8. I can hear you are crying, but I don’t know what you need. Will you help me understand?
It’s no secret that hearing our kids cry makes us uncomfortable. Just think about how anxious you feel when your little one tears up without an obvious reason. We know that a newborn’s main way to communicate is to cry, yet we still look at it as something to be “fixed.” Once that infant becomes a walking, talking toddler, we sometimes expect them to process emotion the way we do rather than the way they have always done: through crying.
In fact, studies have found that our brains are hard-wired to have an instant reaction to a crying child, making us more attentive and ready to help—and fast! A crying infant triggers our fight-or-flight response by increasing our heart rate and pushing us into action… even if that child is not our own.
It seems we have to react to a crying toddler, but how?
Remember, crying doesn’t always equal sadness
For many toddlers, crying is not a reflection of sadness—it’s a way to process any emotion. They may cry out of anger, frustration, fear, excitement, confusion, anxiety or even happiness. The trouble is, they may also lack the verbal ability and self-awareness to explain how they’re feeling. This means asking them, “What’s wrong?” will rarely yield a productive response.
Saying “don’t cry” only makes life harder
You may think that making the crying stop will also stop your child (and your heart!) from hurting, but when you tell your toddler, “Stop crying!” or “Don’t cry!” they’ll immediately think that you don’t understand how they’re feeling. Their message is therefore likely to become louder and more persistent.
By asking or telling them to “stop,” you’re also telling your child that their emotions are invalid and unimportant. Regardless of how trivial the reason may seem to you, your failure to acknowledge how they are feeling in that moment deprives both of you of the opportunity to learn how to process that emotion in a more positive way.
Our goal as parents, no matter how tricky it can seem, is to support our little one’s development of emotional self-regulation—something we can only do when we treat them with empathy and understanding.
As tempting as it is, don’t distract them
Many of us view distraction as the ultimate tool in our emotional arsenal. Figuring that if we can distract our crying toddler from whatever it is they are crying about, we can stop the crying altogether. We’ve all dangled a favorite toy in front of tear-streaked faces or sung a song through clenched teeth in high-pitched desperation! Sadly though, distraction misses an opportunity to connect with your child and teach them how to deal with their emotions.
Yes, if he’s fighting over a toy with another child, distracting your boy with a second toy is completely appropriate. But if your child is crying because you helped them put their shoes on instead of letting them do it by themselves, distraction is likely to only make them respond louder and more fervently in order to be heard.
It’s true that sometimes distraction can work, but it’s often just a band-aid. It doesn’t help your child to learn how to cope with a similar situation or emotion in a more positive way in the future.
What to say to your crying child instead...
The next time you’re faced with a crying toddler, try to take a moment to make sure you are calm. If you’re angry, stressed or frustrated, the things that you say will just add to your toddler’s distress. Take a breath or two, acknowledge how you’re feeling, focus on what’s going on inside your body (your heart may be beating a little faster; your jaw may be clenched; you may be feeling tense) and, when you’re ready, use a low voice, and try these 11 alternatives:
1. “We’re on the same team. I will help you.” Even if your child says they do not want your help, they do want to feel as though you will back them up when they need you.
2. “I can see this is hard for you.” This simple phrase acknowledges that you hear and see them.
3. “I understand you’re sad/disappointed/scared/anxious/happy and that’s OK.” Reinforce the notion that feeling an emotion is what makes us human.
4. “That was really sad/frustrating/disappointing.” Acknowledging the event that triggered your child’s crying helps them also see what triggered their emotion and figure out what to do next.
5. “Let’s take a break.” Removing you both from the situation helps your toddler understand that sometimes you need to walk away in order to compose yourself. Your child may legitimately be tired or over-stimulated and simply need to have time in a quiet, soothing place before rejoining the activity.
6. “I love you. You are safe.” This invites connection with your child rather than separation. They may need a hug, a snuggle or to hold your hand in order to feel that you are indeed there to help them.
7. “Would you like help/a break/to try again?” Many times when your child cries out of frustration, they need one of three things: help performing the task, a break from the emotional situation, or to try to do the task again, possibly with assistance. Asking them, not telling them, what they would like empowers your child, helping them to feel important and significant.
8. “I can hear you are crying, but I don’t know what you need. Can you help me understand?” Even if your child cannot verbalize why they are crying at first, this can give them a chance to practice.
9. “I remember when you…” While it may seem like a distraction technique, helping them recall a time when they felt happy and peaceful helps prepare their brain for rational thought. Trying to reason with a toddler who is in a highly emotional state is kind of like negotiating with a tiny dictator. They are not prepared to listen to reason when they are in the midst of feeling helpless or angry or sad or exhausted.
10. “Let’s come up with a solution together.” Ultimately we want to help our children to develop problem-solving skills. Coming up with a solution that will help process their emotions teaches them how to look at the situation objectively and come up with possible solutions.
11. Nothing at all. Maintain silence and hold loving space for your crying child. Be a pillar of empathy and strength for them.