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Family Almanac: Parents of 8-year-old worry his tears come too easily

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Q. My husband and I have a wonderful, smart, sensitive and funny 8-year-old son who cries easily, sometimes out of frustration and sometimes out of sadness or pain. This has been a part of his personality pretty much from the beginning, but crying seems to be tolerated much less in boys than in girls. 

I don’t want my son to be ashamed of his feelings, and I would never tell him that boys shouldn’t cry, but that’s exactly what some of his friends have told him, and they might be right. After seeing him cry so easily when he’s with them, I realize that this trait isn’t serving him well and that it might even make him a target for teasing.

My husband and I try very hard to let our son resolve his own problems, but how can we get him to deal with his emotions privately instead of wearing them on his sleeve?

A. First you have to consider your son’s age.

An 8-year-old isn’t just one year older than he was a year ago; he’s one stage older.

Eight is a watershed — a time when children begin to think and act and look in new and more mature ways before they start their long, slow march toward adulthood.

Not all children march at the same speed. Some 8-year-olds act like they’re 9 — outgoing one minute and introspective the next — and others act as sad and somber as a 7-year-old on a really bad day. Either way, your son takes up more space, physically and psychologically, than he ever did before.

Whether your son is running, playing or watching you for cues to know what to do and how to act, he often feels uncertain, overly sensitive and easily hurt — as do his friends — although he never talks about it and neither do they. Instead, your son thinks that they do everything better and faster than he does, and they think the same of him because children are much harder on themselves than on anyone else. This could be the reason that your smart and wonderful boy gets so weepy.

This might not happen so much if you frequently praise his work so he’ll feel more accomplished; if you teach him to cook an omelet or vacuum the rug so he’ll know how much you need him; and if you talk to him about the advantages and disadvantages of crying in public.

He needs to know that crying is a good thing for him to do when he’s upset, because these tears are different from the ones he sheds when he smells a freshly cut onion. Emotional tears encourage his body to produce natural painkillers; they make hormones that help him feel better, and they get rid of toxins in his body, too.

Despite the value of crying, males aren’t supposed to shed any tears, even though public crying was quite acceptable until the Industrial Revolution and it’s still okay in some cultures today. Your son lives in the United States, however, and the older he gets, the more his friends are going to tease him when he cries. It might make you cringe, but that’s the way children police one another.

When you give this information to your son, you also should tell him that his tears might invite more teasing than he can handle and that this could make him look vulnerable. If that happens, he’ll probably get bullied because bullies always go after the most vulnerable children.

Once your son knows the pros and cons of this situation, he can decide for himself whether he wants to cry in public or in private, how often he wants to cry and what he should do if he can’t contain his tears. These are his choices, not yours.

If he does continue to cry in public, prepare yourself for the teasing and the bullying, because one follows the other like hours on a clock. “Bully-Proofing Your Child” (Sopris West; $9.50), written by three PhDs — Carla Garrity, Mitchell Barris and William Porter — is a winner. “Confessions of a Former Bully” by Trudy Ludwig (Tricycle Press; $8) also would be great for your son.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly and read past Family Almanac columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Oct. 25.

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