Teach Your Boys To Comfort Others In A Crisis

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By Kim Hamer, Mom of Sons and Author of 100 Acts of Love: A Girlfriend's Guide to Loving Your Friend through Cancer or Loss

So, did he talk to you about their divorce?” I asked. I was talking to my 6’, 250lb. heading-to-college-to-play-football 18-year-old son.

He had just returned from spending time with a friend --- I will call him Matt.

My son, L., has known Matt since the fourth grade, and Matt was part of the vast network of friends that helped L. navigate the first two years after my husband died.

Matt’s parents were getting divorced and I had hoped that L. would “connect” with Matt to help him through his tough time. What I meant by connect was, “talk about Matt’s feelings about the divorce.” They didn’t talk. Instead they “just hung out, played video games and went to the Promenade.”

There was a time I would have thought this wasn’t enough.

Our kids were 12, 9 and 7 when my husband died. How they processed (and still process) their father’s death exemplifies, in many ways, the differences between boys and girls.

My daughter, now 15, will cry and cry about how much she misses her father, why it hurts, how it hurts and how it will hurt in the future.

My boys will come to me quietly in the middle of the night and burst into tears. They will not talk while they cry. They will not cry for long. And then they leave.

The next day, it’s as if nothing happened.

I have learned not to ask how they’re feeling because I just get a shrug or an annoyed, “I’m fine!”

In the six years since my husband died, I’ve had to put to rest my stereotype of how boys should process emotions. What I have learned is the way they process is just different. My boys found others who got that, and didn’t put pressure on them to talk but were ready to listen when they needed to. Turns out, their instincts are pretty good!

How can you help your boys’ instincts grow without going through your own personal tragedy?

Before I get into the how, consider:

1. You will need to let go of the notion that boys need to process by talking. Asking an older boy to express how he’s feeling can be frustrating. Instead, let him come to you.

2. Trust your boys. If you ask a boy what he would like someone to do for him, given the situation, he may not answer but he will probably come up with a really good idea and then take action himself! Give him an opportunity to try it out.

3. Teach him a few do’s and don’ts. You can do a Google search or buy my book. I wrote super helpful, 208-page essential guide on what to say (not to say) and to do.

Teach your son to:

1. Acknowledge What’s Going On Cancer, death, hospitalization, whatever. Saying something is very important! The boy who is dealing with a life challenge does not want to be the kid who people are afraid to talk to. He will want others to acknowledge what’s happening but NOT dwell on it. Have your son say “I’m sorry to hear about your mom/dad etc.” Short and simple goes far in helping the boy feel acknowledged but not ignored. It also spares your son years of guilt for being afraid of saying the wrong thing. It confirms and demonstrates his important role in comforting a friend. That matters.

2. Invite Friend to Do Stuff Boys love to do stuff. So have your son invite the boy to do stuff. Combine the tip above with this one and your son can say “Hey, sorry to hear about your mom. Wanna come over to watch a movie?” Done. No fuss.

3. Keep Offering Support A crisis causes great confusion. Make sure your son keeps offering to do stuff with the child. If your son is young, you’ll have to help him by calling. Keep calling. The offer, even if turned down, makes a person feel cared about. And do make it easy on the the parent to say yes— offer to pick up her son and drop him off.

4. Offer Food Your son can say, “I’m thinking about you” without ever saying those words, simply by offering him a treat! Have your son find out what the child likes and then give it to him.

Just as important, make sure that your son doesn’t say:

• “If you need anything let me know.” While it’s an adult phrase, I have heard it said by a 9-year old. The problem is, it’s the LEAST helpful phrase ever! So depending on your son’s age, tell him NOT to say it.

•“I know how you feel, my dog died.” Unless the boy’s dog has died, this statement only alienates your son from the child who needs support. Death of a parent or grandparent is NOT like the death of a pet. It’s important that he knows that.

•“At least…” is dismissive and hurtful. If one of your children was diagnosed with cancer, someone saying “At least it’s the good kind of cancer,” is completely dismissive of the fear, the anxiety and the stress the family and child are going through. Make sure you son doesn’t say that either!

As a parent, here are a few things you should and shouldn’t do as well:

• Don’t “Talk” To The Boy About What’s Going On. My older boys in general did not like to “talk” face-to-face. And don’t tell your son to “talk” to his friend in crisis either. It’s uncomfortable for both of them.

• Do acknowledge what’s going on. Just like for your son, it’s important that you acknowledge what’s happening. “I am so sorry your mom has cancer. Please know that you are welcome to come over any time you’d like.” That’s it. Don’t ask him how his mom is doing. Go to another adult for that information.

• Do Stuff with Them. Nothing says “I care about you” better than a play, a sporting event or just hanging out. Allowing the boy to be just a boy is a great gift!

• Do Let the Tears Come. Sometimes a boy will suddenly cry. If that happens, keep your mouth shut and don’t say “It’ll be ok.” Let him cry for as long as he needs to. If you want to be the adult who is safe, hold your tongue and hold a space for him to release his sadness. This may make you cry. That’s ok. He’ll know that he’s not alone.

This past winter one of L.’s classmates committed suicide. It was/is a horrific experience. But L. stepped in. He made sure his teammates went to the funeral. He told them what to say to his classmate’s parents. He made sure that his classmate’s 13-year old brother received a lot of attention from the graduating seniors. And then L. took his little brother out. They didn’t “talk.” They had ice cream and threw a football around and with it a conversation occurred. (So I am told.)

But I do know that it was exactly what they both needed.

Kim Hamer is author of 100 Acts of Love: A Girlfriend's Guide to Loving Your Friend through Cancer or Loss, a modern, essential how-to guide, offering practical tips on what to say (and NOT to say) to friends in crisis. The book is available here. She lives in Los Angeles with her three relatively well-behaved children.


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