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The smarter way to deal with a crying child20 min read

The funny thing about kids is that they're the reason we lose our shit and the reason we keep it together.

As a parent, you deal with a lot of emotional turmoil on a daily basis and some days it can all just be a little bit much!

Sometimes, you’ll give in to whatever demands your kid is making, simply to make it stop. Other times, you’ll feel the pressure rising within yourself and snap a (less than supportive) retort before you can stop yourself.

Teaching children how to deal with strong emotions is a long learning process for both you and your kids. In theory, it’s a fairly straightforward process, but when you’re stressed out it’s easy to forget even the simplest things.

The way you react to your child’s distress will have an impact on them as a person and the way they develop. Your goal should always be to approach upset, sadness and unhappiness with love, empathy and compassion – but some days you’ll just miss the mark.

Why saying ‘Stop crying’ doesn’t work

Hey, no, judgement here. I’ve been there – the noise, the stress, the emotion. Sometimes it’s hard to meet every need my child has and I’m not perfect. I’ve bungled several times and failed to live up to that perfect ideal of a mother but I think it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you recover from them.

Especially as an empath, I’ve had to take more calming breaths than I can count and dig deep for seemingly nonexistent reserves of calm when feeling like all I want to do is curl up like an armadillo.

Sometimes it’s remarkably difficult to not let that tidal wave of emotion overrun me and there have been a few times when we’ve dealt with a temper tantrum with both me and my daughter in tears.

I want our daughter to grow up being able to deal with her own emotions, use her words and have confidence that she will be able to handle life. But I also want to get her dressed in something she hasn’t worn for two weeks straight, get her to eat her veggies and get out of the door in the morning.

Dismissing the “silly” feelings just creates more work in the long run

Dismissing your child’s feelings, even the ones that seem silly to you, makes your own job harder.

Sitting down with my girl and having a conversation about why the purple pants that were the favourites yesterday are unacceptable today and cause her a wailing fit every time I try to get her to wear them, is just one of those things I’ve filed under Things I Never Thought I’d Do Until I Became A Parent.

Dysfunction is a family legacy

The more you dismiss those “silly” feelings, the more your children will have them. As you routinely dismiss them your kids will typically become more insecure and needier as a result.

When your children don’t feel like they have a safe place where they can express their feelings and deal with their emotions, they will require more support from you for longer.

Worst case scenario: you’re raising an emotional vampire that will cling to you well into adulthood because they can’t take responsibility for their own emotions and choices in life.

Eventually, this model of dependency is what they’ll carry with them into every relationship they’ll ever have. It’s also what they will (inadvertently) teach their own children if they don’t learn more productive habits.

Dismissing emotions is counterproductive

The goal is to teach emotional regulation and dismissing any kind of emotion that your child experiences achieves the exact opposite.

Dismissal doesn’t teach your child how to use descriptive words to communicate or how to deal with unpleasant feelings.

Ultimately, it only sends them the message that crying isn’t an acceptable response to an emotion, that they’re alone in dealing with difficult feelings and that their feelings aren’t important.

Besides, you’ll only end up more frustrated than before because your child will double down and cry even louder when you let that “Stop crying” slip out.

Your child is looking for support in a time of stress

Sooner or later, ‘Stop it!’ has escaped your lips before your rational thought can catch up. Maybe you’re frustrated with the noise, maybe you don’t get why every little thing today causes emotional upheaval or maybe you just want to find another way to help your kids deal with the situation.

Either way, it doesn’t help: not us and not them.

When you don’t hear the message they’re trying to send you, the messenger will just get louder and louder until you can’t ignore it. Children are looking for empathy and understanding.

When they don’t get it, they’ll keep trying – which means louder crying and more acting out. This is why dismissing their feelings doesn’t work in the long run.

Showing empathy and affection gives your child a feeling of safety and understanding. By showing your child empathy, you are meeting their needs.

It may feel like they’re trying to manipulate you or just trying to make your life difficult – but really they’re not. They’re simply overwhelmed and are looking to you for help and support in how to deal with it. Your job is to hold the space for them while teaching and supporting them to deal with their own problems.

Remember: right now you’re dealing with a child learning how to navigate emotions, but you’re training the adult that they will become in how to handle life.

If the saver really wanted to save the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems, deal with it yourself.” That would be actually loving the victim.

The victim, if they really loved the saver, would say, “Look, this is my problem, you don’t have to fix it for me.” That would be actually loving the saver.

– Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Crying is always okay

Crying is a healthy way to deal with overwhelming emotions. There’s nothing wrong with sadness and frustration either.

Adults cry too – sometimes about utterly trivial things – but we’re extended more grace for our “silliness” than our children are.

I cry easily – and frequently – at movies and books. What’s sillier than crying at something fictional? Yet, no one has ever chided me for doing so. Rather, people find it endearing that I get emotional about such trivial things.

Crying isn’t inherently bad and we do our children a lifelong disservice if we teach them they should never cry.

You can teach your children how to handle those big emotions and, over time, they will learn how to do it on their own. It will take a lot of practice, but you will help them to become well-balanced adults who take responsibility for their own choices.

Crying is always appropriate

Crying in public, I know. Cringe. You desperately hope that nobody notices while simultaneously realising that it would be impossible for people a block away to miss your kid throwing a tantrum in public.

As mortifying as it can feel to have your kid go off the deep end in public, there is no point in silencing them in order to make everyone else (or yourself) feel more comfortable. Although, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to get the situation under control:

The faster you manage to respond to a situation in a supportive and empathic manner, the sooner it’ll be over, without the extra helpings of drama.

My first thought when I see someone dealing with a crying child in public is usually of sympathy because, as parents, we’ve all been there. The ones who throw you judgy looks are probably people without kids and, let’s face it, their opinion doesn’t count.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

– Theodore Roosevelt, Man in the Arena speech

Your child crying in public may be uncomfortable, but it’s still always okay

Whatever your child is crying about it is valid. It may seem trivial to you, but your child does not have an adult perspective of the world.

Don’t teach your child that they have to suppress their feelings in order to make other people comfortable. When you allow them space to express their feelings, they will eventually get better at dealing with their emotions and expressing them in ways adults deem appropriate.

Right now supporting them in an empathic and understanding way is more important than silencing them for the benefit of others.

Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.

– Catherine M. Wallace

Were your feelings dismissed when you were young?

If you were often required to silence your own feelings for the sake of others as a child, your own child howling in public can be incredibly uncomfortable.

When you’ve been accustomed to having an adult push your own feelings aside, the experience of a child expressing their sadness, frustration, disappointment or anger can be quite triggering.

In addition to trying to deal with your own child’s emotions, you find you’re also dealing with the echoes of your own, and without a model, on how to navigate those situations, you can end up feeling very lost.

The good news is that practice makes perfect and it can be incredibly healing for the hurt little child you still carry in your heart to master the art of guiding your own child through big emotions.

11 Things to Say Instead of ‘Stop Crying’

So, to begin with, what are some things to replace “Stop crying” with? These are not ranked in any particular order and many will often be used in conjunction with each other.

1. It’s okay to cry / be sad / be upset.

Even though you might mean well when you tell your child ‘Stop crying, you’re fine’, it can come across as dismissive.

The thing is; right now, your kid isn’t okay and they certainly don’t feel okay.

Switching in a simple ‘It’s okay to cry’ will let your child know that you’re holding the space for them to express what’s causing them to cry.

Remember; the more sense they start to make of their own narrative, the less they will cry.

2. I’m sorry this is upsetting for you.

Acknowledging your child’s feelings and showing that you understand their pain, even when you don’t feel it when they do, will let them know that you get it.

Even when you have no control over the cause of their upset, you can express how sad it makes you that they are sad and let them see that they are not alone.

3. I understand you are upset about _____.

When you’re locked in a battle of wills about something, like another cookie when it’s time to stop, showing them that you understand their point of view and validate their feelings will allow you all to move on.

“I understand you’re upset about the cookie. You really want one more but you’ve already had many cookies and eating more isn’t good for you. I don’t want you to get a tummy ache because it would make you very sad. You can eat cookies again some other day.”

4. I’m here with you. / I’m not going anywhere.

Some days are just gonna be really rough. A cascade of overwhelming events can cause your child to break down and you won’t ever be completely clear on what caused it.

When this happens, the best thing you can do is to just be there for them.

Stay close by, keep them close at hand, hold them, rock them, put a reassuring arm around them, add a little extra attention and TLC.

Some days they just need you to wait out the storm with them and for you to tell them that you’re there. How amazing is it when someone really sticks by you through thick and thin?

5. I know you’re tired, I’m sorry.

When it’s too much, it’s too much. I’ve completely broken down from sheer exhaustion too!

Maybe you’re out, you missed nap time and now you’re feeling it in your skin.

Let your child know you understand how tired they are and that you’ll let them rest ASAP.

You can follow this up with an encouraging phrase like, “I know we’ve been out for too long, we’re leaving now and you can sleep soon”.

6. That was really scary! I’m right here.

When your little one gets a fright it usually ends in tears.

Acknowledging how they feel and giving them descriptive words for their emotions (“you’re feeling scared/afraid”) will help them to make sense of a shocking event (“that dog barking really scared you”).

Moving to end it on a positive note will always help to build their courage and self-confidence afterwards (“that dog barking really scared you, but it’s behind a fence and can’t come to this side”).

Whenever possible, try to show that scary things really aren’t that scary and that fear can be overcome.

7. Tell me what happened, I’m listening.

Once the worst shock is over, prompting your child to think back and tell you their story of what made them upset will help them clarify their narrative.

As they start recounting the events that led them to this place, you can offer helpful questions like “Did that make you angry/sad/upset/scared?”.

The idea isn’t to place blame but to understand what happened. As you help your child organise their story, they will also begin to form a better understanding of their own emotional landscape.

8. I’ll help you work it out. / Let’s do this together.

As your child navigates their own feelings as well as those of other children, there will be a lot of frustration and frustration-based crying.

When you see that your child is struggling to complete a task and their frustration is mounting, offer to help and/or show them a better way to finish it.

Sometimes it can be simple things, like how to close cupboard doors without hurting your fingers or opening tricky lids. Other times it’s how to share toys and navigate feelings of jealousy.

When you step in to support your child to finish the task by themselves (rather than saying “Give it here!” and doing it for them), you’ll notice that as they trigger their curiosity and learning mindset, the frustration and tears will ebb away.

Children are hard-wired to learn; when you can use that to your advantage and trigger their curiosity, you’re also teaching them grit and self-confidence.

9. I know, it doesn’t seem fair.

We don’t always get to make the rules and life can often be unfair. Even as adults we rarely have that much control over how our day will go, but this is especially true for children.

When your child is feeling overwhelmed and like life is unfair, your job is to listen, empathise and let them know that you understand.

Discussing how they feel about what happened and reminding them that it’s not the end of the world will allow them to move forward.

Just because some things in life don’t work out how you want to doesn’t mean that you don’t have control over other parts of your life.

Work together to figure out what these feelings and events mean to your child will allow them to then assign meaning to them.

10. This is really hard for you.

Recognising that your child’s feelings are valid and that the situation they dealt with was a tough one makes them feel supported.

In some instances, they may not even realise that they’re struggling with something and as a result become frustrated without recognising that they can or should ask for help.

To have you come and acknowledge that the situation is a challenging one and communicating that asking and accepting for help is okay.

There are going to be many challenges in life and it’s important for your child to know that it’s okay to feel dismayed or sad in a tough situation.

Allowing them to recognise and express whatever feelings they have is a comfort to them and will help them deal with difficult situations in the future.

11. I will stay close by so you can get me if you need me.

It is a huge relief for your child to know that you are within reach and available if needed.

Allowing them to carry their own space (when they’re ready) will make them feel supported and comforted.

You’re demonstrating a great level of trust in that they are capable of handling themselves and tackling their own challenges. As much as the physical presence, help and comfort of the person they most depend on means to them, letting them handle things on their own is just as significant.

Learning to recognise when you’re in over your head and need help – as well as that it’s okay to ask for it – is one of the most important things you can teach them.

Being nearby means you’re available if needed, but won’t butt in and do the challenge for them. This will benefit their future development when forming relationships as well as their belief in themselves to handle life.

What if you don’t know what to say?

Sometimes you don’t know what to say, because you don’t know what the problem is. If you’re unsure, begin with just offering your physical comfort and presence.

Children are very attentive and will quickly pick up on if you’re saying things you don’t really mean.

Taking some deep breaths and letting yourself land in the present moment will help you to tap into your compassion and, sooner or later, your child’s tears will give way to the need to tell their story and be heard.

AVOID these things

When you’re trying to help and be genuinely compassionate, you should avoid saying things that can make you sound like you don’t care.

Don’t distract.

Distracting your child from how they feel is missing an opportunity to connect with them and teach them the emotional regulation skills they need. You’re also saying that feelings should be ignored and that their feelings are unimportant and undesired.

When kids know that you are capable of dealing with emotional storms they feel safe and capable themselves.

Don’t punish.

Punishments and rewards aren’t a constructive way to deal with overwhelming emotions or situations.

Threatening, punishing, shaming, blaming and judging a child for their feelings will shut them off to you and most likely create a very distrusting and selfish adult out of them.

Don’t ask too many questions.

It’s better to take things slowly when your child is feeling overwhelmed. Figure out one thing at a time and build from there.

Don’t rush your child to find the answers and let them set the pace for how quickly they can sort out their narrative.

Don’t say ‘but’.

Saying ‘but’ is passive-aggressive; “You’re sad because you really wanted another cookie but you can’t have one”. Adding a ‘but’ invalidates everything that came before it and places the blame on your child for having the feelings in the first place.

Remember: it’s not about placing the blame on someone, but teaching your child how to own their feelings and decisions – no matter who did what.

Don’t say ‘You’re fine’ when they’re obviously not.

Saying “it’s okay” or “you’re fine” in a reassuring way is fine when your child is on the brink of making a mountain out of a molehill and they need you to remind them that they can handle it.

When they clearly don’t feel fine, quips like this can come off as dismissing and minimising their feelings. A simple “it’s okay to cry” is a better option.

Don’t set a time limit.

Empathy is not a technique to make the crying stop. The goal is to make sure your child feels heard, understood, supported and their feelings and experience validated.

Particularly if your child has had their feelings dismissed in the past, it can take a while for them to learn new habits. Sometimes, there’s just a lot of emotion to get through and you’d best get comfortable.

Don’t try empathy for five minutes before declaring “it doesn’t work” because your child is still crying. Empathy is not a tactic for gaining control, but a way to meet your child’s needs and supporting them through big, scary emotions.

Taking the time is challenging when you have to be somewhere and getting a move on just seems impossible. Being able to stop for just a moment and reconnect with empathy will allow you to rush off together instead of you dragging your kid kicking and screaming behind you.

Empathy is a long-term solution, not a quick fix

The next time your child is struggling with overwhelming feelings have some of these phrases memorised and ready to go. You’ll get a lot farther a lot faster with genuine empathy and understanding than you will by ignoring the crying or hoping it would just stop.

Feelings aren’t something to be avoided but opportunities for genuine connection – and your kids deserve that.


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