Margo, 4 1/2, had been acting really aggressive towards her 2 year old sister for several days. No amount of asking her to “Be gentle” or “How would you feel if somebody did that to you” was working. Everyone in the house had been worn down from weeks of recovering from the flu. On top of that, I had been working full time on a two week contract. Where usually, I would be able to stay home with the kids and help us all to recover, I had not been available much. The kids had been clingy and grumpy. A big storm was brewing and finally, the time came that I had the energy to deal with it.
So, Margo pushed her sister (again). I got down on my knees and said, “No, I won’t let you keep hurting your sister.” I held her arms gently, but firmly and looked into her eyes, even though she looked away. She looked down to her hairbrush on the floor, which recently had broken, and said, “I’m just upset because my hairbrush broke!“. Then, she started to cry.
It was not all of a sudden a worry that her hairbrush had broken (it had been broken all week), it was just that she was looking for some trigger to start her emotional release. I picked her up, plopped down in the chair with her and she started to cry even harder. She started to struggle and arch her back to try and get away. I did not let her go. I held her gently, but firmly and said, “I know you’re upset, but I’m right here, I’m not going away.”
She started blabbering and kicking. “I want to pee. I’m too sweaty, let me go! I hate when you do this. Stop looking at me! I want to eat something.” etc. It was a temper tantrum and I was so happy it was finally happening! I acknowledged what she was saying and sometimes told her, “Not now, we can do that later” and made sure to keep eye contact when I could. She cried hard for about ten minutes. A few more tremors came bubbling up after the big cry, and then she sat peacefully in my lap, her body relaxed and her mind calm.
In the meantime, Goldie, her little sister, had been watching and had been getting rather upset and wanted me to pick her up. She also had some major emotions cooking. As soon as Margo had settled, I said, “Next!” Margo hopped off, and sat on the couch nearby. She giggled a little, because she knew that Goldie also had to get her cry out. I picked the little one up, and without any prompting, Goldie did the exact same thing. Crying and struggling to get away, although she really wanted to stay in my lap. Saying all sorts of crazy things like, “I want boobies. I want my waterbottle. I have to poo. I want ice cream.” After about ten minutes, she stopped crying, she looked at me and said, “Mum, I just want to huggle.” And then, she sat still in my arms for about five minutes, breathing softly and snuggling while I stroked her hair.
Ahhh… then, guess what? The kids stopped fighting! They stopped clinging and they stopped whining. My peace of mind resumed. The emotions were out. Gone! Poof! This is how crying works its magic. For babies, the crying is called ‘cry-in-arms‘ although, the crying for older kids can be done in or out of arms, so long as you are present and responsive to their need to cry. It’s very simple. It’s extremely effective. And, it’s done in a loving supportive way. Actually, Goldie had another release later on that day, but it was a much smaller one. I also suspect that Margo will have another one soon. As, tonight she told me that she had another one brewing. Sometimes these things accumulate and a child may need several releases in order for their emotions to come out. But, once is out, it’s out!
Signs that a child may need a good cry can be
- aggression (hitting, biting, pushing, kicking, pulling)
- excessive, dramatic clinging to something or somebody or wanting ‘up’, then ‘down’ over and over
- excessive night waking or overstimulation that causes difficulty falling asleep
- refusal to cooperate (although this can also be remedied through play)
Allowing the crying to happen is my secret parenting tool. Just letting them cry and rage for however long or however hard, when they have the emotional need to. Never crying alone and always being supported when they cry. Children won’t go on crying if they don’t have the need to. Only the most trained actors in the world can force a cry, and for children, it’s not possible. Of course, I don’t go around giving my children reasons to cry. I do my best to keep them happy and healthy and I always do my best to attend to their physical needs. But, when emotions come bubbling up, and I see their need to cry, then I certainly don’t do anything to stop it from happening.
Society’s Hang Ups With Crying
Crying is very misunderstood in our society. Many people are very uncomfortable with the idea of letting their baby or child cry because we’ve been raised to believe that crying is bad or a sign of weakness or helplessness or that something is wrong. We do have to pay special attention to differentiate our baby’s cries for things like food, being uncomfortable or in pain. But, we really need to change out attitude towards crying in general, to recognize that it is actually a very natural and powerful tool for relieving stress and promoting emotional well being. Remember how good you feel when you’ve had a good cry in the presence of someone who is loving and caring? It’s the same for a child.
If you’re having trouble accepting your child’s crying, just know that it’s probably the way your own crying was handled, when you were a child. You might have to give yourself some time to get used to the idea that emotional crying is ‘ok’. We also don’t like to hear our children cry in public because we’re afraid of what people will think of us. But, I love when people see me dealing with a crying child in public. I always imagine I might be setting a good example, because you never know who is watching!
What if Your Child Won’t Cry When You Know He/She Needs To?
Parents often tell me that they recognize that their child needs to have a good cry, but the crying seems to be elusive. Here are some ways to get that cry to come out in a gentle way.
- Wait until they hurt themselves or get upset. This will naturally just happen, no matter what you do to try and avoid it. You may find that they cry much harder than their relative injury or upset. This is your chance to move in and let them cry, uninterrupted, for as long as they need to (of course, as long as they don’t require immediate medical attention).
- Set a loving limit when they make unreasonable requests. Of course we want to accommodated our children’s desires if reasonable, but sometimes they start asking for ridiculous things. If they ask for boobie for the hundreth time in a hour, or if they first want the red cup, then the blue cup, then the red cup again… it’s ok to say, “No.” Saying “No” will usually elicit a cry.
- Hold your child, gently, but firmly when they are acting out. Hold back that hitting arm, or the kicking leg. Kids sometimes need something holding them so they can physically push back. If you don’t feel comfortable with this approach, or if you don’t have the strength to hold a wiggling child, you can just follow your child around. You certainly don’t need to pick your child up if they are crying freely and don’t want to be picked up. Sometimes a child will stop crying if you hold them and sometimes the child’s cries will intensify if you hold them. It’s just important to be there and respond to their need to cry appropriatly. Even if he or she tells you to go away, just say something like, “No, I’m right here, I’m not going anywhere.” It’s also important to not let them hurt you or any break any of your stuff. My kids will often tell me to go away or to not look at them, even though it is the opposite of what they want! For example, on days when I haven’t paid enough attention to Margo, and she’s about to have her cry, I’ll go close to her and she’ll keep saying, “Stop looking at me!!” But, what she really has wanted all day was my attention! Staying close to them may seem to work them up even more. But, remember, the goal is not to ‘calm‘ them down, it’s to get that crying or raging out that needs to help release their negative, pent up emotions. The calming down part will come later.
Of course, we want to avoid upsets to our children, but even when we do our best, children are bound to become frustrated or angry. Even babies get frustrated and upset and can benefit from a ‘cry-in-arms‘ (with babies, it’s extra important to make sure that all of their physical needs have been met first and that they are never left alone to cry). I’m so grateful to have heard about cry-in-arms when my older daughter was a baby. It changed my attitude towards crying and has made my life so much easier as a parent. There’s an entire book written on this topic, it’s called Tears and Tantrums, by Aletha Solter, I highly recommend reading it!
Disclaimer: Excessive crying or painful cries should never be taken lightly, as they could be indication of a serious problem. The advice is to never leave your child alone to cry, however, if you should feel violent towards your child when he or she is crying, please do step away, take a breather and ask somebody for help.