husband has a closely knit group of male friends who have known each other for 30+ years now. While we were dating, I spent a lot of time at their apartment listening to them banter with each other. As time went on, it became apparent that one of the guys in the group was the brunt of every.single.joke. He never appeared upset, but the longer I was around them, the more it bothered me. Finally one day, I said something to defend him and was surprised when he looked at me and said, “NO! I don’t want them to stop, I like it.” I was baffled.
Now that I have four boys of my own, I can better appreciate this masculine way of communicating. Even though it is in direct opposition to my preferred mode of communication, I concede it is possible to show affection with insults. Problems occur, however, when the insults aren’t received as affection, when they cross a sensitive line into emotional territory.
In her book, The Guide: Managing Douchebags, Recruiting Wingmen, and Attracting Who You Want, Rosalind Wiseman says, “One unwritten rule in Guy World is that a guy, even a close friend, can be as rude as possible and the other guy can’t get upset. If he does get upset, then another unwritten rule is that he can be made fun of even more.” When boys feel insulted or emotionally injured, they feel social pressure to pretend otherwise. How much they pretend will vary widely by individual, but over time those hidden feelings build up and often explode in anger. Sometimes the anger is reflected outward toward others, and sometimes the anger is directed inward toward themselves.
In their book, Unmasking the Face, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen say, “Anger is probably the most dangerous emotion. When angry you are most likely to hurt others [or yourself] purposefully…Part of the experience of anger is the risk of losing control.” Learning to recognize our son’s hidden emotions before he erupts in a violent way or gets overwhelmed by self loathing is a skill worth refining.
Learning to recognize hidden emotions may sound like an intimidating suggestion, but we’ve actually been training for this since the day we were born. Any mother can tell you babies who don’t understand language can still sense and respond to their caregiver’s emotions. Research also shows that many of us have entrenched ideas about the categories and cultural expectations that apply to us by the age of five – not because anyone spelled them out, but because we observed them (Psychology Today). On one particularly frustrating day when my children were toddlers, I decided I would do more damage than good if I opened my mouth. So for at least three hours, I didn’t say a word. And do you know what? My children never knew the difference! They followed every look and gesture as seamlessly as if I’d been talking.
Subconsciously, most of us know how to read subtle changes in facial expressions and body language as well as we know how to speak our native tongue. As parents we need to move this skill to the conscious level. It takes practice and awareness, but it can be done.
I have one son who is instinctively obedient. He tries hard to follow all the rules, but for various reasons he still attempts to pull the wool over my eyes on occasion. Because this goes against his natural grain, he is always somewhat nervous when he does it. It doesn’t come naturally to him and he’s afraid he’ll be caught. When I’m paying attention, I know when he’s telling me a story because his eyes open a fraction of an inch wider than normal, and his eyebrows move in and up at the center a tiny bit. A subtle look of fear briefly crosses his face even when he’s brave enough to maintain eye contact.
Contrast this with another son who is very proud of his storytelling abilities. He cracks himself up and tells believable, but untrue, stories to anyone who will listen, including me. He never has any trace of fear on his face when he lies. Instead, the center of his left eyebrow flicks up a teeny tiny bit for a fraction of a second. I have to be watching closely to catch the mischievous little gesture, but it’s always there.
As you can see, I can’t tell you specifically what signals to look for in your own children because they are unique individuals with their own histories and personalities that influence when they feel different emotions, but I can tell you it’s possible to learn to recognize and interpret subtle shades of emotion on their faces.
- If you’re interested in some additional help identifying facial expressions, try reading, Unmasking the Face by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen.
- For help dealing with emotions you didn’t uncover in time, try reading this post.