Just over two weeks into the school year, our kindergartner was tearing up often enough in class that her teacher mentioned the excessive crying to us at a back-to-school night. We knew that she was prone to waterworks but had figured it was something she would outgrow by the time she started school.
While kids do become more adept at handling their emotions as they grow, some kids (and adults) continue to find tears springing to their eyes when they least expect — or want — it. I wasn’t surprised at my daughter’s behavior, given that I also tend to burst into tears at inopportune times. Of my four kids (two boys, two girls), three cry easily, and not always for normal kid reasons. One cries when she’s frustrated with herself; another tears up when he’s angry.
“Crying is a normal, healthy behavior that has both a biological and social basis,” said Cheryl Rode, vice president of clinical operations at the San Diego Center for Children and a licensed clinical child psychologist. “It can be a release for stress or emotional energy, and it can serve as a communication tool to share emotions or seek comfort.”
Rode said that tears are often a response to intense emotions. “The mechanisms that initiate crying are related to our limbic system — the part of our brain that controls emotions,” she said. “Childhood is a time of developing greater control over emotional regulation.”
Elementary-school-age kids vary widely in their ability to regulate their emotions, but teenagers also sometimes struggle with crying because of spikes in hormones during puberty. Some children are particularly sensitive, or have a stronger sense of empathy. Some experience emotions intensely, while others might have trouble keeping their feelings in check. Rode cautioned that sometimes kids may cry excessively because of depression or anxiety (if you think this may be the case with your child, talk to a professional immediately).
Understanding why kids cry can help both the child and parent. Tim Elmore, president of the nonprofit organization Growing Leaders and author of “Generation iY: Secrets to Connecting with Today’s Teens & Young Adults in the Digital Age,” lists four key reasons children shed tears: disappointment, fear, selfishness and inadequacy.
Merely having a ready supply of tissues on hand won’t help my children learn to cope with unexpected tears. But the goal isn’t to eliminate crying — there’s enough evidence that bottling up emotions isn’t good for anyone. Rather, we need to teach children when to give in to their feelings and when to rein in the tears.
Here are suggestions from Elmore and Rode on how to assist a child during and after a crying episode, and some things that helped our kids.
Model healthy emotions. Adults need to set the example on handling emotional outbursts, including crying. When our children see us cry, they learn how to deal with tears.
Acknowledge that tears are part of being human. “Many children have been damaged by adults who unwittingly communicate things like ‘big boys don’t cry,’ or ‘it’s never right to shed a tear,’ ” said Elmore. Let kids know that crying is a natural outcome of pain, sadness, disappointment, fear, frustration, anger and even joy.
Talk about emotions when things are calm. Instead of discussing it in the middle of a personal episode, Rode recommends using characters in books or movies to connect to your child’s experiences. “Parents can have these conversations with kids from preschool through high school,” she said. “Remind your child too of times they have handled difficult situations well, or times when strong emotions had been overcome.”
Remind kids that emotions are fleeting. Children and even teens often don’t realize that the huge emotion they’re feeling at that moment won’t last long. Frequent reminders that emotions blow hot and cold “doesn’t solve the problem instantly, but over time, kids begin to realize that tears and crying come and go,” said Elmore.
Avoid using “rewards” to keep kids calm. A parent or teacher sometimes bribes a child to stop crying because an emotional child may make us instinctively want to offer comfort. “It can be especially difficult to not jump to the rescue,” said Rode. “But the more attention you give to the crying, the more you encourage it!”
With my children, 99 percent of the time, the tears are related to internal frustration. We warn teachers that our kids cry easily and advise them to not intervene at the first sign of tears. This allows the child to employ coping strategies to return to an even keel and keeps the teacher from inadvertently prolonging the crying.
Provide a safe place to cry. An audience can feed into and prolong a child’s tearful bout. “If kids cry frequently, suggest a safe but secluded place where they can go and emote,” Elmore said.
Teach them coping strategies. Deep breathing, statements such as “I can do this,” taking a break from the activity and asking for help are all ways kids can overcome frustration. If a child is having trouble controlling tears at school, suggest he put his head down on the desk (with the teacher’s permission) and count to 10 to get the tears under control. This gives him a plan when the tears spring up, and a way to regain his composure.
Help kids problem solve. Often, the best way to keep tears at bay is to figure out how to handle the situation that caused the outburst. “Encourage your child to talk about solutions to whatever situation pushed the cry button, rather than focusing on the tears themselves,” said Rode. This has worked well for us. We’ve guided our children to recognize their “tear triggers” and brainstormed with them on ways to head off a crying jag. The key is to let the child come up with the solutions, because those will be more effective than a parent-directed strategy.
You might also be interested in: