Q. My 9-year-old son cries over many, many things, and it really gets to me.
Today he cried and cried when I made him go to church, so now he and I and my iPad are sitting here in the library because I didn’t want him to disrupt the service. Also, I didn’t want people to turn around and stare at him, since I knew how bad he’d feel if they did. I cried a bunch until I was in the third grade and it wasn’t until the teasing began that I learned to turn it off.
Last week, I told my son that I would help him learn to control his tears, or I would find another outlet for his unhappiness; but when he cried for 15 minutes this morning, I got really mad. I then told him that he couldn’t invite his friends over this afternoon as he had planned, and this makes me feel guilty. I guess I want my son to express his emotions, but not this much.
A. You can’t forgive your son for acting the way he does until you forgive yourself for acting the same way when you were his age.
Some children are simply more sensitive than others, especially in the second or third grade, because this is the time when they get a mild dose of the same hormones that will flood their bodies in their early teens. This may make them go through a sad “nobody loves me” stage, while a heavy dose will make them feel even sadder and sorrier for themselves.
Whether your son is getting a lot of hormones or a little, you need to let him cry in church for five minutes or so before you go to the library, even if a hundred parishioners turn around and glare at him. He’ll be embarrassed — and you’ll be embarrassed — but a few dirty looks from some grown-ups may curb his crying now, which would be better than getting a lot of teasing from his classmates later. When a child pays the consequences of his actions, he soon learns to hold his own.
You’ll probably still spend more time at your library than your church for the next eight to 10 Sundays, but don’t fuss about it or punish your boy. Instead you need to sit down with him in a quiet place and ask him why church upsets him so much. Eventually you’ll get an answer if you let him do most of the talking. By listening so patiently, he’ll know that you respect his feelings, and then he will want to listen to your advice. Give it in small amounts however, along with a talisman that he can wear around his neck or a string of worry beads that he can fiddle with when he’s about to cry. A small distraction is often enough to help a child calm down.
You also should confide more freely in your son. He needs to know that you once had trouble keeping your tears to yourself, that you overcame the problem, and that you know he can do it, too. It’s a matter of letting your son dare to solve his own problems so he can become as independent as possible. A child has the right to try and the right to fail and the right to pick himself up, dust himself off and try all over again. This routine worked when he took his first steps and drew his first picture, and it will keep right on working as long as you encourage him. If you intervene too much, however, he will falter.
No matter how hard you try to encourage your son, you’re sure to intervene or get mad when you shouldn’t. That’s inevitable. Every parent makes mistakes every day, but when you’re in the wrong, you should apologize to your child, just as you would apologize if you blew up at a friend. And when you can’t go to sleep at night because you still feel bad about it, you should go to his room, wake him up and tell him again that you’re sorry. You’ll sleep better, he’ll sleep better and you’ll both wake up with a smile on your face.
Questions? Send them to email@example.com.
Join Kelly on her next live Q&A at noon Thursday.