Gender Differences in Boys' and Girls' Emotions (page 2)

By — Gender Differences Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

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 [2].
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 [1]. 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.  
  1. Taylor, S.E. (2003). The Tending Instinct: Women, Men and the Biology of Our Relationships. New York: Henry Holt.
  2. Golden, T.R. (2000). Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing (2nd Ed.), Gaithersburg, MD: G H Publishing.
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