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.