No More Tears…an Unfair Request

Kids lose it.  They cry.  And that can be a stressful thing.  Especially when you were already on your last nerve sometime yesterday.  But there’s something I hear parents say that makes me cringe a little.  It comes in many forms: “No tears,”  “Big boys don’t cry,”  or the many other variations of “Stop crying now.”  It’s understandable to a degree.  The crying is stressful.  But there are a few things we have realize. 

First, we have to understand that the message we’re sending is, “I don’t really want to know how you really feel.”  We want our kids to talk to us, to share with us.  But that’s not what we communicate to them when we respond to their limited ability to express emotions by essentially saying, “Stop showing me how you feel.”  

It’s not likely we’ll end up with teenagers who feel comfortable sharing their disappointments and hard decisions if we’ve spent a decade sending the message, “I don’t want to hear it.”   Instead, we’ll get answers like, “Fine,”  “Sure,” and “Whatever” after years of teaching apathy instead of empathy.

Secondly, the “small thing” that we believe doesn’t warrant crying, means a lot to the child.  We need to look, now and then, through the eyes of the child.  It’s easy for us to rationalize away little heart breaks as no big deal, but we have to understand what they really mean to the child.  That display of empathy goes a long way in building relationships and really getting to the root of the behavior.  It doesn’t mean we have to cry about it too, but we do need to be responsive and communicate to the child that he is understood.  For example, “Oh, Sam, that must have been pretty disappointing when your Lego tower broke!  You worked on that for a long time.”  Then, when the child knows he has been heard and validated, he’s more likely to calm down and move on from that point.  He doesn’t feel quite so driven to cry when he knows you already got the message.  When he realizes you’re on his side, he’s more likely to go along with you.  “What should we do?  Do you want to try to fix it or build something new?”  Sometimes, it’s simply being understood that will soothe the tears.

Lastly, we need to recognize that children have limited verbal abilities.  So in spite of the fact that they feel overwhelming and powerful emotions like frustration, disappointment, jealousy, and pain, they often have trouble expressing those feelings with words.  So there they are with all of the original emotions festering and then a large portion of frustration is added when they can’t aptly communicate what they’re feeling or what they need.  Crying is a natural reaction to that breaking point. 

When we empathize and talk about those feelings, we not only help the child to know he’s been understood, but we also give him the words to express those feelings later.  If we simply tell him to stop crying, he has gained no tools (other than suppression) to help him in a future situation. 

Showing empathy can go a long way in drying those tears, but sometimes crying turns to a full-scale tantrum.  In those situations, use the same techniques as above— validating and labeling emotions — but also reiterate that “I can’t fix a fit.”  Tell the child that you want to help, but don’t know how unless they use words to help you find out what they need.  Of course, talking is difficult if a child is completely out of control, in which case you may want to try some of the Tools for Tantrums first.

In any case, we need to remember to focus less on the immediate goal of ending the crying, and more on the long term goal of healthy emotional regulation.  (Here’s a great post that makes teaching emotional regulation and expression as Simple as PIE.)  We want to communicate to our children that we do want to hear what they need and how they feel.  When they feel secure in that, and as they learn to communicate more efficiently, the crying will naturally lessen. 

Top photo by yarranz.
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Filed under Article, social skills

16 responses to “No More Tears…an Unfair Request

  1. Lindsey

    I can see what you’re saying, but I have one exception. When the crying is just too much for ME, I have to get away from it. When it makes me feel tense or impatient, I need a break from the sound. If my daughter is crying and I start feeling like I’m about to lose control, I tell her to go to her room until she’s ready to talk, until she’s calmed down. This gives me a chance to breathe and her a choice–SHE decides when she’s ready to use words to communicate and I can deal with her better. When she comes out, I ALWAYS discuss the situation, so I’m still validating her feelings, but with less noise and tension.

    • notjustcute

      I think you’re right on, Lindsey. I think you can still validate and label the emotions, even if you need a break from them. By talking about it and giving your daughter time and space to calm down, you’re still validating the emotion. There’s a difference between teaching a child the appropriate place for emotions (helping her find some breathing space) and asking her to simply keep them shoved down and not express them at all (“No tears”). As you mentioned, you leave it as her choice. That’s how choices work — we set them within our limits. So, on one end you don’t want to ignore or supress emotion, but on the other end you can’t let the crying take over your home and your mental health. So you’re offering your child the free choice to express her emotion in a safe, personal space and choose when she has enough control and composure to talk with you. As long as going to her room is presented as a choice or a coping strategy and not as a threat or a punishment, I think you’re on the right track here.

  2. Diane Hunt

    Totally Agree!!! Whenever my children have had a fit, I’ve remembered to tell them, “It’s okay to cry, but it’s not okay to scream (bloody murder).” or kick or hit. Everybody cries. That usually calms my little ones and they can sit and shed their tears, and not self destruct.

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  4. great post. have been working on this with my son as he has started back at daycare part time. he starts crying the night before. there is a point – the night before, did I mention he starts crying the night before???!!!! and from the minute he wakes up – when I say “ok I know you’re upset but there is still a lot of time to enjoy being together, so let’s focus on that because it is what it is and I can’t change that I have to work” that I get to. and I think that is okay.

    the other issue I run into is the people at daycare say things to him like “look none of the other kids are crying” “be a big boy and don’t cry” things I never say. and I’m trying to figure out how to tell them to not do that. though I don’t think I am going to be able to, its different people everytime. right now my work is pt and this is the only place that would take him but hopefully he’ll only be there a month or two. so how do you deal with that? telling those who think they are child care professionals that they aren’t being very professional? (they constantly belittle my parenting and I finally told them I don’t need their advice nor do I care to hear their opinion – they told me I was potty training him wrong and shouldn’t tell him the proper word for body parts)

    • notjustcute

      Building a partnership with caregivers is difficult, but important work. Making positive suggestions often works better than giving negative criticism. People are more likely to listen. Possibly suggest that your child calms down best when they read a story with him or engage him in an another activity. (Focusing on his crying is not likely going to do much to help the situation. Usually it just makes kids feel more frustrated, embarrassed, and misunderstood.) You might also want to try creating your own separation routine — something like the one in “The Kissing Hand”, or an object that you give him when you leave and he gives back when you return (a stretchy bracelet or something), or a kiss and hug routine. It’s unfortunate that your caregivers are not consistent, but it will help if you can create your own consistent routine. Good luck!

      • thanks for your suggestions. I did buy the kissing hand and we read it and now he won’t let me read it. he hates it, he told me and doesn’t want to hear that book. though sometimes he’ll say “I’m going to kiss your hand and you hold it up to your face and it says Asher loves me Asher loves me” so he gets the concept. I’m going to try to think of something he can take.

        and I will try to think of how to say it in a positive way, luckily the caregivers on monday morning (which seems the hardest) are very caring toward him but he still just cries and cries. last week they said they thought he was getting comfortable and then today it was constant crying. sigh…since reading this I’ve been trying to be more patient and sympathetic toward his crying.

      • notjustcute

        Good luck! Let me know how it goes…..and I love the name Asher!

  5. Fabulous post!

    I’ve found this especially annoying with my boy. His grandmother will often say the dreaded ‘boys don’t cry’ even when he has a really valid reason to be upset! Though she’ll happily indulge his older sisters in a few tears…

    I need to print this out or email it to her.. if only she’d read and understand!

    • notjustcute

      Thanks, Kate! It’s true that some kids over-react or use crying for attention and need to be redirected, but crying can be a valid response to emotion. There is an unfortunate double-standard for boys and girls, which may be why we end up with many grown men who struggle to properly express their emotions.

  6. This was wonderful and timely. I was just thinking the other day (or convicted I guess would be a better word) about saying, “Stop that fussing” a lot and sometimes I don’t take time to find out the cause of the fussing.

  7. Thanks for a great post! I’m sure every parent has been in that place where they just can’t listen to the crying any more – and just as we need to give our children permission to feel unpleasant feelings and lose it sometimes, we need to give that permission to ourselves too (within reason, obviously). It’s when it becomes a habit, that we are systematically unable or unwilling to tolerate our children’s strong emotions that it can be a problem. I often think in those situations about where I’m at that makes it so difficult for me to manage my daughter’s outbursts – she is very intense and I find that I often handle her better when I do some personal work and figure out what’s going on with me instead of trying to change her to make myself more comfortable.

    • Wonderful post…and so important. We all want to feel understood. Feeling validated for even our most outrageous feelings (not behaviors, just feelings) breeds self-confidence. Even the youngest infants feel more valued and respected when we acknowledge their cries first, rather than just rushing to “fix” them.

      Kelly, I love what you say about looking inward, rather than getting angry at children for the way they express their feelings. Of course, we have to stop any hitting and other violent behaviors (I give my children a pillow to hit instead). I think the challenge is to not “take on” our children’s outbursts, and just let them be. Those waves of emotion need to run their course, so children can express them fully and move on. If we stop them, we can create problems down the road.

      I wrote a post about acknowledging feelings, too:

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