Oh, the agony. It’s the last animal cracker, or time to get out of the tub. The wailing starts, and soon two little cheeks are glistening with tears.
The parents’ instinct when kids cry is usually to make it stop. Our blood pressure shoots up into heart-attack territory. Ulcers start eating our stomach lining. How to stop the crying can be one of those impossible parental conundrums — a mystery akin to solving faster-than-light travel or filming a UFO.
But maybe we’ve been going about the problem all wrong. Some experts say it’s not about stopping the cries, it’s about listening to them. Crying isn’t the problem. It’s actually the solution to built-up distress.
Adults who are hurting inside are often told to have a good cry. Why shouldn’t it be the same for little ones? This revelation came to Patty Wipfler, a mom in Palo Alto, Calif., shortly after her second child was born.
Stress led her to start losing control with her infant and two-year-old. One day, she was asked by someone she had just met what it was like to be a parent. Wipfler burst into tears and sobbed for 15 minutes while her new acquaintance just listened.
Wipfler says that single cry was all she needed to become a new woman. Her stress melted away, and she became more patient with her kids. “The whole tone of our family changed,” she explains. It also got her to thinking that babies and toddlers have stress, too, and that crying can be something useful, not something to be feared and suppressed.
Wipfler devoted herself to studying kids’ emotions and, in 1989, founded Hand in Hand Parenting, a non-profit organization that gives parenting classes, training and consultations.
“A child is doing something good and sensible when he’s crying. It’s a very important process to free the mind of upset, and be fresh and ready for new experiences. With a supportive listener, crying heals the hurt. It’s emotional rewind,” she says.
Wipfler teaches parents to avoid criticizing, punishing or shouting at kids when they cry. She disagrees with ignoring crying babies or isolating upset toddlers with time outs. Instead, she suggests a “time in” — trying to stay as calm as possible, staying with your child, and offering some quiet, comforting words (“I love you. I’m right here”).
Above all, she says, listen to your child and make lots of eye contact to let her know she’s not alone. With toddlers who resist being hugged, she says, get down to eye level and just stay close.
Kids reassured in this way, she says, usually learn to master their feelings better and co-operate better with rules or when they hear no.
“I liken crying to poop,” Wipfler says. “Even the perfect banana has stuff in it that the body can’t digest. In the same way, stuff happens every day in children’s lives that is indigestible or hard.”
Several studies seem to back up Wipfler’s approach. William Frey, a professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Minnesota and author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears, tested the contents of tears and found that those caused by emotions contain more stress hormones than those due to ordinary eye watering.
“We may feel better after crying because we are literally crying [stress] out,” he told the UK newspaper The Independent. “Because unalleviated stress can increase our risk for heart attack and damage certain areas of our brain, the human ability to cry has survival value.”
But does paying attention to crying spoil a child or reinforce anxieties? Not according to Judith Dunstan, a Toronto psychotherapist and mom. She has used Wipfler’s approach with her son (now seven) since he was a baby and recommends it to parents in her practice. When her son was born, instead of letting him cry it out alone during fussy times in the evening, she held him until he was calm.
She believes the approach helped her boy become more resilient and confident. “If children have time to cry, they can recover more quickly and be more flexible. My child is now incredibly resilient. He’s just so tough, I think, because he was able to have his feelings.”
Developmental psychologist Aletha Solter, author of Tears and Tantrums: What to Do When Babies and Children Cry, says newborns in all cultures tend to cry or be fussy, for no apparent reason, for an hour or two each day for several months after birth — then gradually cry less. In her book, she cites research suggesting that much of this crying is related to processing the stress of birth — higher-stress births being associated with more postnatal crying — and early development.
Solter’s idea that crying has an important function and is not something to panic over or stifle is worth taking to heart. For those times when there’s no obvious cause for an infant’s crying, Solter advises parents to hold the baby while looking in her face, take some deep breaths to relax, listen and once in a while gently repeat things like I love you. I’m listening. You’re safe with me. A good cry tends to lead to a more relaxed baby who sleeps longer at night and eventually falls asleep more easily on her own, she says.
“Some parents and caretakers feel rejected by a crying baby. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Solter says. “He’s simply feeling safe enough to show you his feelings.”
What about when a child falls down and gets hurt? Wipfler and Solter both say it’s important to first make sure a crying child isn’t injured — or, for that matter, hungry, sick or in need of a diaper change. Take care of any physical needs first.
The harder question comes when the child is physically OK but upset about a tumble. Some parents think it’s best to try to toughen kids up by telling them to shake it off and not cry; they may worry that their child will get teased or bullied later on if they cry too easily.
Solter disagrees with this approach, saying it leads to “emotional constipation.” It may stop the tears — but not the underlying distress, which can come out later in other ways like hitting. She says paying attention to a crying child helps him develop self-confidence and a feeling of safety, which should mean less crying down the road. In other words, crying can actually toughen a kid up.
In her book, Solter cites a 1993 study in which adult subjects were asked to hold their hands in a bucket of icy water and use three different coping strategies. Those who focused their minds on the pain recovered more quickly than those who tried using either distraction or suppression. “Children instinctively know the importance of paying attention to pain,” she says.
Dunstan and Wipfler both caution that listening to crying isn’t the same as being permissive. In fact, explains Dunstan, it actually helps parents set limits because they tend to be less bothered by the inevitable protest crying, Dunstan says.
“Children need limits,” says Dunstan. “When the parent and the child are both listened to, it teaches respect.”
Too many meltdowns may mean our kids need more support to deal with everyday stresses, suggests Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting. Her advice: Heed your child’s “internal weather flag.” Warning signs of imminent crying, like unusual crankiness over minor irritations, may mean his distress levels have built up. Instead of butting heads over the crankiness, try a cuddle or some special focused attention. It just might forestall a meltdown — his or yours!
• One-on-one “special time” is a great way for children and parents to reconnect, especially when families have busy schedules or when a toddler is having frequent tantrums. Devote all your attention to one child, and let her decide how the time is spent.
• Parents sometimes need a good cry, too. When you’re feeling defeated, find a “listening buddy” with whom you can vent without interruption or fear of being judged.