(CNN)School had been challenging for Kimmi Berlin's 7-year-old son.
Already at his age, he felt pressure to conform: to play more physically with other boys, to emote less and subvert his own happiness or pain, said Berlin, co-founder of Build Up Boys. The nonprofit group's mission is to teach pre-K through eighth grade boys and their caregivers social and emotional skills to combat gender presssure.
"The energy he was expending trying to do it made him almost feel like a trapped animal," Berlin said. "He couldn't really get in touch with how he felt about anything because he was in constant panic mode."
Then came the shutdown spawned by the coronavirus. Now, away from those pressures, he has been able to access his full range of emotions, whether that's relief at being home or anxiety about what's to come. "He's totally come into his own," Berlin said.
Before the pandemic hit, a national conversation about the narrow roles boys are forced to play had begun.
Books like Peggy Orenstein's 2020 "Boys & Sex" chronicled the problems boys were facing: a simplistic view of masculine normalcy that cut them off from their full humanity, from interests and feelings and expressions that aren't biologically masculine or feminine, but are culturally marked that way.
"Boys face negative long-term mental and physical health outcomes from the socialization towards emotional suppression," Orenstein said. That is: Many boys start early on the path that leads to toxic masculinity.
Emotional literacy for teen boys
That's why psychologist and author Michael C. Reichert has been conducting workshops in emotional literacy for teenage boys.
Before schools closed, he'd teach boys who signed up for his in-person groups of 40 to 50 teens to understand, acknowledge and express their feelings — something most had been reared to tamp down or ignore.
And then the world shut down and his workshops at a boys' school outside Philadelphia went online. The emotional impact on his clients was intense.
"What I saw was a growing desperation on the part of these boys — 16, 17, 18 — to connect with someone who understands what they're going through," he said. "They weren't finding it with their families. They were desperate to find it with each other."
These boys — and young men — became more expressive, more emotional and more connected, even in a virtual setting.
Girls have been on the cultural short end of the stick in many ways, having to fight legal battles to fund their sports teams and educations equally, and prove that their brains aren't naturally less suited to science. But boys face plenty of gendered pressures, too.
One in three boys has internalized cultural messages to be dominant, physically strong, violent, unemotional, denigrating to girls and seeing girls as sexual objects, according to a 2018 report, The State of Gender Equality.
Meanwhile, 82% of boys had overheard someone being insulted as "acting like a girl," which meant crying or being sensitive or emotional, per the report. Much of that reaction is rooted in homophobia, the fear that a boy acting or dressing or looking "like a girl" will turn out gay. Such behavior, the report said, was "implicitly unbecoming."
That pressure to be traditionally masculine has affected boys in every aspect of their lives, including in school. Reichert has chronicled how most boys are "relational learners" — meaning they learn better when they feel emotionally tethered to their teachers — as are many girls. "They really depend upon a connection with their teachers or coaches in order to engage," he said.