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When Kids Cry

February 01, 2017

Perhaps the toughest thing when our children cry are the emotions their tears trigger in us: empathic upset and sadness, plus a sense of helplessness that comes from thinking we need to do something while unsure what that would be. If we ourselves feel uncomfortable with those emotions — upset, sad, helpless — our kids' tears will be that much harder for us to be around.

For some parents, kids' tears trigger discomfort with vulnerability (crying being an obvious expression of vulnerability). Many men in particular can't tolerate the sight and sound of a crying youngster, regarding it as a sign of weakness and, with tearful sons, effeminacy. Those parents may sharply insist: "There's no reason to cry," "I'll give you something to cry about!" "Big boys/big girls don't cry," "Don't be such a cry baby," etc. In contrast, parents less unsettled by the vulnerability of crying may offer gentle words of comfort yet still wish to stem the flow ("It will be all right," or "It's not worth crying about"). Such parents often pull their tearful child into a physical embrace. 

Why do people cry? A prevailing view is that certain positive and negative emotions — upset, sadness, awe, joy, hurt — experienced at strong intensities knock us off our emotional equilibrium, crying being the body's natural way of restoring equilibrium. Strong feelings create a build-up of a kind of emotional tension which crying releases, allowing emotional balance to be restored. Some researchers believe that emotional tears (versus tears generated by itchy eyes or chopped onions) release stress hormones or toxins. Emotional tears contain a natural painkiller — leucine encephalin — which may explain why we can feel better after "a good cry."1

What our sobbing kids need from us is precisely the opposite of what we tend to deliver: they need to feel our uncritical acceptance of crying (and the feelings behind it). So give the crier room — emotional and physical space — to experience the tears and the feelings, without doing anything to interfere. Being touched, and especially hugged, interrupts the restorative process that crying seems designed to deliver. Delay the urge to touch — the hug can come later. Offer caring words of empathy: "I see how sad/upset/frustrated you are..." while staying physically close. Say, "It's good you can cry," and just remain quiet while reminding yourself that tears, allowed to run their course, restore our emotional balance.