Helping Children Who Cry Easily
What to do when your child is prone to tears.
Posted Sep 01, 2013
Does your child often burst into tears? All children cry, but some seem to be particularly prone to tears. These tender-hearted children may need some extra help in learning to manage their distress.
Why Kids Cry: Ages and Stages
Crying is a normal response to feeling overwhelmed by strong feelings. In babies, crying with tears begins at three or four months, and it's a useful distress signal to engage the help of caretakers. Pain, hunger, and separation are typical causes of tears in infants. The frequency of crying generally decreases around two years of age, as children become better able to use words to communicate what they need.
Crying is more complicated in school-age children. Like infants, older children may cry when they are hurt, but they also cry when they anticipate pain—such as when they know they will have to get a shot at the doctor’s office or they learn that they can’t have a play date tomorrow. They may also cry in response to emotional hurts, such as being rejected by peers or seeing a sad movie.
School-age children are also better able than younger children to anticipate the reactions of others to their tears. They may cry to express guilt or remorse after they misbehave, in order to diffuse their parents’ anger (and perhaps avoid punishment). They may also try to avoid crying in front of certain peers who they think are unlikely to respond kindly.
The Social Costs of Crying in Older Kids
From about first grade onwards, there’s often a social cost for children who cry in public. Unless there is serious physical injury, your child is probably better off avoiding crying in front of peers and, if needed, postponing tears until a more private moment. Initially, tears may elicit sympathy from peers, but when children cry again and again in response to frustrations that other kids take in stride, their tears become off-putting. Other kids tend to view frequent criers as immature or just not fun to be around. Children who cry easily may become targets of bullying. Also, children who spend a lot of time crying are missing out on enjoyable experiences like learning, playing, and hanging out with friends.
Sometimes frequent tears are a sign of depression or other serious difficulties. More often, they are a sign that a child hasn’t yet developed good skills for regulating emotions. Help your child plan ahead for situations that tend to elicit tears. These might include losing a sporting event, not understanding what to do in school, or being teased. Brainstorm with your child to come up with a specific plan of what to do in these situations—other than crying. Having a plan may help your child feel less overwhelmed.
Strategies for Handling the Urge to Cry
Here are some general strategies that you may want to share with your child for when he or she feels like crying in public.
- 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 math 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 okay,” “I can get through this,” or “Pretty soon I’ll be home and can tell Mom or Dad about this."
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© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D.