If I had a nickel for every time a stranger side-eyed me in a public place because my daughter was crying, I could probably pack up and move to the Bahamas. Okay, maybe not the Bahamas, but you get my point. My daughter, like most babies and toddlers, sometimes cries (very loudly, I might add) at some pretty inopportune times. Whether it’s because she gets hurt on the playground or I tell her no, or for some completely unexpected reason, there’s usually some tears involved.
When she’s upset, especially in a public place, it can be pretty stressful. The eyes all staring at me as I frantically try to dig through the diaper bag to find a toy or snack or anything to calm her down; it’s enough to be really overwhelming. In these moments, it’s definitely not easy to be patient, let alone empathetic. But how we respond in moments like these as parents is so important. I’ve had to learn over a lot of time how to deal with that stress and then respond to her in a way that is both understanding and kind. This required me to reframe my thoughts around how I viewed her explosive emotions and my responsive behavior.
Before I had kids, I was under the common impression that when a child falls or is upset, the first thing you do is say “you’re okay” because that will teach them that they are, in fact, okay. Or “don’t cry” in an attempt to stop their tears so they will be happy again, and what parent doesn’t want their child to be happy? On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. But what do these phrases really teach our children?
“You’re okay” is a phrase that I personally would hate to hear if I was upset. Because if I am upset, I am definitely not okay. By telling our children “you’re okay,” even with the best of intention, we are actually negating their feelings and telling them that their feelings are not valid or that they don’t matter. Even if we might think that their feelings are “dramatic” or “silly” or “not that big a deal,” these feelings are real to our children and so we must respond in a way that acknowledges that. This all might sound harsh, but I urge you to think how you would feel if someone said this to you during a hard time. When we respond with empathy and acknowledge our children’s feelings, they learn to identify and then cope with them.
“Don’t cry” is another one that has always bothered me. There is an assumption in our society that being a “cry baby” is bad, and that crying in general is bad, when in fact crying is a healthy expression of pent up emotions (this is meant to be in terms of toddlers and children, not infants and is not in reference to sleep training which I don’t encourage). I always feel a lot better after a good cry, because all the feelings I was feeling are allowed to come out. The same is true with our children, though it might happen a lot more often -which is developmentally normal and okay!
There is value in processing and expressing emotion. No one wants to hear their child cry, because it is really upsetting for us as parents to see our children upset. Or we are embarrassed by the noise and in an effort to get our children to be quiet, we selfishly tell them to shut down their emotions. When we tell our children “don’t cry,” we are expressing that their big feelings and how they express them to us make us uncomfortable. As parents, we should be our child’s emotional safe space where they feel trust in us to express those big feelings with us. A big part of that is letting our children know that we hear and understand them.
When a child is upset over something, they need to know that we hear that they are upset and that we understand why and that we empathize with them — even if we don’t understand or empathize at all. I go back to how I would feel in an upsetting situation. I want to be heard, I want someone to understand my feelings and point of view, and I want them to empathize with me. How often do we argue with someone and then say to our friend/mom/sister, “I wish they would just listen/understand!”? It is a basic human need to be heard and accepted and understood, and by meeting this need in our children instead of shutting down the emotions that can be really frustrating for us, we are teaching them how to deal with things on their own later in life.
A quote that summarizes this and that I absolutely love is from L. R. Knost:
“Just as rain doesn’t create drought, feasts don’t create hunger, and generosity doesn’t create poverty, meeting a child’s needs for attachment, attention, and affection in childhood doesn’t create needy adults. Just the opposite in fact. A child whose emotional needs are nourished tends to grow into an emotionally healthy adult in the same way a child whose physical needs are nourished tends to grow into a physically healthy adult. It is unmet needs that create need, not met needs.”
It can be really easy to react in anger or frustration — or just not very empathetically — when your child is having big emotions and expressing them in undesirable ways. I definitely speak from experience with this. But, through implementing a few strategies and really trying to see the world through my daughter’s eyes, the tears dry up faster and we’ve developed an amazing, trusting relationship.
Whenever my daughter falls or something happens that I can see will probably cause tears, the first thing I do is get on her level. That usually means kneeling down because she’s still pretty short. I have found that getting on my daughter’s eye level is helpful for listening and for her just knowing that I am paying her full attention.
The second thing is I ask, “Are you okay?” Sometimes she is fine and gets up or walks away. Other times, it’s a clear “no” and then the next thing I do is try to describe and identify her feeling. For example, “Did that make you feel ____.” When we identify feelings, we are able to identify how to cope with that feeling. Next, I ask if she wants me to hold her/give her a hug/kiss and then if that is not wanted I let her express her emotions in a safe way and let her know that I am here for her and I hear her feelings, even if this is on the floor of the grocery store.
Sometimes if it is appropriate, I will take her out of the public place to somewhere more private. By doing these things I am showing that I care, that she can trust me, that I hear her, that her feelings are valid, and that when she is ready, I am here to help her. This last part is the time for reasoning or explaining with our child. I am a firm believer that even with the youngest of toddlers, explaining can do wonders, but not before our child is emotionally ready in that moment.
This overall strategy is taught by Dr. Bruce Perry who is a neuroscientist studying the field of trauma. He says that first we must regulate our child’s emotions, then relate, and then reason. The theory behind this is that children (and adults) do not learn or accept information in a heightened state of emotion, so if we try to reason first, they will not hear us and it won’t work. After I learned and started applying this, it has worked wonders and when she is upset, she usually calms down in seconds.
When our children (or anyone really) is upset, they have many ways of showing it. By responding in a more patient and gentle way, we are teaching our children valuable coping skills and empathy for others that they will carry for the rest of their lives. It’s definitely not easy and it won’t be perfect, but that’s not what our children need nor expect. I am definitely not perfect by any means. However, I am confident that if we treat our children how we would want to be treated and view them as humans who are equally deserving of respect, value, and empathy then we will raise a generation of little humans that will change the world. I hope this gave perspective and hope as well as practical advice. The “terrible twos” (or ones, or threes or fifteens) can be extremely challenging, but they can also be really beautiful.