How Can I Help When He Cries?

The times when your child is crying, frustrated or sad can be some of the most heart-wrenching moments of parenthood. We want our children to have happy memories and joyful moments throughout their early years. For this reason, we often jump in to help our children when they are sad or mad or frustrated — we do our best to make it better as soon as possible.

The Hopkins early childhood staff would like to offer that sometimes it can be most helpful to our crying children when we do not fix the problem. This doesn’t seem to make sense until we dig a little deeper into what parents are really doing when we try to make it better.

The immediate achievement of helping your child return to happiness often short circuits the long term goal of helping our children deal with the wide range of emotions they will have in their lifetimes. We as adults are often uncomfortable dealing with feelings outside of happiness. We don’t like to watch or be part of creating frustration, anger or sadness. However, everyone feels these emotions deeply – including toddlers and preschoolers. Everyone needs to learn how to deal with these uncomfortable emotions and find ways to help themselves feel better. When we as parents share strategies with our children to help them soothe themselves, regulate their own emotions, and deal with their own disappointments, we are providing the gift of a lifetime.

Building Strategies:

Children learn through imitation and watching the modelling of others. When a child sees a parent acknowledging and talking about her own emotions, he will learn to do the same. During frustrating moments in your own life, narrate your feelings and your actions: “I am really frustrated right now because the traffic is so bad. I am going to take three deep breathes and sing a funny song to try to calm down.” These narrated examples help your child to see that there are no bad feelings, and that there are concrete ways of calming down the body and mind to deal with the difficult feelings that arise in us all.

Label every feeling that comes along during your day. Both your own feelings and your child’s feelings. Help them to connect what is happening in their body with what is happening in their emotions. Being able to label feelings is a first step in being able to deal with them. If the only emotion you talk about is happiness and excitement, then the message is clear that the other emotions aren’t ok.

During quiet moments in your day, talk about sad or disappointing times your child has experienced. For young children you will have to do most of the talking.  Start with an example of something hard for them. “I notice you get disappointed when your sister doesn’t want to play with you. What can you do when you feel this way? Maybe you can tell her you are disappointed, and then find another game to play by yourself until she is ready to play. What toy would make you feel better the most? Let’s keep your toy truck ready for you to play with whenever your sister needs a break.”

When the Parent is Causing the Sadness:

Toddlers and preschoolers are often sad and angry because of the limits that a parent is putting on them. It is so tempting to give in when we see the genuine sadness that occurs because we have refused a request; this would return the child to happiness. It is important to remember, however, that the short term goal of happiness short-circuits the long term goal of dealing with disappointment and frustration in an effective way.

Our job as parents is not to keep our children happy. Our job as parents is to help children deal with the range of emotions that occur in a typical day. If your limit setting is causing sadness in your child, remind yourself that consistency is far more important than your child’s brief episode of sadness. When your child cries, and then finds a way to feel better, he has learned that he can deal with disappointment and successfully move on. When a child knows in his heart that he can do this he has emotional resiliency, and it creates a strength and confidence that will serve him well throughout his life.

When your child is sad because you are not giving in, label that feeling. “I see you are sad because you can not have the cookie.” Don’t follow up by giving the cookie. Follow up with strategies he can use to help himself feel better. “You can be sad here, or you can play with your blocks for awhile, or I can give you a hug if that will help.” Then allow him to feel his sadness and use the strategies he is most comfortable with to soothe himself. Sometimes that involves a parent sitting close and rubbing his back, or sitting on the couch close to him until he is done being sad. Sometimes that involves the parent giving space and allowing him to be sad in another room.

If sadness builds to anger and a tantrum, then the parent’s job is to keep the child safe, not to fix the tantrum.  The calmer the adults remain, the less escalated the situation will become. “I can’t let you throw things or hurt yourself. You can stomp your feet, or jump up and down, or you can lay on the floor and yell awhile. I am here to give you a hug if you would like. I love you.” Then give a minimum amount of attention to the tantrum, and let the child ride it out. When the emotional outburst has run it’s course, and he has moved into feeling sad or trying to feel better, then move on with him.

What Can I Tell Myself When I am Tempted?

There are so many times when we see our sad child and move into fixing the problem. How can we remind ourselves to be thoughtful about our long term goal of self-regulation and resiliency? Here are some things to say internally when you see the sadness or frustration and you are tempted to fix it, rather than allow her to feel the success of helping herself:

  • Consistency is more important than this moment of crying
  • My child needs to practice soothing herself early in life
  • My child needs to know she can overcome disappointment
  • This will build up her frustration muscles
  • I don’t need to end this quickly
  • If we help her deal with anger now, there will be a lot less screaming when she is a teenager

As your child gets older, use these moments of emotional upheaval as teaching opportunities. At a calm moment in your day, revisit the experience briefly. Review the emotions that your child felt, ask her what helped her to feel better. Talk together about how to use this strategy when she feels herself getting upset.  Show her you are confident in her own ability to handle her emotions.

Books are often a great resource for these teaching moments, and the book Calm Down Time by Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen is a useful resource for talking about emotions and dealing with frustration.

Give your child the opportunity to be emotionally resilient in her early life. The success she will have in dealing with her own emotional experiences will help her to confidently navigate the wild roller coaster of life as she gets older.