How to Respond to A Child’s Tears

’There are some poignant moments in my parenting and grandparenting experiences when I am struck by how important and powerful deeply emotional moments are—those moments when my children or grandchildren cried.

Each child’s emotional response is different

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Sometimes a child cries soft tears because of a need for snuggling. Other times tears can occur across the continuum to out-of-control sobbing, sometimes accompanied by pounding on a table or stopping of feet. Whether soft or full-blown, something profoundly and intensely compelling occurs when the children for whom we are responsible clearly are in pain or distress.

The subject of children’s tears has been on my mind since one of my grandsons, who his mother describes as being “emotional,” was clearly very sad when it was time to leave after we spent several days together over the holidays. It appears to be true that some children experience greater degrees of emotional responses to moments when they are going to be separated from someone or something they love and have therefore become attached.

Psychological and scientific reasons for tears

I think these can be crossword moments for parents when children are washed over by emotions of sadness because it is in those moments that parents transmit messages of how acceptable it is for a child to feel and express emotional pain or sorrow.

Some parents respond with embarrassment, as if a crying child somehow reflects some kind of weakness on their part. These parents might say things like, “Stop crying! There’s nothing to cry about!”  Or they respond with gender-specific, and I think more toxic message, “Big boys don’t cry!”

It turns out that there might be some very interesting science behind crying and reasons to not only allow children to cry but to fully accept and even encourage it. Developmental psychologist Aletha Solter, Ph.D. [] shares what I think is a very wise observation:

Much of the advice in parenting books is based on the assumption that crying and temper tantrums are behaviors that should be discouraged. Some people assume that these are indications of a ‘spoiled’ child who is used to getting her own way, while others think of them more as immature behaviors that children must learn to control.

It is generally believed that as soon as children are old enough to talk, the job of parents is to help them express their wants and feelings using words rather than tears or outbursts of rage. Even people who recognize crying as a sign of stress and frustration sometimes consider crying to be an unnecessary byproduct of stress. They assume that children will feel better once they stop crying. This belief may lead to efforts to distract children from their crying”.

She goes on to share some very interesting research from Dr. William Frey, a biochemist in Minnesota, who has researched the chemical content of human tears.

Frey states that “one of the substances found in tears was the stress hormone ACTH. Thus it is possible that shedding tears helps to reduce excessive amounts of ACTH and perhaps other substances that accumulate following a stressful event. Dr. Frey has suggested that the purpose of emotional crying may be to remove waste products from the body, similar to other excretory processes such as urinating, defecating, exhaling, and sweating.

Frey’s conclusion is that ‘we may increase our susceptibility to a variety of physical and psychological problems when we suppress our tears.’ Crying not only removes toxins from the body but also reduces tension.

Studies on adults in psychotherapy have found lower blood pressure, pulse rate, and body temperature in patients immediately following therapy sessions during which they cried and raged. Similar changes were not observed in a control group of people who merely exercised for an equivalent period of time.”

There is so much more to consider when deciding how to respond

When children are showing their emotions, the bottom line appears to be that embracing their expressions of sadness and pain rather than dismissing or shaming them into controlling those expressions is extremely important.

I am grateful for the moment I had with my grandson when I was able to hug him and share that I thought it was just fine that sometimes he felt his emotions strongly and that I could identify with that. I am hopeful that an affirmation like that can help him and any of my other grandchildren (or other children) feel freer to fully experience and express all their emotions, including the sad ones.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Take the time to reflect on some of your beliefs about children and crying. To what extent is crying acceptable? Are there certain circumstances or ages or sex differences that influence those beliefs?
  2. What are some messages you think are important to communicate about your children’s expressions of sadness, hurt, loss or disappointment?
  3. How does scientific information that crying may actually be a way for a child or anyone to release toxic stress chemicals affect what you think about crying?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network