How Should We Respond to a Child’s Tears?

A child begins to cry and a parent quickly says, “There, there, don’t cry. It’s all right. There’s nothing to cry about.” How many of us have said things like this?

When we were growing up, how many times did we hear this?

diane sitting on steps with three kidsThen there is the demeaning and discounting message often sent to boys: “Stop crying—big boys don’t cry!”

Some of us may have heard the message, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

And who can forget Tom Hanks lamenting, “There’s no crying in baseball!” in the popular movie A League of Their Own.

Why do people say these things?

Often, the motive that underlies these messages is the desire to be comforting and encourage the child to stop feeling sad, instead to shift to a happier place.

While that sounds like a positive response, many experts on emotional and relational health tell us to respond differently.

Someone shared with me a wonderful list created by the Gottman Institute* of what to say, instead of some of these potentially discounting messages: “Crying is a healthy and necessary way for kids to express their feelings. By saying ‘stop crying’ we send the message that their feelings are not important, not valid, are silly or annoying.”

Here are the recommendations they make:
It’s okay to be sad.
This is really hard for you.
I’m here with you.
Tell me about it.
I hear you.
That was really scary, sad, etc.
I will help you work it out.
I’m listening.
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.
It doesn’t feel fair.

Many of us did not receive these kinds of messages when we cried, and therefore, they are not a part of our internal repertoire of responses to crying. It can be helpful to print out the list and post it on the refrigerator or in some other place where it is easily accessible, to serve as a reminder when those moments arise that cause one of your children to cry.

Young girl looking upset hugging an adults leg.Letting children cry in the comfort and security of loving parents who appreciate their crying is normal, healthy, and accepted gives children the freedom to be real about their emotions.

It can be a challenge for parents who were told to not cry as children to let go of their loyalty to those messages. Chances are your parents, grandparents and other family members were only passing on what was told to them. If they knew what science and research has recently taught us, as in what the Gottman Institute shares, they might have responded differently.

How we allow ourselves to express our sad feelings is a great model for our children.

Over time, children can learn to comfort others by using some of these suggested responses. They become deeply imprinted in their minds because they are messages received directly from their parents, and not artificial messages they have to learn like some adults who may have past loyalties to old ones.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. How did the adults in your life respond when you cried as a child? What messages did their responses create inside you about the appropriateness of crying?
  2. How comfortable are you with saying some of the things on the list the Gottman Institute has shared with us? Are you willing to put aside the messages that communicate that crying is unacceptable and shift instead to messages that allow children to embrace their tears?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, Lakeside

*Note: The Gottman Institute focuses on relationships and promoting relational health. They have been doing outstanding work in this field for decades. I highly recommend readers take a few minutes to explore their excellent website and check out some of the books written by John Gottman, such as The Relationship Cure.