A friend of mine told me recently that his father – with whom he had a very close relationship – had drawn away from showing him much physical affection when he hit a adolescence, replacing the hugs and kisses of his young childhood with a more formal handshake. He now has a son of his own, and wondered if the relationship between grandfather and grandson would develop in the same way.
I’m sure this is quite a common experience, particularly for the older generation. Women have always been ‘allowed’ to have very close physical relationships, showing affection to each other and to their families in a way that men traditionally have found harder to express. But learning how to express emotion (in a way that is right for each person) can be a very important part of our general well-being.
Our society today certainly encourages more freedom of emotional expression from men than it did 50 years ago. Fathers, stepfathers or other male role models are encouraged to play a much more active role in children’s upbringing: being present at the birth, changing nappies, attending parents’ evenings and generally supporting the child.
An inability to express emotion can be hard, though, on the relationship between father (or father figure) and child. Children will learn how to deal with their emotions from their parents, and if the predominant male role model sees emotion as weakness, then a child – particularly a son – will emulate that and learn to suppress feelings as they grow up.
I think this is particularly important in the event of a marriage break up, where children may see less of their father than they do their mother. Children will often seek reassurance from both parents that whatever has happened between them, their relationships with their children are solid. And the most reassuring thing for children who’ve lost a father young can be centred on emotion: to know that their parents were happy, and they were loved or wanted.
Showing your feelings doesn’t have to be terrifying; nor does it show weakness. It can take incredible strength for anyone, male or female, to say what they feel, or to show grief, or fear, or love. Very often it demonstrates to a child that they’re not alone in a situation, that it’s ok to feel strongly about something, and that what matters is not how you suppress emotion, but how you deal with it.