It’s no secret that hearing our kids cry makes us uncomfortable. Just think about how anxious you feel when your little one tears up without an obvious reason. We know that a newborn’s main way to communicate is to cry, yet we still look at it as something to be “fixed.” Once that infant becomes a walking, talking toddler, we sometimes expect them to process emotion the way we do, rather than the way they have always done: through crying.
In fact, studies have found that our brains are hard-wired to have an instant reaction to a crying child, making us more attentive and ready to help — and fast! A crying infant triggers our fight or flight response, increasing our heart rate and pushing us into action… even if that child is not our own.
It seems we have to react to a crying child, but how?
Your Crying Toddler is Not Necessarily Sad
For many toddlers, crying is not a reflection of sadness — it’s a way to process any emotion. They may cry out of anger, frustration, fear, excitement, confusion, anxiety or even happiness. The trouble is, they may also lack the verbal ability and self-awareness to explain how they’re feeling. This means asking them, “What’s wrong?” will rarely yield a productive response.
Saying “Don’t Cry!” Makes Life Harder For You
You may think that making the crying stop will also stop your child (and your heart!) from hurting, but when you tell your toddler, “Stop crying!” or “Don’t cry!” they’ll immediately think that you don’t understand how they’re feeling. Their message is likely to become louder and more persistent.
By asking or telling them to “stop,” you’re also telling your child that their emotions are invalid and
unimportant. Regardless of how trivial the reason may seem to you, your failure to acknowledge how they are feeling in that moment deprives both of you of the opportunity to learn how to process that emotion in a more positive way.
Our goal as parents, no matter how tricky, is to support our little one’s development of emotional self-regulation — something we can only do when we treat them with empathy and understanding.
As Tempting As It is, Don’t Distract
Many of us view distraction as the ultimate tool in our emotional arsenal. Figuring that if we can distract our crying toddler from whatever it is they are crying about, we can stop the crying altogether. We’ve all dangled a favorite toy in front of tear-streaked faces or sung a song through clenched teeth in high-pitched desperation! Sadly, distraction misses an opportunity to connect with your child and teach them how to deal with their emotions.
Yes, if he’s fighting over a toy with another child, distracting your boy with a second toy is completely appropriate. But if your child is crying because you helped them put their shoes on instead of letting them do it by themselves, distraction is likely to only make them respond louder and more fervently in order to be heard.
It’s true that sometimes a distraction can work, but it’s often just a band-aid. It doesn’t help your child to learn how to cope with a similar situation or emotion in a more positive way in the future.
So, what should you say when faced with a crying toddler? Find out here.