Research has long shown that boys are less likely to disclose thoughts and feelings with one another than girls are. Popular psychology had posited that boys' reticence to talk about feelings was a fear of being embarrassed or ridiculed by peers. But new research in press at Child Development, suggests differently. Rather than feeling embarrassed, it finds, boys may perceive that sharing is simply a waste of time.
"It isn't so much that boys avoid talking about problems because of worries, concerns or feelings of angst," says lead author Amanda J. Rose, PhD, associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri. "It's more that they don't see it as having utility."
Rose and colleagues conducted four studies examining what boys and girls expect to get out of sharing their feelings and how much they actually disclose. In the first three studies, they had approximately 2,000 students from third to ninth grade fill out surveys assessing how much they talk with friends about problems. In the fourth, observational study, the researchers gave same-gender adolescent friends up to 16 minutes to talk about their problems.
Across all studies, boys talked to friends about problems less than girls. Girls were more likely to say they expected that talking about problems would make them feel less alone and more cared for, while boys were more likely to say it would make them feel like they were wasting time or make them feel "weird." Meanwhile, both boys and girls reported low levels of expecting that disclosing would make them feel uncomfortable, worried or embarrassed.
The findings suggest that teachers and parents may want to try different communication strategies than those they may now rely on, such as assuring boys that it's safe to talk about problems, suggests Rose. Instead, adults could tell boys they might have a better chance at solving a problem if they talk it through or seek advice, for example.
Boys might be more amenable to these strategies if adults recognized that they may sometimes want to tackle a problem on their own, Rose adds.
"Some of the time they may choose to solve it themselves, and I think that should be respected as well."