Letting your child cry at the right times can actually be good for them. What’s more, trying to stop your child from crying could actually be doing them more harm than good.
But there are two key ingredients that mark the difference between crying that’s helpful for their happiness versus potentially damaging:
(1) Your connection with them; and
(2) Your empathy.
This blog will give you a step by step process for how to ensure you get these two key ingredients right.
Why do children cry?
Crying is a natural stress response in babies and children. Babies cry because they have no other way to communicate when they are uncomfortable (hungry, tired, lonely etc). But more than that – babies and children also release tension by crying which allows them to release stress and feel better. So “stress-release” crying is actually very useful.
Here’s a good example: yesterday my 3 year old daughter and I were sitting at the table eating when the balloon she had just been given at a shop suddenly burst right next to us. We both got a big shock and Lila burst into tears. I felt the shock in my body of the loud bang so I understood why she was crying. My husband, however, tried to distract her and talk her out of crying (he doesn’t like her crying so that was his own coping mechanism). But Lila just needed to cry out the tension (from the adrenalin response to the shock). So I put her on my lap and said “Did you get a shock from the loud bang and you’re feeling upset?” and she nodded. After I held her for a while she stopped crying and was quite happy again.
Science has shown the benefit of crying: emotional tears contain stress hormones so they are actually cleansing the body of toxins from stress. Research has also shown that suppressing tears increases stress levels. In short, crying makes people feel better and suppressing crying makes them feel more stressed. (This goes for adults as much as for kids.)
But an important caveat: children need to be supported to cry, not left alone with their overwhelming emotions. Otherwise it could be doing more harm than good. Leaving them to cry themselves to sleep, or otherwise cry alone, can actually cause the crying and overwhelm to escalate, resulting in a more anxious child than before.
How to Support A Good Cry
So next time your child needs a good cry to release the tension, try this approach as soon as the tears start flowing:
Step 1: Support your child by touching or holding them as they cry.
Step 2: Empathise with their emotions by stating simply what happened and what they are feeling (don't analyse - just state what you see).
Step 3: Listen to their response and talk it over if necessary. Stick around and let them cry til it’s over.
Why to Support a Good Cry
Some people might read this and think: “Isn’t that just babying them and teaching them to cry whenever something goes wrong? I want my child to be resilient and strong when things get difficult.”
That’s a fair question. But there are important reasons to allow them to cry at the right times (more on the right times below).
1. It teaches them that Emotions are Okay
First of all, if you tell them to stop crying (big girls don’t cry, boys don’t cry etc) you are teaching them to block or hold in their negative emotions. This results in them bottling them up, which creates ongoing tension in their body. Over time this usually manifests as anger and frustration because kids don’t know how to handle strong emotions and need to externalise them in some way.
In contrast, if a child is allowed to express their upset and get it “off their chest”, they release those difficult feelings and then feel quite happy afterwards (usually). Have you noticed how after a tantrum or a big cry your kids often seem a lot happier or at least much calmer?
2. It teaches them that they are loved, flaws and all
The other problem with telling them not to cry or feel their big emotions is that it sends them the message that they are not okay (read: not loved) when big emotions come up. If a child’s parents reject them or tell them off every time they get upset they will learn that they’re only loveable when happy. This results in a child (and eventually an adult) who feels only partly accepted or loved. To my mind, this is the root cause of the epidemic in the Western world of low self-esteem – the “I’m not good enough” syndrome – which drives so many people to over-work or try to accumulate status symbols to feel better about themselves.
3. It teaches them Emotional Intelligence
Crying is an opportunity to teach them about their emotions and how to better handle them – but you need to do Step 2 above for this to work. This is a crucial part of the process because it shows that you understand them plus it gives them language for their difficult emotions. Young kids have so many confusing or overwhelming emotions going on and it’s our job to help them learn how to get some perspective when big emotions arise. Over time they will learn how to choose a calmer response to strong emotions rather than always reacting with anger or upset.
So this strategy is actually helping them to learn to manage their own crying and big emotions as they grow up.
But not all crying is equal. What about attention-seeking crying?
It’s true that children (not babies) do cry at other times when they aren’t feeling big emotions but are just after attention or aren’t happy with a limit that’s been set. Parents are usually pretty good at telling the difference between these sorts of crying! I find that the ‘real’ emotional crying involves more tears, more red-faced emotional distress and is louder. Attention-seeking crying tends to be more ‘nagging’ (like a broken record) and less passionate.
Attention-seeking or protest crying also needs to be responded to but in a different way. For this, I would squat down at their face level, come in close but gentle, and have a dialogue with them about their issue. Make sure they feel heard, but then draw a firm line (calmly) if you are setting a limit.
We’ll talk more about setting limits in an upcoming post – can’t wait!