Why has the lack of emotional intelligence fostered a toxic masculinity?

by Joseph Cohen, President, and co-founder, Empowered Fathers in Action and co-author of Write Father, Write Son: A Bond-Building Journey

In an era when empowered American women have been holding public figures accountable for their sexual misconduct, the world has seen the effect of challenging the judgment of these men, questioning their motives, and scrutinizing their intellect. Understanding this male behavior is as important as addressing its root cause.

Unearthing the root cause — beneath prevailing attitudes, family dysfunction, and limiting beliefs — is part of the process which will explain why the lack of social and emotional intelligence in America has fostered toxic masculinity built upon a myth of the alpha male.

“The aggressive and disrespectful behavior leading to treating women as sex objects often originates from a mother minimizing macho behavior at a young age,” says Linda Olson, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist, “and boys equating strength with denying their feelings.”

As a mother who began raising three sons while married to a prominent brain surgeon, Dr. Olson also believes that the more affluent a family is, the more they tend to enable their sons by excusing macho behavior. “We’re in a collective unconscious crisis,” says Olson, founder of  Georgia Childhood Domestic Violence Association. “Boys will parent their sons the way in which they were parented by their fathers. They need a functional model.”

Too many boys are focused on being accepted and trying to become something they’re not rather than being their best self. “It’s alright to acknowledge the Alpha dynamic in a boy,” says Rob Howze, the father of a son and two daughters who is a minister and public speaker, “but the soft skills like communication, empathy, and critical thinking associated with emotional intelligence matter the most.”

Both Olson and Howze agree that it takes more courage for a boy to identify and express his feelings. Learning to acknowledge and express feelings in a kind and respectful way is what is needed for a paradigm shift.

The consensus among mental health professionals and social workers is that men now understand what is needed and many are willing to invest the time to change. In the midst of a rise in fatherless households, the best gift a father can give his children is his presence — physically and emotionally. This awareness has caused some fathers to seek workshops to become more responsive and cognitive therapy to help break the dysfunctional cycle.

There is a list in The Boy Crisis by Warren Farrell, Ph.D., the Chair of the Commission to Create a White House Council on Boys and Men who has written books published in seventeen languages including two award-winning international bestsellers. The list contains fifty-five areas incorporating more than seventy-five specific benefits of dad involvement or dangers of dad deprivation. This list is only of outcomes; however, the text provides causes, solutions and the optimal amount of father involvement under various conditions.

The responses below to a list of four extracted from the book — which is directly related to toxic masculinity and rape — are from a clinical psychologist, a minister, and a publisher and journalist. They are all parents of sons. 

Among criminals assessed as raping out of anger and rage, eighty-percent came from father-absent homes.

“Rape is not sexual, but an acting out on rage,” says Freya Pruitt, journalist, and publisher of the first Sundance Film Festival magazine.“It is the result of a boy not being fed emotionally, lacking intimacy and communication with his father. Rapists are adult children who have not yet developed.”

“Mom is the nurturer and dad represents guidance,” says Howze. “If male guidance is not provided boys will take other paths, some negative, which leads to aimless wandering, making bad decisions, and poor life choices.”

“Rape is the result of a rejected boy feeling unwanted and hurt by his father,” says Olson. “This type of acting out is to prove his strength and competence. Hurt people, hurt others. Compassion is the bridge. Understanding and empathy are critical for addressing and eliminating anger and rage. A boy must be taught and loved when young. Mentoring and rites of passage can help.”

Father absence predicts the profile of both the bully and bullied: poor self-esteem, poor grades, and poor social skills.

“Whether the dynamics are caused by an authoritarian or an absent father, the lack of a positive male role model produces negative results,” says Olson. “Bullying is a defense mechanism which can be caused by the reaction to an authoritarian father while being bullied stems from feeling vulnerable resulting from being dad deprived.”

“Boys define their identity through their father,” says Howze whose father modeled a strong work ethic by holding a second job as a vendor at sporting events after finishing his shifts at the firehouse. “A bully dominates to gain attention while the insecurity of the bullied attracts abuse because he feels like he deserves it. Either way, the feelings of insecurity leads to dysfunction.”

“It’s a very simple equation,” says Pruitt, who had begun raising her four-year-old son alone and continued for many years. “The intimacy of communication with his father builds a bridge for a son to walk securely through life.”

Boys living with dads have better-enforced boundaries, leading to better impulse control and fewer discipline problems.

“Where there’s no dad, there is less discipline,” says Howze who also sits on the Advisory Board for Empowered Fathers in Action, a non-profit organization focusing on reducing bullying incidents and decreasing the rates of teenage suicide and school shootings across the world. “There’s something about male energy that creates an intensity which fosters a more serious attitude.” He explains that when boys have the feeling of being heard and loved it helps them understand what is expected of them and results in being better listeners. “Being heard and loved results in self-reflection and course correction.”

“Don’t assume a mother has the attributes to raise a child alone,” says Pruitt. “Mother and father symbiotically compliment one another. Together they provide honor, integrity, strength, and safety.”

“Boys respond differently to their dads because of male modeling,” says Olson. “They listen in a more serious way because they identify with the male dynamic.” She explains that when a father sets limits and creates structure it provides security, but without it, boys have a false sense of control.

Worldwide, the amount of time a father spends with a child is one of the strongest predictors of the child’s ability to empathize as he gets older.

“If intimacy with his father is missing,” says Pruitt, “it depletes a boy’s ability to empathize and effectively communicate. Transparency through communication is fundamental to intimacy. Wisdom is built in the process of expression; a window is opened. Without it, that window remains shut. Poor communication with his father limits how dynamic a boy will become.”

“A father’s presence leads to a healthier well-rounded perspective,” says Rob Howze, founder of 1BillionHealthy, a unique wellness company. “An absence causes a boy to seek a mock role model, often the wrong ones. The boy is seeking a replica, not what a father provides.”

“The male/female relationship a child observes sets the tone for respect and empowerment,” says Linda Olson, Psy.D. who sits on the Board of Directors for Empowered Fathers in Action. “Who we are is reflected in the quality of engagement with our parents. A father’s validation is critical to a boy’s high self-esteem, and sharing feelings and experiences bonds boys with their fathers.”

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse childhood experiences contribute to emotional difficulties and multiple adverse health outcomes in adulthood, according to Shanta R. Dube, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Georgia State University. “The absence of a father figure and the absence of a healthy father-son relationship is also an adverse childhood experience,” says Dube who is recognized both nationally and internationally for her research on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study which focused on early life stress and substance use and abuse, and mental illness in adulthood. 

She explains that in addition to the physical presence of the father, young boys need the emotional and mental stability of the father figure. For example, in a study Dube conducted comparing adult men who did not grow up with alcoholic parents, adult men who reported growing up with an alcoholic father were twice as likely to experience physical abuse, and five times more likely to witness violence against the maternal figure, also known as childhood domestic violence.

“A healthy father-son relationship must include a two-generational approach,” says Dube who has developed a framework on the importance of addressing the well-being of adult caregivers. “A father’s responsibility to provide a nurturing, safe, and supportive relationship starts with making sure resilience and self-nurturance are in place for himself.”


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