The word “crybaby” evokes a certain image: a child who seems to tear up over things of little consequence, multiple times a day, and for several minutes per cry session — and who seems too old to do so. There is a societal expectation that by a certain age, maybe around the time they start kindergarten or first grade, kids shouldn’t be melting down quite so much. After that point, they are officially “crybabies.”
Some kids do simply cry more than others. They may naturally be more sensitive, more emotionally intense, or are still learning how to regulate their emotions. The goal should never be to eliminate their crying, though. Boys in particular receive messages from all around them that “big boys” don’t cry, crying is a babyish or girly way to express emotions, or that crying means they are weak. We have to be careful about the messages we relay to our kids — and allow others to relay to them — about their crying, especially for those who are more prone to tears.
As Sarah Hamaker writes for the Washington Post:
“Crying is a normal, healthy behaviour that has both a biological and social basis,” said Cheryl Rode, vice president of clinical operations at the San Diego Centre 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.”
What to say instead of “Stop crying!” or “Don’t be a crybaby!”
When a child starts crying over what you perceive to be a fairly minor incident, particularly if they are often quick to tears, it can be tempting to try to help them shake it off by saying something like, “It’s going to be fine!” or “You’re ok!” But to them, it’s not fine, and they’re not ok. The same way you need to feel heard when you’re sad or overwhelmed, kids need their emotions to be validated, too.
If you’re not sure what to say instead, Cooks Hill Counseling’s blog offers these 10 suggestions:
1. It’s ok if you’re sad.
2. I know this is hard.
3. I am here for you if you need me.
4. Tell me what is making you feel sad.
5. I see you and I hear you.
6. I am listening to you.
7. I am here to help you work this problem out .
8. I will stay close so you can find me if you need me.
9. That was a hard situation.
10. Tell me what happened.
Teach them coping skills
What kids who cry a lot need is not shame but coping skills. Choose a calmer time to discuss stronger emotions, how everyone has them, and the temporary nature of an emotion like anger or sadness. If the crying has become disruptive to their classroom or their peers are starting to tease them about it (or avoid playing with them), you can help them develop new ways to manage big emotions.
Clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore offers these coping strategies to Psychology Today:
- Breathe deeply. Slow, deep breaths can be very calming. Help your child practice breathing slowly and quietly — in through the nose, out through the mouth.
- Count. Silently counting floor tiles, reciting even numbers, or doing mental maths facts can be a good distraction to help your child get back on even keel.
- Take a break. Sometimes the best way to regain self-control is to step away from the situation. Your child could go to the bathroom or get a drink of water.
- Self-comfort. Tell your child to cross arms and give him- or herself a subtle little hug while thinking a comforting thought such as, “I’ll be ok,” “I can get through this,” or “Pretty soon I’ll be home and can tell Mum or Dad about this.”
You can also talk to their teacher to come up with other acceptable calming strategies to put to use in the classroom, such as putting their head on their desk while they take deep breaths or count, or going to a calming corner for a few moments.
Over time, they’ll be able to better control their tears without feeling shame for shedding them in the first place.