“No, nooo, I don’t want, I don’t…” Our eldest in in his bed, shaking violently and shielding his head from some unseen assailant. His fist flails out, narrowly missing the face of his baby brother who has, against our explicit instructions, climbed down from the top bunk to get into bed with his brother and who is, miraculously, still asleep.
I watch as his face contorts in fear and panic, his breathing rapid and ragged, clumps of sweat-soaked hair clinging to his forehead. He begins to thrash again and I, worried that he’s going to hurt his brother, try to calm him down. His eyes are open and he responds to me, but the horror he feels is real and raw and won’t go away. Eventually I pull him from his bed and rock him on my lap, but his mind is tumbling in waves of dread, and he gasps and sobs, “Mommmy!” as though he’s being pulled under.
He’s had a nightmare. I know it’s not been what’s called ‘night terror’ because he was awake and responsive, but it’s very close to it. Only about 3-6% of children experience night terrors, but those of you who have witnessed them know it’s, well, terrifying. Your child screams, shouts, thrashes, eyes black pools of unseeing panic, and, because he’s fast asleep, the only thing you can do is watch it unfold and keep him from falling out of bed. The constant of night terrors is their inconsolability – parents are powerless to help their child through them. It sucks.
Eventually he calms and falls back into a deep sweaty sleep, and my wife and I agree that we have a fairly good understanding of why he was suffering from such nightmare-inducing anxiety. On this day he’d started an intensive swimming course, and he had a casting call for a television commercial. When asked, he said that both were easy and unproblematic, but we know that they were sources of stress and apprehension.
“Why do boys do that?” my wife asks as we sit in the living room. “Why do they bottle up their emotions so much?” Our eldest, certainly, is emotionally – shall we say – ‘restrained.’ He tends to push feelings – both positive and negative – deep down into into the bowels of his subconscious. But our youngest is quite the opposite, so I answer my wife, “I’m not sure they do.”
On the face of it I instinctively agree – boys are more emotionally restrained, more prone to hiding their feelings, than girls. But I don’t really know, so I do a bit of research.
Sleep terrors in children, it would seem, are more likely to occur in males than females. So okay, if there is a correlation between sublimating emotions and sleep terrors, that’s fairly damning. If the suppression of emotions in males carries over into adulthood, however, which many people believe, then there’s little to explain why night terrors afflict adult males and females in equal ratio.
Tara M. Chaplin of Yale University has sifted through the results of over 160 separate studies into the question of whether boys and girls express their emotions differently. Chaplin writes, “Our findings suggest that there are small but significant gender differences in emotion expressions, with larger gender differences emerging at certain ages and in certain contexts.”
An article on the website GoodTherapy.org says that, “Chaplin found that the girls internalized their emotions more than the boys, but they also displayed more positive emotions. For instance, the girls had higher rates of anxiety and sadness than the boys, but outwardly expressed more cheerfulness and joy. The boys, on the other hand, were more likely to exhibit anger and aggression than the girls. But these variances were only evident when the children were in the presence of strangers. When they were with their parents, the children expressed a wide range of emotions, making the gender differences virtually non-existent.”
In other words, the idea that the sublimation of emotion is more common in boys than girls may be more a societal construct than a reality. If there’s a correlation between nightmares and the inability or unwillingness to show emotion, then the fact that the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health – among others – have shown that the occurrence of nightmares is roughly equal in boys and girls until the age of 13, then become far more prevalent in girls than boys, seems to belie this belief.
My experience tells me that men are taught, from an early age, to internalize their emotions, to hide the full range of their emotional lives behind high walls of machismo. I still believe this to be true. But the walls are crumbling. Perhaps it’s a function of natural selection – women are less likely to mate with hairy chest-beating males than they once were. Witness the prevalence of ‘manscaping.’ Or perhaps our present society, with women more and more in the role of primary breadwinner, is making the way open for men to be, well, less “manly.” And by ” less manly” I mean to act less like assholes.
My oldest boy suffers from more anxiety than seems strictly necessary, and he tends to sublimate his feelings. A lot. Is it because he’s a boy? I’m not sure. I do wish he were more emotionally open, but I tend to think it’s just a fundamental aspect of his personality, not his gender. When he’s screaming in the middle of the night because his demons are rending his psyche, I worry that we’ve somehow denied him of his ability to share those demons with us. Or maybe he’s just a kid having a nightmare. It’s probably the latter.
Sleep well, my boys. Pleasant dreams. Please, please, please, pleasant dreams.