Finding a Safe Place When Stressed
Boys and girls often process emotions differently. When my daughter was young and in need of support she had a special technique. She would come to me and say "Daddy, I need special time," and I knew just what that meant. We needed to face two chairs towards each other and she would talk about what was bothering her. She might complain that her friend had said she talked too much and I would respond with a supportive "Ah, Julia." She might then tell me that another friend had told her that she didn't want to play with her ever again and I would again offer support through a simple, "Ah, Julia." After about 5-7 cycles of “Ah, Julia,” she was ready to go! Her cup was full and, she would say “Thanks, Dad” and off she would go outside to play.
What was Julia doing? She was creating a "safe place" for herself. One important aspect in healing is that when people are in trouble psychologically they will first look for a safe place. Julia went a step farther. Once she had the safe place she used it to tell her story. Combining these two elements is the outline of the common path that most of us use in healing ourselves. Finding safety and then telling our personal story. Julia arranged for me to steward that safe place and then talked about what was bothering her. Through this story-telling process done in a safe place she began to find healing. One other common example of this process is attending a support group which acts as a safe place for people to tell their story and through the repeated telling balance is found.
My son, however, would not come to me and say, "Daddy, I need special time." Absolutely not. Why not? The reason is that sitting face to face is simply not safe for him. Where do men and boys like my son feel safe? More often, it is not when they are face to face, but rather when they are shoulder to shoulder taking action. Think of the places where men feel close to other men. It is most often when they are taking action and working on a common goal. The more dangerous the goal, the closer the men feel to each other. Wartime, police departments, fire departments, and sports teams at a championship are all examples of this. Through working together, shoulder to shoulder, the men feel close to other men. Here lasting friendships are forged within that safety.
Would Luke ask for special time? No. He would come to me and say, "I wanna wrestle!" Keep in mind that he was in first or second grade, and I am 6'2" and far from tiny. I would say, "Okay, but you better be ready for me!" Then the wrestling would commence. At first he would have me down, then I would have him down. Back and forth it would go. At some point during the battle, Luke would stick his little head up and say, "Jimmy got beat up at school today," and I would ask if it was bad and he would say “Oh yeah, there was blood coming from his nose.” Then the interlude abruptly ceased, and he growled loudly and attacked me with all his might. A minute or two later, Luke might stick his head up again and say, "I miss Granddaddy." He was referring to my father who had died just a few months before. My heart cracked open, and I responded that I missed him too. In a flash, he would growl and attack again and was on top of me with all his might.
Gender Differences in the Experience of Stress
Luke was doing the same thing as his sister but was using the wrestling as a safe place to tell his story. Boys and girls often find safety in different places. The general rule (not true for every child of course) is that girls will more often tend to seek out safety in INTERACTION while boys will more often seek out a safe place through ACTION .
Dr. Shelly Taylor, professor of psychology at UCLA, has spent many years investigating the possible neural substrate for these sex differences. She began by observing that most of the research on stress published before 2000 had been conducted on men . Women had been left out for a variety of reasons, such as the concern that hormonal variations associated with the menstrual cycle might skew the results. Taylor has now conducted many studies using only women as subjects. What she found has changed our understanding of stress and the role of sex differences. She found that most women do not engage the “fight or flight” system as readily as men; instead, they engage a different system, which Dr. Taylor calls "tend and befriend." Women, when stressed, will (according to Professor Taylor) tend to move towards others and move towards interaction. This is very different from the masculine habit of moving toward action when stressed (fight), or moving towards inaction (flight). Professor Taylor’s findings brought to mind what I had seen in Luke and Julia and started to make sense of these different strategies.
Dr. Taylor believes that these differences in the biobehavioral response to stress may be due, at least in part, to underlying hormonal differences between men and women. She cites research suggesting that oxytocin plays a key role in the “tend and befriend” system in women. Some have called oxytocin the "cuddle hormone". What Taylor found was that though both men and women release oxytocin after stress, a women's estrogen amplifies the effects of the oxytocin which increases her urge to affiliate (tend and befriend). The higher testosterone levels in men appear to blunt the effects of oxytocin, reducing the inclination to move towards others when stressed.
Dr. Taylor suggests that there are two basic strategies in response to stress: action (“fight or flight”) or interaction (“tend and befriend”). Luke and Julia followed the expected path based on their biological sex, with Luke preferring the more male strategy of action and Julia preferring the female strategy of interaction. Importantly, while this is common, it is not always the case. Each child is different and our challenge is to evaluate them individually based on their unique approach.
Boys and girls often process emotions differently. Being aware of each child’s unique way of finding safety and telling their story can only help in facilitating their growth and healing.
- Taylor, S.E. (2003). The Tending Instinct: Women, Men and the Biology of Our Relationships. New York: Henry Holt.
- Golden, T.R. (2000). Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing (2nd Ed.), Gaithersburg, MD: G H Publishing.