If you are a parent who discourages your children from crying, then this is for you. If you were a child who was discouraged from crying, then this is for you as well. Unknowingly you may be causing harm that you are not intending.
To better understand this, I want you to imagine yourself as a four-year-old child. Imagine you begin to cry and it seems out of nowhere to an outside observer. You are crying because you wanted strawberry jam instead of grape jelly. On your way to tell your mom who is across the room, you stubbed your toe. When you finally got to your mom, she ignored you. Your crying gets louder and you can’t seem to express yourself because you are so upset. Your mom looks around and can’t see a noticeable cause for your crying and tells you to “stop crying.” You feel worse.
You want your mother to wrap her arms around you and console you because you are devastated. Your mother tells you “no one wants to hear you crying” and sends you to your room. You freeze and your cries become screams. She tells you, “Stop and go to your room.” You throw yourself on the ground and begin to tantrum. Your mother has no clue what is causing your upset which makes her feel out of control and irritable. Your brother intervenes and tells your mom you are sad about the strawberry jam to which your mother responds with judgment. She tells you, “It is not a big deal, this is not worth crying over.”
I get it. Parenting is hard and children are unpredictable. I too have responded this way when I don’t understand my child’s upset or when her upset disrupts what I’m doing. Often, we try to stop the crying instead of trying to connect to the child. Trying to stop a child crying by telling them to “stop crying” is like being told to “calm down” when you are upset. It actually creates the opposite response. Children crying in public triggers this response from parents even more. Are we afraid to be judged by our crying child? In public situations, I hear parents threaten that if their child doesn’t stop crying then they will go home. The cries get louder. I hear parents issue warning after warning for the crying or the tantrum to stop. The cries get louder. I truly get it. I’ve been there. I witness this every day with parents and children. And I do this sometimes with my own children.
Imagine the above situation with a different response. You are upset and crying. Your mother hears you crying and tunes right in. She comes to you. She gets down to your level and makes eye contact with you. She places a hand on your shoulder and you feel her warmth. She asks you what’s bothering you. You are so upset and you keep crying. She says, “I am here for you and I will sit beside you in your sadness.” She names the emotion so you connect your feeling state with the corresponding emotion. You know the names of emotions already because she has read you books and already started helping you grow your emotional intelligence. You begin to calm a little, her energy begins to help you feel safe and regulated.
Your breath slows and you say, “I am sad and mad. I told you I wanted strawberry jam and not grape jelly and you didn’t listen to me. I wish Daddy was here. He knows how I like my sandwiches.” You compassionately hold space for her pain. Your husband is traveling again for work and you can see now how she misses him. You tell your child that you are sorry and go on to explain that there is no strawberry jam left. You ask if she can eat this sandwich and you will put strawberry jam on the grocery list. You praise your child for expressing her emotions and telling you she was sad and mad. You tell her you miss Daddy too and remind her when your husband will be home. You ask her if she’d like to make her daddy a card. You give her another tool to express her emotions using art.
Our responsibility as parents is to tune into our children’s emotional needs. I struggle with this because it is an entirely new way of being for me. I did not learn how to effectively express my emotions as a child and I continue to learn how to do this as an adult. I spent a very long time ignoring my own needs and emotions because I had learned in early life that they were not important. I was holding in a lifetime of unprocessed emotions over everything from strawberry jam to bigger things like my parents’ divorce, being sick as a child, multiple moves in elementary school, being bullied, and on and on and on.
Babies are born knowing how to process and move through emotions. They cry, stir, scream, thrash and then they return to a state of regulation. We are the problem. We interrupt this natural process by teaching them to avoid emotional expression. We do this because we have forgotten how to effectively express our emotions. When we nurture our children and encourage them in their emotional expression, we teach them that expressing emotions is an essential life skill because IT IS!
When I am regulated — meaning that I am well rested, I have taken time for myself, I feel calm and generally good — then I am much more likely to respond to my daughter’s upset with sensitivity and compassion. Ideally what I convey to her and model for her is how to nurture herself in her sadness, upset, anger, shame or frustration and how to release these emotions in a healthy way. Sometimes though I forget how to hold space and I revert to another habit of mine — figuring out the problem and fixing it. When I step into fixer or detective mode, I lose the chance to connect with my child from my heart to hers. Our job as parents isn’t to fix things so our children do not feel pain. Our job is to resource them so they can withstand discomfort and upset and move through these emotions.
Our job isn’t to toughen up our children either. I hear this from parents too. They are afraid that being present to and encouraging their children’s painful emotions will increase those painful emotions. And truthfully it might look that way in the beginning. When my daughter is crying and I say, “You’re safe, I’m here, I’ll sit with you in your big emotions,” often her crying gets harder. She feels safe to release. Crying is our bodies own built in system for regulation.
Regulation is our ability to modulate internal states so they are not too strong or too weak and fall into an optimal range. Our children cry and tantrum when they are dysregulated. Our first response to our crying child might be, “What’s wrong?” Maybe they know what is upsetting them and maybe they don’t. Or, maybe they cannot explain it to us because their brain is dysregulated. My invitation is to stop the inquiry and bring your total presence to your child. A child’s nervous system is not fully developed and our job is to stand in for their nervous system until it is running on its own. Limbic resonance refers to the process by which one person’s emotional brain entrains another person’s emotional brain. Our child will begin to match our own emotional state and energy.
Now this is great news if we are calm and grounded and not so great if we ourselves are dysregulated. Learning to hold space for another person in distress is what I consider to be one of the most important things we will ever learn. Once our child returns to a stare of regulation they are ready to receive our teaching. Then it becomes appropriate to discuss boundaries, consequences and teach them tangible skills that they can use next time they feel overwhelmed by emotion.
When a child is continuously told not to cry, to get over it and a parent repeats this pattern of withholding her/his love in the child’s distress, this child learns that their emotions are not allowed. This child learns to bury their big emotions. This child learns that crying is not allowed and that we will not show up for them in their upset. This child learns that vulnerability around emotional expression is a weakness and not a strength. If you’re thinking, “Oh, my god I do this all the time,” then please hear me when I say you can begin again. When we know better then we can do better. I want you to hear two important things today.
First, how you respond to your child in their emotions reflects how you respond to yourself in your emotions. And it makes sense that you don’t know how to show up with curiosity and compassion to your child in their upset because you do not know how to do this for yourself. If you do not know how to hold space for your children’s big emotions, then it’s likely you were never taught this. YOU CAN LEARN. In fact, I believe that this is the single greatest teaching you can give yourself and your child. We think our kids need activities, sports, vacations, toys, and on and on. But, if our child cannot process their emotions then they will not enjoy any of this as much. If our child cannot be with upset than they will not learn how to fail and keep trying.
Second, in order to respond with love, curiosity, and compassion to your children in distress, you need to be regulated. Emotional regulation means that we as caregivers take responsibility for how we feel and think. We prioritize our physical, emotional and spiritual needs. And we bring our conscious, loving attention to ourselves. We notice when we begin to feel tired, sad, sick, angry, irritated or whatever other feeling states we experience that are likely to make it hard for us to parent from a calm and loving space. We attend to our needs so we can attend to our children’s needs. This might mean we need to skip the party we were looking forward to in favor of an early night. This might mean we wake up an hour early to meditate or exercise. This might mean we seek professional support. Children learn how to take care of themselves by watching how we care for ourselves. What are you teaching your child?
Now I want to assure you that you are not alone in this. If you are a person who never learned how to be with your painful emotions, then I’d encourage you to make this a priority now.