When my son was 15, I grounded him for violating his curfew. He moped around the house, silent but clearly furious. "If you're angry at me," I said, "let's talk about it."
"Dad," he grumbled, "I really don't want to talk about it. Stop trying to be my therapist."
My wife and I are parents of the psychotherapeutic age. We are the generation that talks more about our feelings â€” and about our children's feelings â€” than any generation of parents in the history of humankind.
But are we going too far?
This constant monitoring of feelings is irritating and intrusive. It's like pulling a bandage off a wound every five minutes to see if it's healing, or pulling a plant up every few minutes to see if it's growing.
Walk onto almost any playground in middle- and upper-class communities, and you hear some parents repeatedly asking about their children's feelings and noting their moods. "That must be frustrating for you." "Does that make you sad?" "You must be feeling tired."
This constant monitoring is irritating and intrusive. It's like pulling a bandage off a wound every five minutes to see if it's healing, or pulling a plant up every few minutes to see if it's growing.
And it can cause kids to get too wrapped up in their feelings. Each passing emotion takes on too much importance. Sometimes we also treat a child's feeling as if it is on trial for its life. We worry that one betrayal will break our child's trust. Or that being excluded by a clique will crush our child's self-esteem. Yet children are far more resilient than that, and when we treat them as fragile, it can undermine their confidence.
Often, when we try hard to get teens especially to talk about their emotions, we only drive them deeper into their shells. Try naming a teen movie in which the parents actually succeed in drawing their teens' feelings out.
Still, trying to help kids talk about their feelings is clearly important: Bottling up or disconnecting from feelings such as anger, shame and sadness is a significant mental health risk; knowing and being able to express them is a key to healthy relationships. As parents it is part of our job to help our children navigate and articulate their emotions.
But just as important, we need to recognize when to back off and let our kids' feelings unspool. When we press kids to name or talk about their emotions, we can deprive them both of the richness of their feelings and of their ability to work them through on their own.
Before forgiving me for grounding him, then, my son may need to savor how stupid I am. He may need to rail against the injustice of the world. For a toddler or a teenager to manage difficult emotions, they may need to first have these feelings deeply and on their own terms. We tend these days to fill our kids' lives with too many organized activities. Let's not over-orchestrate their inner lives, as well.