Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Tears Are Words

Learn to speak emotion as a second language.

Key points

  • There is no reason to tell children to “use your words.”
  • When they cry or throw a tantrum, they are communicating to us directly, in the language of emotion.
  • Adults' job is to receive the message, not force them to change the way they send it.
Richard Reid/Pixabay
Source: Richard Reid/Pixabay

I heard a beautiful story from the mom of twin six-year-old girls. One day, when one of the twins was crying inconsolably, she asked her, “How can I help? Can you tell me in words what we can do?” The crying twin kept crying. Her sister said, “Tears are words, Mama, you just don’t understand them.”

That is such a profound insight. We tell children to use their words instead of directly expressing how they feel with emotions and behaviors. But that’s often impossible. Their emotions may be too big for words—for words in verbal language, that is.

The language of emotion

It’s a big milestone in development for a child to say, “I’m angry,” instead of throwing a punch. It’s a milestone many adults still have not achieved. Nevertheless, the demand to use verbal language leads to frustration on both sides. Parents are frustrated because the child’s emotions are so raw and unregulated. Children are frustrated because—from their point of view—they are communicating perfectly clearly, but they are not understood.

The best way to relieve this frustration and smooth communication is for us to learn children’s language of emotion, not demand that they use our verbal language.

Most parents have already practiced this, during their child’s infancy, before verbal expression was expected. Parents learned to speak "Baby," deciphering the difference between a hungry cry, a wet cry, and a lonely cry. Do you remember what a relief it was—for both of you—when you became fluent in that language? The shift came from you learning the baby’s language, not the other way around.

After children can use verbal language, we start insisting that they do—all the time. But that’s not realistic. It doesn’t fit with how emotions work. Tears, tantrums, shaking, laughing—all the bodily expressions of emotion—exist for a reason: Clear, fast, direct communication of something important. This bodily system of communication appears before language and works when language is unavailable or inadequate to the task. If your child runs into the street you scream. You don’t say, “Excuse me, I’m feeling quite fearful and alarmed right now.”

Once children are verbal we can trust that if they pour out raw emotion instead of words that is the right thing for them in that moment. I regret all the times I anxiously asked my daughter, “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?" when she cried. I wish someone had been there to remind me, Tears are words. She is telling you what’s the matter. That might have helped me remember that it was my need to hear it in “words,” so I could get to work fixing the problem and ending her tears. It was my need to have her stop crying so I wouldn’t feel so helpless. If I had focused on her need, I would have said, “I hear you. I’m here. Let those tears flow.”

What if the emotion is expressed in unacceptable behavior?

If emotion is expressed as violent or destructive behavior rather than tears and tantrums, it’s an emotional communication, but it’s still not okay, right?

Right. However, even in these more extreme cases, it doesn’t work to pressure children to use verbal language instead of actions. It’s too big a leap from raw primal rage to calm and coherent words. We need to interrupt the problem behavior if it is dangerous or hurtful—not just annoying to us, like a loud tantrum on the floor. But we can stop it in a way that validates the emotion underneath that the child is trying to express. Validation actually helps them calm down and not need to be destructive anymore.

If a child hits or screams, “I hate you, I wish you were dead!” at a sibling, we can say to them, “Wow! That’s a very strong way to say you’re angry.” If we can say this with some fire in our voice—not rage, but enough heat to show them that we get it—then they won’t need to escalate more in order to get their point across. When children feel heard and understood, their emotions cool off. That leads to valuable learning about keeping their emotions in a moderate range. If they feel dismissed and misunderstood, their emotions get hotter. They are less able to keep their emotions moderated, and violence increases.

You may wonder: What about consequences? Don’t children need consequences in order to learn not to express their emotions destructively? No. They are learning a new language. When a child first learns to talk, we don’t punish them when they say wawa instead of water. We let them know we understand them—so they don’t die of thirst. We allow lots of time before we expect them to say “water.”

Learning the verbal language of emotion takes much longer. Unlike the shift from baby talk to common speech, we never totally shift out of primal emotional expression. We layer the verbal language on top of the more direct bodily system, and use both throughout our lives. Therefore, when a child expresses their emotion in behavior, they need us to understand their language, and offer them alternatives, instead of giving a consequence.

Children want to communicate clearly, so they naturally develop our verbal language. We can meet them halfway and learn to speak their emotional language as well.

More from Lawrence J. Cohen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today