It started with the tears. Bonnie Mouck was recently reading her two sons some stories before bed. “My eldest, Cameron, accepted when the stories were finished and went on his way, but my two-year-old, Ethan, started begging and begging for one more story,” says the Scarborough, Ont., mom. “Then he looked at me, and his eyes got all watery. Then he got out of bed, picked up a book and pleaded: ‘Just this one. Please?’”
But that’s not the only tool Ethan uses to try and get his mom to do what he wants. “He can put on quite a production. If it’s not fake crying, then he’ll lower his head and lift his puppy-dog eyes up to look at me, trying to pull at my heartstrings. Or he’ll run to a corner and put his head on the wall, or lie on the floor and bury his face in his hands,” she says. Mouck struggles between giving in, because she doesn’t like seeing him upset, and standing her ground, in hopes of teaching Ethan how to handle not getting what he wants. “It does make me feel bad,” she says. “I want to do everything I can for him when he needs me.”
As Mouck knows, this kind of manipulative behaviour leaves parents with a wadded-up ball of emotions: guilt, frustration and confusion over how these kids can so quickly turn into a puddle of tears at the word “no.” But crocodile tears can be a common stage of development in toddlers who are beginning to discover the power their actions have over others.
While it’s common, it’s also a learned behaviour, says Beverley Cathcart-Ross, founder of the Toronto parenting education program Parenting Network. It happens frequently in less verbal children who can’t find the words to express themselves.
“Tears are a good way to draw a parent in and seek both attention and service, which children sometimes interpret as love and affirmation that you care about them,” says Cathcart-Ross. “Or they’re already learning to manipulate you to do what they want. For example, many children are inadvertently trained early on that when they fall, they should look to the parent to see if they should be upset. If we look upset or shocked they might cry, even if they aren’t hurt,” she says — which likely means they get more attention.
Those are exactly the kinds of tears Nicole MacIntyre sees in her once easygoing 22-month-old son, Noah. “He learned that when he had an ‘owie,’ I was likely to heap attention on him,” says the Burlington, Ont., mom. “Many times throughout the day, he’ll suddenly drop to the floor and yell ‘Owieeee!’ with this whine and a pained look on his face.” MacIntyre’s reaction? Frustration (as she stifles a laugh at Noah’s exaggerated behaviour).
Cathcart-Ross encourages parents to bypass the guilt that crocodile tears may induce and, instead, modify their response, since reactions of sympathy or extra attention may be encouraging the very behaviour they’d like to curb. “Most children younger than two-and-a-half years old will rely on acting out their problem, not talking about their problem,” she says, so try to start a dialogue, if you can. If he has a minor fall, ask “Are you OK?” and encourage him to get up, brush himself off and move on.
“If they appear to be milking it, you can ask if they need a hug, and let them come to you. But don’t go running to them,” she says. “It’s important our kids believe that they are capable of handling things themselves, so they can develop self-confidence around all the bumps and grinds of life.”