One of the most universally misunderstood and mishandled areas of parenting and dealing with young children must surely be our responses to their tears, cries or upsets. I’ve become increasingly aware of how intolerant we seem to be, as if children’s cries are something to either fear, or loath. Yet crying is both natural and necessary.
It’s taken me a while to make a shift in my attitude, and I still find myself fighting against it, so ingrained in me are the conventional responses. But here’s the basic dos and don’ts I try to stick to:
Don’t try to ‘fix it’ or make it better.
When our children get upset about something – a fall, a disappointment, something getting broken or spilled – our instinct is to protect them from their sadness or painful feelings. We try to fix things for them, to rationalise, to cheer them up or distract them from whatever it is that’s upset them.
“Never mind, we can go tomorrow instead”, “You’re not hurt”, “We can build another tower”, “It doesn’t matter”….
But these well-meaning efforts short-circuit a child’s ability to express their feelings, to learn to deal with them, to heal, and to move on.
Like the time my child cried because he fell over in the mud. Often he would laugh and not care about something like this. But this time he cried. Perhaps he was tired or hungry, or something else was bothering him, and he just wasn’t in the mood for this. Perhaps falling in the mud was just a trigger for some other pent-up feelings. Either way, he needed the chance to have a cry.
There’s nothing wrong with that. No need to try to distract him or cheer him up with jokes or distractions, or telling him that it doesn’t matter if he’s muddy. Just some empathy and a cuddle was all that was needed. He got over it quickly enough, and got over it knowing that his feelings about it were acceptable, that he was entitled to them. And he felt better having had a cry. Don’t we all?
Children will get upset from time to time, probably quite often actually. And that’s OK. That’s because they’re just children. We simply can’t protect them from every upset. Rather, our job is to help them deal with their feelings, not smother them.
Don’t treat crying as bad behaviour.
This seems to be deeply entrenched in our society’s attitude towards children. When a child is crying because they can’t have what they want, or when the parent perceives it to be about something they consider to be silly, unimportant or unjustified, we treat their crying as bad behaviour, and try to threaten or scold them into silence, ignore them or send them to their room. Parents seem to assume that their child is not really upset, but just making a lot of noise simply because they’re “being silly” or making a deliberate attempt to drive them crazy or to manipulate them into giving them what they want – a toy, a treat, a trip to the playground, an immediate departure from the supermarket.
We may perceive a child to be “not really crying” or “just trying to get their own way”. There may not be tears, but there are still feelings to express. Anger, frustration, powerlessness or disappointment are all valid feelings, and a child must be allowed to feel them and express them in order to learn how to deal with them. What seems insignificant to us may really seem like the end of the world to a child. OK, adults don’t burst into tears every time things don’t go their way. But children are not adults, and as such cannot be expected to behave like them, and certainly can’t be threatened or scolded into behaving like them. All feelings are valid and all feelings should be allowed.
It’s very simple really. All children need when they’re upset is some validation for their feelings, plus some empathy and love. “You didn’t like falling over in the mud”, “You’re feeling sad about that”, “That’s no fun when that happens”. When I first realised this and started doing it, it felt counter-intuitive. Surely my child would be more upset? Surely I needed to tell him that it didn’t matter? Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish write in How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,
“Parents don’t usually give this kind of response, because they fear that by giving a name to the feeling, they’ll make it worse. Just the opposite is true. The child who hears the words for what he is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged his inner experience.”
But what about when a child’s crying over something you’ve said no to? Children can’t have what they want all the time and we can’t give in to them when they make a fuss about it.
True. But here’s the thing; it is quite possible to validate and empathise with a child’s feelings without giving in to their demands.
“You’re really frustrated that you can’t have a cookie right now. You don’t want to wait until after dinner. It’s so hard to wait”.
Child feels validated, and feels a little less like you’re the big baddy. But cookie still remains in cookie jar.
Do allow children to cry when they need to
It’s OK for children to cry.
We tend to assume that all crying must be stopped as quickly as possible. But crying is a natural healer, tears a natural outlet for our emotions. Children can’t be expected to never cry, any more than adults. So what are we so scared of? Letting a child’s tears flow whilst offering them the comfort of our calm and loving presence can be a great opportunity to strengthen that all important connection.