Let’s Stop Telling Grieving Boys to Be the “Man of the House” 

As a male-identified therapist who specializes in grief and loss, the topic of gender expectations after the death of a parent (usually a father) comes up frequently in my work with boys and men. For the grieving boys that I work with, it can be confusing to understand the gendered expectations of the world, seen implicitly through culture and media, and explicitly at times when they are pushed to become the “man of the house” after a loss. 

The problem with asking boys to be the “man of the house” 

At times, this can be coded as boys needing to “step up” and “support their mother” or younger family members. This message is reinforced in social media, where boys often find content that encourages them that the man of the house provides a protective and stable presence for the family. Boys can feel the pressure to perform this societal expectation of adult masculinity while they are still children, asked to sacrifice their own physical and emotional health for the sake of the family. This can lead some boys to feel uneasy with their mother’s emotions and feel a need to fix or solve things that are usually adult responsibilities. 

Later in life, as men, these feelings can become more complex and sometimes lead to anger, resentment, and confusion. For many, the moments around their loss continue to shape the way they understand their identity and the world around them throughout their life. 

My own journey 

After the death of my father when I was 16, I recall memories of individuals close and distant calling me to step into the role of “man of the house.” This message felt confusing, and created pressure and expectations that I was unable to meet. I desired to be a normal teen and escape into the one place I felt comfortable, playing drums. For me, feeling the pressure to step into the adult male role led to people pleasing and perfectionism, both of which I have worked on into adulthood. To be fair, I also credit this time in my life as the time I developed many of my strengths including my resiliency, emotional intelligence, and empathy. My clients often share similar dualities as well. 

Author as teen with his mom

The author, Brendan, age 18, with his mother, two years after his father’s death.

All of us experiencing grief can benefit by being curious about our new place in the world after a loss and how that is impacted by gender. In the case of a death of a parent, especially a father, unpacking and acknowledging that there is no need “to have a man in the house” can be helpful.

Through my work with Experience Camps, and other individuals, I have found that families of varying make-ups and structures can and are successful. It is important to send the message that it is a family’s desire for growth and change that creates their success, not the presence of a “man in the house.” It is also vital to send the message that children can and should be allowed to be children. 

How to support your child after he’s told to “step up”:

1. Grant yourself grace, empathy and support. 

Most importantly, as the (likely female) parent or caregiver of a male-presenting child who has recently lost a male parent or caregiver, you are experiencing your own unique and valid grief and challenges in understanding new roles and responsibilities. Your thoughts on gender, and what it means to be a leader of the household, will need space and time to process as well. Find a personal space to process and have conversations around your new role and responsibilities. A number of resources are available on www.experiencecamps.org/grief-resources.  Additionally, it may be helpful to find a grief-focused counselor or clinician who can support you as you process your grief, and move through the new challenges as a parent and caregiver. 

*Note: If you yourself have told your son or any boy to “step up as the man of the house,” we ask that you not beat yourself up about it but make a conscious decision to stop saying this and perhaps even apologize to the boy if possible.

2. Ask your son how he felt when he was told to “step up.” 

It might be hard to imagine how to start these conversations with your child. A good way to begin is to be direct about what you heard. Try simple language like, “I heard (name) say that you needed to ‘step it up for the family.’ What did you think when you heard them say that?” Allowing your child to present the facts without judgment gives them room to share and narrate their own experience. There will be plenty of time later for you to share how that made you feel. 

3. Validate and normalize your child’s feelings. 

Regardless of whether your child received these comments directly from a close family member, or random classmate, or indirectly from the media and other implicit stereotypes of gender, complicated feelings can arise. Help them understand that it is perfectly normal for sadness, anger, shame, or guilt (or all of these) to come up. Every person’s experience with grief is unique and valid. It is ok to share that many boys and men hear similar comments and have complicated feelings about it. 

4. Be explicit about their role as a child.

Remind them that you are the parent, or caregiver, and they are the child. At times, it can be helpful to reiterate and reinforce this to your child, especially in the context of comments of masculinity and gender expectations. Using language such as, “I am the parent. It is ok for you to be a kid. It is normal for you to feel like you want to protect or take care of me. At this moment, I am safe and supported.” Share the ways in which you are supported and reinforce to your child that you are safe, and normalize the experience of sharing your feelings with others. This will encourage your child to feel more open to talking with someone as well. 

5. Invite conversation about gender stereotypes and bias.

This is an opportunity for deeper discussion about the implicit gender stereotypes and bias that exist in our society and the media, which can look differently depending on the age and developmental stage of your child. Ask direct question such as, “What does it feel like when you hear someone ask you to step up and be a man of the house?” If that’s too hard, ask your son how he feels when he sees media images of men in stereotypical ways, like being tough or macho.

It is my experience that children of all ages are able to identify and discuss what they notice about themselves and the messages they receive from the world around them. Remain curious, and encourage your child to define their relationship to masculinity and feelings about expectations. A member of your support network may be able to help you with specific language that would be age appropriate. 

Lastly, remember that your grief is unique, valid, and deserving of space and time to process it. 

Brendan Finnegan, LMSW, is a social worker and musician living in New York City. He supports children, adolescents, adults, and families who have experienced trauma and loss. He currently provides therapeutic services focused on grief and loss through Wolfson Therapy in New York City, and as the Clinical Director for Experience Camps in Pennsylvania. Prior to becoming a therapist, Brendan spent over a decade performing as a professional drummer and creating recreational group drumming programs for a variety of populations including individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and the aging. Brendan still owns and operates Impact Group Drumming, which remains one of the leading providers of recreational music in the greater New York City area.