Big kids do cry

How to help a weepy school-ager

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My nine-year-old daughter has always cried easily. A too-sharp tone of voice, her teacher’s disapproval, a friend’s teasing — it all can set her off. I didn’t worry about it when she was a toddler, but once she started school, I was afraid she’d be labelled a crybaby.

About 15 to 20 percent of kids are highly sensitive and cry easily, says Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. “These children seem more touchy from birth,” she says. “Instead of shrugging off put-downs, teasing and critical comments, they take the jabs with too much emotion.” You don’t want to change your child’s nature, says Borba, and you don’t want her to feel she should never cry, but doing so in public or in front of other kids could be problematic for her; research shows that excessive crying is a peer turnoff.

Here’s a look at what might be behind the tears and how to help your child manage the feelings that cause them.

Why it happens

If your child is uncharacteristically teary, she could be ill or under a lot of stress. “Tiredness is a bigger problem for kids than it used to be,” says Linda Cameron, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. “They’re overtired from not eating or sleeping properly or getting enough exercise.” And that makes them more emotionally charged.

A change on the home front could also be making your child weepy — a recent move, financial stress, a grandparent’s death. Preadolescent mood swings come into play too. “Hormones are kicking in at a younger age — as early as nine or 10 — so we may not recognize those tears as hormonal,” says Cameron.

And then there are kids, like my daughter, who have what Cameron calls “a leaky heart.” Whenever they feel anxious, upset, frustrated or angry, the tears are quick to flow.

What you can do

Start by acknowledging the intensity of your child’s feelings: “I can see you’re really upset with your sister for teasing you.” Talk about what she can do instead of bursting into tears, for example, count to 10 silently or repeat a statement like “I’m not going to cry” over and over in her head. A physical distraction can be helpful too. “I gave one boy a soft ball to keep in his pocket and squeeze whenever he was going to cry,” says Cameron.

Be careful not to ridicule your child’s tears by calling him a sissy or saying things like “Boys don’t cry” or “You’re too old to act like that.” Overly sensitive kids usually can’t toughen up without support, says Borba. “And if something else is causing the tears, you don’t want to be dismissive of any underlying problems.”

And remember: “It’s normal and healthy to cry,” says Cameron. After all, lots of adults cry easily too. On the other hand, if your child suddenly becomes extremely moody or feels sad, and the feelings last longer than two weeks, consult your child’s doctor to rule out depression.
Other tips

Dads get blue too
New research shows that pregnancy-related depression can be detected in dads as early as 20 weeks gestation (yes, men get slumped too — about 12 percent, in fact). With dads, though, feeling low often manifests as irritability after the baby is born.

Guilt is good
A study recently published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that two-year-olds who felt more chagrin over breaking a toy went on to have fewer behavioural problems over the next five years. So a little guilt can go a long way, especially, say the researchers, when you help kids find a way to fix whatever they did to bring on the guilty feelings in the first place.

Start talking
Your little girl is becoming a woman — you can see her body changing. Should you say something? Bring it up casually, suggests Start Talking: A Girl’s Guide for You and Your Mom about Health, Sex, or Whatever. If your daughter seems uneasy with the topic, try having an initial conversation in the car, when the two of you are alone. That way, you don’t have to sit face to face, which may help alleviate any squirminess.

Count on help
To get our number-crazy six-year-old to unload the cutlery from the dishwasher, we challenged him to estimate how many pieces he thought were in the basket. He especially liked to see if his guess was closer than mine! Now, much wiser at seven, he says, “I don’t want to estimate this time. Can I just put them away?” Kathleen Gunther, mom of Milo, age 7, London, Ont

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