What to Say When Your Child Starts Crying
In my private practice, I witness many tears; this makes sense, as therapy is a place where adults share their emotions, vulnerabilities, and the stories they’ve held inside.
I learn so much about people’s histories from their reactions to tears; i.e., what people say to me after the tears start flowing.
I often hear: “I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying so much” or “This is so embarrassing” or “Oh my goodness you must be thinking I’m crazy to be so emotional about such a small thing” or “I think I’m getting my period, that’s why I’m so emotional.”
I’d love each one of us, right now, to pause and read those four statements again and let them sink in.
We can be psychologists together, right now, and wonder: “No one was born talking to tears like this; how did someone learn to approach tears with blame and criticism? When did someone learn that crying is met with invalidation, embarrassment, and judgment?” How we respond to our tears, in the therapy office or with loved ones or by ourselves, tells us so much about how our caregivers responded to our outbursts.
I’ve always found it interesting, how shaming so many of us have learned to be about tears. At the end of the day, tears are our body’s way of saying: “Something so big and important is happening inside that I am literally producing LIQUID to start flowing out of your eyes in an attempt to get you to pause and notice.” We have to respect this process; our body never lies to us, certainly not when tears are involved.
The more we tell our kids “Stop it; you’re fine” in response to their tears, the more we circuit their bodies to respond to tears, in adolescence and adulthood, with invalidation and judgment (“I SHOULD be fine”) and self-doubt (“Why is my body working against me? I’m supposed to be fine and yet these tears keep coming; how embarrassing.”) and anxiety (“No one ever helped me manage these feelings; my aloneness in these vulnerable emotions is too much to bare so I need to keep running away from them when they pop up”).
When my kids are older, I want them to respond to their own tears in this way: “Oh, I’m crying. My body is telling me that something important is happening for me, and I’m going to honor that truth by pausing and checking in with myself and learning more.”
How kids talk to themselves – which is a key element of an emotion regulation circuit – comes from how we, today, talk to our kids about their emotions. And tears are a part of our emotional life.
Let’s set our kids up to honor and respect their emotions, certainly including their tears – after all, this is a way of honoring and respecting themselves, which is the essence of self-confidence.
Try This At Home:
The next time your child cries, notice your urge to say, “You’re fine! Stop it!” and instead, pause. Remind yourself that these shutting-down-crying words were words passed onto you from your childhood, and yet you don’t have to pass on this message to your children. Give yourself some compassion as you try to do something different.
Try out one of these responses instead:
“You’re allowed to cry.”
“It’s ok to cry.”
“You’re allowed to be as upset as you are.”
“Crying tells us that something important is happening in our bodies. Your body is telling me right now that you’re really sad/frustrated/disappointed. That makes sense. I’m right here sweetie.”