Dr. Gregory Jantz

How to Recognize if Your Son is Overwhelmed

September 21, 2016

I’ll never forget a time one of my sons lost a football game.  He was in middle school, and I was the resident taxi, driving back and forth to practices and games.  Usually, these drive times were great bonding times for us, but after this particular loss, my son was completely shut down.

Instead of giving him room, space, and time, I went right into therapist mode of asking Twenty Questions.  Rather than opening up communication, I effectively shut it down.  My thirteen-year-old was ill prepared to participate in a psychological breakdown of the emotional intensity of his loss.  By barraging him with questions, I contributed to his sense of being overwhelmed.

I’ve heard something similar from men, especially when they feel pressured by the women in their lives to “open up.”  Women can intuitively feel that something is wrong and, quite naturally, seek to create the same situation that works so well with their female friends — get together and talk about it.

This approach works well with women, who can be more verbally adept as well as being better wired to maintain a state of emotional empathy.  This approach may not work as well with men who are so overwhelmed by what they’re feeling, they can’t begin to put a name to it, let alone spend an hour talking about it.

From what I’ve been able to read and observe over the course of my personal and professional life, a male can reach a point of bewilderment where emotions are concerned.  Sometimes, he doesn’t have the words he needs to explain or express what he’s feeling.  Sometimes, he’s so used to suppressing intense emotions, he hasn’t learned how to express them in safety.

When a male feels under siege by a demand to do the impossible — express or deal with what he cannot — the results aren’t generally positive.  He may become hostile, uncooperative, or defensive.  None of these are helpful to having a discussion.  When a man shuts down long enough, he can become estranged from his own emotions and find himself at even more of a loss to do what’s being asked of him.  When a boy is overwhelmed by an emotional response, you may need to strategize how to help him connect with and work through those feelings.

Understand Cave Dwelling

I will be forever grateful to author John Gray for his book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. [i] It was Dr. Gray who, as far as I know, first coined the phrase “cave dwelling” for what boys and men do when they need to get away.  Boys who hang out for hours in tree houses and rickety forts often are cave dwelling.  Boys who practically live under the hood of old cars often are doing the same.  A cave dwelling boy can spend hours reading books in his room or playing video games.  When a boy cave dwells, he’s not hiding from his feelings, he’s hiding for his feelings.

Get Out Of A Routine By Establishing One

A boy who is overwhelmed emotionally can get into a rut of staying in his cave too long — out of avoidance, anger, or frustration.  While you want to give him time to get a handle on his emotions, there comes a point when the boy may need help to come out.  One man I knew would take his son out to fix something in the garage.  They’d rearrange the tools on the shelves.  They’d open up the hood of the car, tinker around, or change the oil or a filter.  The point was to get his son out of the house, moving, and, hopefully, talking.  At some point, he caught on to the routine and made jokes about their “garage time.”

Allow Tears, But Don’t Require Them

One of the human reactions to being overwhelmed is to cry.  Girls may tend to cry more easily, but boys can and do cry when they are overwhelmed.  Just watch for the interviews at the end of the next big playoff game; you will see large, grown men shedding tears, whether they’ve won or lost.

Read A Story

A boy who is unable to figure out how he feels may be able to identify his feelings in someone else.  The Bible is full of real-life stories with real-life emotions.  If a boy is being picked on at school by a bully, read the story of Joseph and his brothers.  If he’s feeling unappreciated and misunderstood, read the story of Elijah.  If he’s facing a challenge too big for him, read the story of David and Goliath.  A boy may not even realize he feels the same way until he puts himself in a place of that character.  The story acts as a bridge between the boy and his emotions.

To learn more about raising boys, you can purchase Dr. Jantz’s new release, Five Keys to Raising Boys.  In this guide, you will learn why your son is so different from your daughter.  Using biblical principals, these Five Keys to Raising Boys will help you discover that boys will be boys — and what you can do about it.

[i] John Gray, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1992).

[ii] Katherine Rosman, “Read It and Weep, Crybabies,” The Wall Street Journal (May 4, 2011), http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703922804576300903183512350.