How Crying Impacts Children's Mental Health
I’m yet to meet a parent who isn’t in some way moved by their child’s tears. Some feel paralyzed with instant heartbreak as if the child’s tears were their own, while others appear to be spontaneously triggered into doing whatever it might take to halt the tears in their tracks. In between are most of us who start out with feelings of concern and empathy, but as the child’s upset gathers momentum, our impatience creeps in and before we know it, our words and actions no longer align with our heartfelt intentions.
We’re all on this continuum, and some days we handle teary children better than on others. Of course, we are not ill-intentioned parents; we’re humans who inadvertently carry a backpack filled with personal experience and often unconscious beliefs about tears. Many of us have been taught to fear tears and avoid them at all costs because they signal upset and unhappiness. Worse than that, we may believe that the tears reveal our incompetence as parents because we appear to be raising very unhappy children. Surely that can’t be good?
Fortunately, neuroscience informs us otherwise. Tears have been extensively studied and we now know they are an essential indicator of healthy emotional development. Tears are an external sign of what’s taking place on the inside of a child who is adapting to a limit, lack, or loss. They are moved to tears because their brain is accepting the futility of the situation. It is an emotional process which requires them to access their vulnerability. Feeling sadness and disappointment is necessary if they are to learn from experiences of what they can’t have, can’t do, or can’t change.
This adaptive process is vital for humans to grow into resourceful, resilient beings who successfully navigate and thrive in a world where more doesn’t go their way than does. Caring adults who understand a little about tears and the adaptive process are well-positioned to guide children through their sadness. A child who is invited to have their tears with an adult who “holds space” for their big feelings will come out on the other side of upset with another layer of resilience, because they felt heard and supported when they needed it most.
A few things to know when we go with the flow:
Be aware of the energy you’re bringing to the interaction
If you have an aversion to tears, your words and actions will communicate this to the child. You’ll need to explore your own beliefs about tears and if necessary, start to shift your reaction so you don’t come across as afraid of or rattled by them. Unless you do your part, your child will receive the consistent message that uncomfortable emotions are unacceptable and need to be squished down upon rather than processed through feeling.
Read their tears as a cry for connection
By the time a child cries their tears, the hurt has already happened. There’s no going back and undoing what has already been felt, so we need to look ahead to what the child needs from us to recover from their upset. As Aletha Solter so beautifully said, “Crying is not the hurt but the process of being unhurt.”1 Our calling is to collect the tears and comfort the crying child who is overcome by the discomfort of feelings of futility. Leaving them to cry it out alone will introduce the temptation to block out tender feelings, which is detrimental to long-term healthy emotional development.
Comforting a child does not reinforce “unacceptable” behaviour
The misbelief that showing compassion to a crying child will risk reinforcing their undesirable behaviour is not only false, but also cruel. This age-old misinformation has led many parents away from the intuitive pull to console their children in the throes of distress. By withholding comfort for fear of spoiling them, we unconsciously prolong their suffering by not giving them what they need most – our warmth and affection. Start paying closer attention to how you are feeling in these moments. If you notice your heart wants to lean in, but your head tells you to resist, you’re likely going against your intuition because you’ve been raised or led to believe that children need unpleasant consequences if lessons are to sink in. They don’t. They need a caring heart and a loving parent to show them another way.
Don’t be tempted to try to change the world to suit the child
There will always be times when parents choose to tweak a situation in the child’s favour for the sake of peace and harmony. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, sometimes it is exactly what is needed. The trouble comes when we find ourselves doing it more often than we know we should. There’s a little voice inside of us that tells us when we’re drifting off course and we need to heed it.
Every time we change the world to suit the child, we rob them of the opportunity to adapt to what they cannot change. When a child emotionally bumps up against something that isn’t going their way, frustration is spontaneously evoked. They typically get mad and desperately try to alter the situation to avoid the emotional discomfort that accompanies adapting to the unwanted. In part, our response determines whether children’s objections and outbursts become gateways to outgrowing their immature expression of frustration or become parent-child battles which leave both parties feeling disconnected.
Be kind and be clear
When we’re intimidated by children’s tantrums or tears, we’re naturally tempted to try to bypass the behavioural distress that typically accompanies the adaptive process. We may find ourselves “walking on eggshells” as we purposely manipulate circumstances to placate the child. Perhaps we give a wishy-washy ‘maybe’ response when we know a firm, but kind NO is needed. Each time we shrink away from holding a necessary boundary we confuse the child with our ambivalence.
Don’t get me wrong; there are times when we should bend the rules or change our mind. In some situations, adapting our position will serve the child better than obstinately holding our ground under the guises of being consistent or saving face. Doing so requires parents to carefully consider the context and make a judgment call. If a child is sick, or it is an unusually stressful time, or there is some disruption in the family, of course we adapt our stance to support the best interests of the child. Just be mindful that it is not happening so often that it is to the detriment of the developing emotional system, which needs plenty of opportunity to feel futility and experience coming through the upset with a caring adult by their side.
Communicate confidence in their ability to survive their sadness
For a distressed child to feel safe and taken care of, they must trust their parents to help them navigate their sadness. They must also believe that their parents have confidence in their ability to survive what may feel like unbearable upset. By remaining calm and conveying our certainty in our child’s potential, we nurture them towards bouncing back after the seemingly intolerable as they repeatedly realize they have endured what once felt insurmountable. It is in this space of feeling secure and supported that the foundation for a lifetime of resilience is laid.
Invite the child to rest in the relationship
Consistently showing up for our children in a caring way means that they can count on us to hold boundaries (even when they don’t like them), rely on us to make room for their frustration (even when they’re loud and hostile), and depend on us to comfort them through their tears (even when it is unsettling), so they can find rest in the relationship. When they can trust in us to provide the invitation to feel seen, heard, and understood just as they are, they can get on with the job of growing up physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
Many parents are surprised to discover that children’s tears are portals leading back to their own early memories where their beliefs about sadness and frustration were set. Our deep love for them drives us to look inside at vulnerable feelings that we might never otherwise have had the desire or courage to revisit. I wholeheartedly believe that when a child’s tears stir us up, they are trying to wake us up by giving us an opportunity to become more conscious and aware so we can continue to grow. It’s in our willingness to be there for the children we love with all our hearts while they’re having their tears that we are transformed in the process too. Now that’s an unexpected bonus from tears!
For references visit ecoparent.ca/EXTRAS/SPR22.