Dear Therapist:

I had a question I hoped you could help me with. My 11-year-old son is a bit moody. Usually when he is able to talk to me about what is bothering him, we work through it, he does really well and feels better. The problem is it takes a while for him to finally open up. He first says he doesn't want to talk about it and it takes a while for me to get it out of him. Then when he finally does, he usually feels better right away. The issue is it really takes up a lot of time. Not that it's not important for me to invest time in this but I think it takes up more time than it should. I wonder if you have any tips as to how to get things "flowing" quicker and with less resistance. Thank you. 



I don’t know what kinds of things bother your son. Nor do I know the process through which he is relieved of his moodiness. This does, however, sound like a normal part of growing up.

You refer to your son as “a bit moody,” and it seems that he is relatively easily able to work his feelings through. Of course, at this point he is dealing with his emotions with your help. However, once he is ready to discuss his feelings, it seems that the process is quick and simple. This leads me to believe that he likely has most of the tools necessary to work through his own emotions—once he is able to acknowledge them. It seems that the most significant aspect of your involvement lies in helping your son to focus on his feelings, not in helping him work them through.

As in most areas, our primary goal as parents is for our children to become self-sufficient. Although we are there to help them, our focus should always be on helping them to deal with things on their own. For some specific goals, this is usually a simple process. We can teach them how to cook a meal, help them once or twice, then allow them to continue building on this skill on their own. For more complex matters, our involvement is often continuous. Nonetheless, we should always bear in mind the fact that we ultimately want them to be capable of doing things independently.

Of course you want your son to open up more quickly, and to therefore feel less moody. There are, however, two separate goals inherent in each situation. The first is the obvious wish to make your son feel better in the moment. He is upset, and you want him to feel happier. To this end, your instinct may be to figure out how to get to the heart of the matter. If you could only figure out what is bothering him (or get him to figure it out quickly), he would feel better.

However, the second goal is the longer-term one of teaching your son to deal with his moodiness on his own. With regard to this, ostensibly the more you “help,” the less you truly help. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There are times when it is appropriate to lead a horse to water, and there are times when you should compel it to drink (to distort a metaphor). There may be times when there is a compelling need to help your son deal with an issue, but generally speaking you do not want him to lean on you more than is necessary. Teaching your son to rely on others is not the long-term lesson that you want him to learn.

You spoke of your son’s resistance to your help. To some degree, this is normal. Is his resistance due simply to his young age and his moodiness at the time, or if there are deeper issues that prevent him from dealing with his feelings? Is each moodiness episode typically due to the same underlying emotion, or is each situation fundamentally different? These questions can help you to determine the degree to which you should be involved. It can also help you to monitor your son’s progress in learning to resolve issues on his own.

Have there been times when you were not available to help your son deal with his moodiness? For how long did he remain moody? If he is generally able to acknowledge his emotions and work them through, your involvement can be minimal. If he truly requires help in these areas, remember that your goal is to teach him to become ever less reliant on others. This usually coincides with our assistance becoming ever less pronounced.

It is important to separate our own emotional needs from those of our children’s. To what extent do I want my child to be less moody today because it upsets me, and to what extent am I doing this to help him? The more aware we are of our own needs, the more likely we are to help our children in the proper way—rather than to assuage our own emotions.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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