Crying over spilt milk? A broken stick? The fact that you cut the toast straight across instead of diagonally? Something that seems to you utterly ridiculous and unimportant?
Possibly. Probably not. Probably really crying about something else, more important, bigger, deeper. The spilt milk was just a trigger.
My child sometimes appears to get upset about something small, seemingly petty, then get really upset, disproportionately upset. Then I know there’s probably something bigger that’s bothering him. It might have been bothering him for some time. Maybe he couldn’t articulate it, maybe he thought he was OK about it. It’s probably been bubbling away under the surface for some time. The broken stick, or the ball not rolling in the right direction was just the final straw, the trigger. Then, once allowing those pent-up emotions to come out it’s a bit like a volcano that’s been waiting to erupt.
Adults do it too. Can you remember ever having a complete meltdown just because you dropped something? That final thing that just tipped you over the edge? But you probably realised it wasn’t just the dropping something that you were crying about.
My child doesn’t always seem to realise this. So if I say, “I don’t think you’re really crying just about the stick” he becomes more upset and angry. “I am! I really wanted to play with that stick!” But sometimes, if I know what’s bothering him, it can help. It’s just a matter of feeling my way. “I wonder if you’re feeling sad that Granny & Grandad are leaving today”. If I’m right this can allow my child to admit and recognise these feelings, and then of course cry even more. But if I don’t know what’s bothering him, that’s OK too. Maybe he’s just tired and hungry after all. There’s not always really a need to say anything at all. He just needs me to be there for him, and allow him to have a good cry so he can heal and move on.
My biggest temptation is usually to try to fix things, to say things that will make him feel better. “Never mind, we’ll see Granny and Grandad again soon”. But this isn’t what he needs, it isn’t helpful. He just needs me to validate his feelings and let him know they’re OK. Another pitfall is to try to distract, cheer up, or worse, belittle or dismiss his feelings, not recognising that there’s more to it than just a broken stick. Distractions may work in the short-term (although the older he gets the less likely this is), but it’s really just a delay tactic, and doesn’t allow him the time to fully deal with his feelings. It’s like putting a lid on a bubbling saucepan. If there’s something bubbling away under the surface it has to overflow eventually. Better to get it all out at once, in one big storm, than have a day of puzzling, difficult, disconnected behaviour.
Finally, I never send him away to cry, or threaten or bribe him to stop crying. The crying is annoying, but too often it gets treated as bad behaviour. When we threaten children into silence we are telling them that we don’t accept their feelings, and teach them to suppress them. When we ignore them we are telling them we don’t care. This is not what they want to hear, and probably not really what we want to say.
Yes, I want him to stop crying, but the quickest way is always to allow things to run their course. When he’s finished he’s refreshed, and we’re connected, and both ready to move on. Happily.