Handling Your Child’s Distress

Children's distress can fluster parents. Here are alternative ways to handle it.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

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Let’s explore some alternative ways to handle distress in your child.

1. Try to allow its expression.

When you let a child communicate distress, you are showing your child that it is okay to experience a full range of emotions. You’re telling your child that what she feels is valid. Such messages are essential to your child’s emerging sense of self and self-confidence.

Of course, there may be times—especially in public—when the expression of distress presents difficulties. But such moments can be handled by recognizing the distress signal, validating and labeling it with words, fixing the cause of the distress, and, if necessary, taking the infant to another location.

If it is hard for you to hear your child express distress—if you hear yourself saying, “That doesn’t really hurt,” or “Big boys don’t cry,” or “Stop making such a fuss” —here are some insights that might make it easier for you to feel comfortable with the expression of distress. Remember, the handling of negative feelings is especially important to the development of tension regulation.

Even the youngest infants feel what they feel for a reason. Don’t try to squash the feeling of distress by denying its validity. For example, experts in child development suggest that you avoid saying, “You’re not really upset” or “You don’t really want to play with that saucer.” The child is upset. She is having fun with the saucer.

When you tell her that her feelings aren’t real, you are making it hard for her to get a good sense of herself or her place in the world. Your role is to provide validation for the child’s feelings: “What is it that you’re upset about? Can we figure that out and do something about it?” Or “Isn’t that saucer pretty? Let’s put it up here so we can all look at it. Or put it on the rug where we can play with it carefully, so it won’t break.”

What is often called whining and complaining is usually the expression of distress. We as parents often use critical terms (whining and complaining) to push away the discomfort that we feel when our children are distressed.

True, the degree of a young child’s upset can sometimes seem out of proportion to what’s actually happened. You know your daughter fell down, but it was a minor spill. However, from the child’s perspective, that spill could represent so much more—surprise, humility, confusion, and an intense feeling of vulnerability. If you ignore that reality, focusing only on what you hope is true (your child is just fine), you may engage in interactions that inadvertently bring shame or increased unhappiness and distress to your child.

Virginia Demos framed the problem in terms of sequences of affective expression and response. Say an infant and caregiver are playing happily together. When the play is interrupted, perhaps because the toy is lost or it is time to go home, the child bursts into tears. At this point, the caregiver might respond with something like: “That’s okay, we can use these toys instead,” or “we’ll be back here soon to play again.” Her response would most likely decrease the distress and heal the ruptures, with the regaining of positive affect. This type of pattern is positive-negative-positive.

However, the caregiver might respond critically and punitively to the infant’s negative affect: “Oh, stop your crying!” or “Will you be quiet? That noise is really obnoxious!” In this case, the infant would be left not only with the original hurt but a second one as well. This would create a positive-negative-negative sequence. Demos suggests the sequence is dangerous because the negative affect starts a vicious cycle, with no repair of the ruptures, and the result is chronic rage and despair.

2. Try to acknowledge the child’s feelings.

For example, if your child takes a tumble and is crying, you might react and say: “Oh my, you took a tumble. That didn’t feel good, did it? Let’s make it feel better.” As a result of your acknowledgment of what happened and how it made the child feel, the child is allowed to cry, which is his true emotion, and he is offered reassurance that his emotional response is valid. He is soothed by your empathy with his distress. (Teaching children empathy is a big and important job. They learn much through example.)

Try putting into words what happened and what the feelings are. Acknowledging the feelings also helps the child learn tension regulation: After you validate your child’s feelings, it is much easier for him to move past his distress and regain composure. Over time, he will make this kind of interaction a part of his own internal world, moving toward self-soothing and tension regulation.

The benefits of attending to distress

In the short term, easing your child's distress avoids all kinds of hassles—for you and for baby. A fussy, inconsolable child is tough to handle. It frays your nerves. And it can make you feel incompetent or guilty. Dodge those bullets and you and your child will have a lot more fun together.

In the long term, responding appropriately to distress has many profound benefits for your child. It helps develop tension regulation: Soothing your child now puts her on the road to self-soothing later.

It also increases your baby's sense of optimism and buoyancy. Your appropriate response to distress offers reassurance that the world is an okay place. Baby feels, "I'm safe; it's not that scary. My needs will be recognized and attended to." This contributes to baby's emerging sense of competency.

You are telling him that his feelings are real and reasonable and that she's judged the events accurately. Your child learns to trust his perceptions of his internal and external world and to express emotions honestly.

All this results in a solid sense of self-esteem. By tending to a child's boredom or loss or pain, you are saying, "How you feel is important to me, and you are worth the effort it takes to understand and help you feel better."

References

Demos EV (2019). The Affect Theory of Silvan Tomkins for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy: Recasting the Essentials. New York: Routledge.

Spitz RA (1945). Hospitalism—An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 1: 53-74.