All of the experts agree that crying is a complex behavior. So, a little confusion about it is understandable. When your child cries you feel that confusion, right? Along with many thoughts, and your own emotional reactions. In addition to the “why” question, any parent will also ask themselves…
“Now, what do I do?”
Before we get into what to do, how about a little background. Science has uncovered a lot about why we cry and the physiological and emotional mechanisms of crying. I like knowing this. I hear about crying a lot in my office and it helps to have real information to add to the discussion. As a parent you might find it easier to cope with your crying child after you know more – become somewhat of an authority on crying!
More About Crying
We cry because we are suffering. A child falls off his bike and after a second or two, bursts into tears. What is the suffering? Injury is the obvious answer but what about a flash of fear? What about the indignity and embarrassment, or disappointment? For a child, all of this is their legitimate suffering. We also cry over loss and bereavement – grief. Big tears here, and often over and over. Big suffering.
We can also cry for joy and those tears can feel just as uncontrollable as, and maybe more confusing than, tears from suffering.
In his book Why Humans Like to Cry, Michael Trimble explains that many regions of the brain participate when we cry. The cerebral cortex is linked to the emotional centers – the limbic system, and to the autonomic system. The autonomic region controls breathing, heart rate, and vocal output. The sophistication of this wiring is unique to humans and began developing in our brains a very long time ago.
Michael Trimble also makes the empathy/crying connection. We are highly developed socially, not always well behaved, but highly developed. And, one thing parents are deeply concerned about when they bring their children to my office is the development of empathy. Empathy gives a child even more to cry about. And empathy is good.
Empathy and attachment are all bound together and to feel empathy we have to attach – give a hoot about others. There are neural circuits in the brain that activate when we see someone’s suffering, and this leads to our own emotional reactions. Attachment is fascinating but this topic merits its own post, or series of posts.
So, Is It OK to Cry?
Crying gets our attention. It also activates our own reactions based on what we believe about crying. Is it weakness? Feminine, and not appropriate for boys? Cleansing and cortisol flushing, and therefore healthy? Human? Socially unacceptable and meant for private places and times? Are we embarrassed by our crying child? Do we feel empathy? Whoa!
If empathy is good, and having empathy indicates attachment to other social beings, and this attachment activates real neural circuits when we see sadness or suffering, then crying must be good in this case. What do you think?
Stress related tears contain elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisols. We know that over time these chemicals are toxic to the immune system and more, and need to be flushed out of our cells. Tears help do this immensely and immediately.
Tears are evidence that we understand our own emotions.
Tears of joy? Well, what can we say except….what’s wrong with joy?
Back to Why Is My Child Crying?
The tears and the sobbing clearly are not the problem. If we think they are, then that is probably OUR problem.
Crying is not punishable nor does it merit a consequence, harsh language, or ridicule.
Excessive crying or “quick to tears” might indicate a mental health problem and parents need to investigate this to find out where the child’s suffering and stress is coming from.
A crying child means we need to stop a moment, think about what the stress or sadness is, allow the child a little time for tears, or ignore it if it is ignorable (like in the grocery store), offer comfort, make sure the level of concern matches the problem, and reinforce self-regulation when it’s all over. “Feeling better?” “That really hurt, didn’t it?” “Glad you got rid of the problem.” “Need a moment of privacy or do you want me to hug you?” “Can I help?” ” I like how fast you calmed yourself down.”
And, maybe once they stop, they can tell you why they were crying.