If you have kids, you have crying. They cry because their brother got to the door first, because they tried to ride two scooters at once and fell, because they are dressed as Batman but do not want to be addressed as Batman by other shoppers in the supermarket.
There are so many reasons to cry! And when you've had it up to here with the squabbling and fighting and crying — especially about some nonsense you don't have time for, like who pressed the elevator button — it's really easy to say (or scream) "stop crying!"
But, you know, these kids. They have real feelings, and even if they're crying over something we think is trivial, it's our job to both empathise and teach them to manage those feelings. As Sara, a mother with a master's degree in clinical psychology, writes on her blog Happiness is Here, "One day they will know how to deal with their feelings and express them at times that adults consider 'appropriate', but the way we support the development of emotional regulation is by empathy and understanding, not silencing."
She points out that a lot of us learned to squash our emotions after overly harsh reprimands — e.g., "I'll give you something to cry about," but that this strategy actually makes the parent's job harder: "Children are looking for empathy and understanding. If they don't get it, they will keep trying." They will keep having breakdowns just to try to elicit the reaction they're instinctively seeking.
So what's a parent to do, especially when you're tired, exasperated and maybe dealing with other kids' problems too? Sara offers 10 suggestions for substitutes, such as:
- "It's okay to be sad,"
- "I hear that you need space. I want to be here for you. I'll stay close so you can find me when you're ready,"
- "I will help you work it out," and
- "I'm listening."
I find these kind of things hard to remember in the moment, especially when, for example, I'm just trying to get through the grocery store, but I think you can say these things on the move if you need to — the whole world doesn't have to stop for a huddle with Sad Batman. Other times might require a little more time and empathy — my four-year-old started crying at bedtime the other night over something rather trivial, but it quickly morphed into real, sobbing grief over a recent death in our family.
I'm glad I didn't listen to my first instinct, which was to say "you're fine, I'll see in the morning" (cut me some slack, I was tired), when confronted with the apparently insignificant thing. Instead I lay down with him for a few minutes until he had cried himself out and was ready to go to sleep.
Sara also lists a few things not to do in the face of crying, like distract or punish. I myself am not a fan of offering sweets to crying kids, even though it's tempting, both because I don't want them to start crying as a ploy for cookies and also because I don't want them eating their feelings (something I struggle with).
Helping kids learn to manage their emotions is one of the trickiest jobs we have as parents, not least because a lot of us parents have trouble regulating our emotions, and because we're tired and stressed and this is just one more thing to deal with.
But taking a moment to slow down and empathise with a crying kid reaps rewards: It will likely shorten the duration of the crying jag anyway, and eventually they will learn to deal with their feelings appropriately. Some day, in fact, they may even comfort you.