Let’s be honest: dealing with crying children comes with the territory of parenthood. But that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking or frustrating, especially when your little one’s meltdown threatens to overtake your day. In such situations, it’s easy to fallback onto methods our well-meaning parents used to stop our waterworks, from reasoning “There’s nothing to cry about”, to ‘statements’ such as “Big girls/boys don’t cry”, to the age-old “Stop crying now!”.
But each time you stop your child from crying without properly acknowledging their feelings, is a missed opportunity for them to learn how to process emotions in a more positive manner. Whether they’re sad, angry, hurt, frustrated or even happy, the easiest way for little ones to process and express their overwhelming emotions is through crying – especially since they have not gained the ability to explain their feelings clearly.
By telling your child “don’t cry!” it sends across the message that you do not understand them, and that their emotions are wrong, unimportant or invalid. As they get older, children will eventually learn how to manage their emotions – using invalidating statements and telling them how to feel, might teach them to unwittingly suppress their feelings. It is possible to reassure your little one and give them attention without encouraging them to throw more tearful tantrums.
Instead of saying: “Stop crying now!”
Ask: “Would you like to tell me why you are sad?”
Instead of seeing crying as behaviour that needs to be stopped immediately, take your child’s tears as a cue to tune in. Wait for your little one to calm down – throw in a few hugs while waiting – before asking gently why he’s upset. From there, you can help him identify his feelings and reflect on his behaviour to understand how to cope better the next time around.
Instead of saying: “Big boys/girls don’t cry”
Offer: “I will help you work it out”
The next time your child is frustrated at not being able to tie their shoelaces properly, or sad about misplacing their favourite toy, don’t tell them to hide their emotions simply because it’s expected of ‘big boys/girls’. Offering to help them find a solution to their problems will teach them to approach trying situations with an objective mind and encourage effective problem-solving skills from an early age.
Instead of asking: “Why are you crying over such a silly thing?”
Say: “I can see this is hard for you.”
Even if the reason for your toddler’s meltdown seems trivial to you, it’s important not to dismiss their feelings, and to show empathy. Acknowledging that he feels extremely sad over a broken cookie, will help him be more receptive to your reminders of a more hopeful perspective: “You can still eat the cookie pieces!” Dealing with emotions the right way will help to build resilience in the long run.
Instead of saying: “Shh! Everyone is looking at you!”
Reassure: “I’m listening to you.”
Restricting your little one’s emotions by making him aware of how ‘embarrassing’ it is to make a scene in public can have longterm repercussions. Children will eventually learn how to express themselves ‘appropriately’ in social settings – silencing their feelings may pressure them into being overly aware of others’ opinions and judgement. Again, acknowledge your child’s feelings and help regulate his emotions by listening to what he’s expressing, waterworks and all.
Instead of saying: “Hey, do you want to go and play on the swings?”
Say: “I remember you had so much fun when we were playing on the swings!”
Although distraction techniques such as using toys or exciting activities can be useful, it’s a short term solution in most cases as your child will be unable to connect his emotion to the situation. But you can help your toddler calm down and prepare for rational thought by guiding them to recall pleasant memories where they felt peaceful and safe.
Instead of saying: “We’ll go home if you don’t stop” or “If you stop crying, I’ll give you sweets!”
Say: “Let’s take a break”
Many desperate parents might resort to rewarding or threatening their child to stop their tears. But doing so will only reinforce the child’s behaviour. Instead, opt to remove your little one and yourself from the situation and wait till he is composed before resuming what you were doing. This helps him understand that it’s okay to walk away from a trying situation to calm down before trying again.