My daughter was having a meltdown this afternoon when I picked her up from preschool. A friend had ‘taken’ a creation she had made – a plastic bottle and a tube of cardboard, and it had broken. The friend fixed the toy and gave it back to us, but the crying didn’t abate. I leaned on the car, holding her, for a good ten minutes until she said she was ready to go home and do science experiments.
As she climbed into her seat she started crying again and was still crying as I pulled out of the lot. My daughter has a special friend at school (let’s call him Louis). She said: “I just want Louis! I feel like I’m never going to see him again!” Even though I knew she was going to see him at school the next day, I didn’t try to make her feel better. I didn’t say “You’ll be fine,” or “You’ll see him tomorrow!”, I just empathized: “Oh, that sounds really hard! You love to play with him and you really miss him, huh?”
She wailed, “Yeah!” and cried even harder. Had I failed in my bid to comfort her? Should I stop on the way home and get her an ice cream cone? I know that’s not a good idea, but it’s tempting sometimes. When my child is upset, I start to wonder if I’m really doing what’s right. After all, if I’m doing things the right way, shouldn’t my child be able to cope better with life’s ups and downs? How can she be so devastated by something so insignificant?
A few minutes later, she suddenly told me she saw some holiday lights: the tears were over and she started eating her apple.
Now that everyone is calm, I can reflect on the event with a clear mind. While sometimes it can be frustrating when our child seems to overreact, I stayed calm. I treated her respectfully. I didn’t try to control her emotions with threats or bribery; I was able to empathize.
But sometimes I do wonder: how did some of the other parents see me when I was holding my daughter in the parking lot? Did they see a loving mother, or did they see a mother ‘spoiling’ her child by allowing her to ‘indulge in self-pity?’ Were they wondering why – since I’m the one who is supposed to know how to do this parenting thing – my five-year-old is still having meltdowns over a plastic bottle and a cardboard tube? And sometimes, self-doubt begins to creep in.
Then my rational brain takes control. Although it feels like I’ve been ‘doing the right thing’ for a long time, I know my child is still very young. I also know that doing ‘the right thing’ as a parent doesn’t make my child immune from sadness. Just because they cry more when we’re physically, mentally, and emotionally present with them doesn’t mean we’ve failed to help them. In fact, it means the opposite.
Responding to stress
Generally, researchers assume people want to achieve “independence, self-fulfillment, and authentic expression of emotions based on autonomy.” While this generalization isn’t necessarily applicable to all cultures (many Asian cultures place a higher value on interdependence than Americans do), it does fit with Western cultural values, and as parents, our job is to prepare children for success in their own culture – even as we encourage them to think critically about it.
If we value independence, self-fulfillment, and authentic expression of emotions based on autonomy, it doesn’t make sense to tell children to stop crying. When we do tell them to stop crying, the contradiction is confusing for children. We’re giving them mixed messages.
If instead, we (Westerners) allow our children to feel sad and work through their emotions, with our support, we’re helping them to develop the tools they need to succeed in our culture.
Healthy (and not healthy) ways to manage stress
While we might think that the things that stress us out are much bigger and more important than the insignificant problem of a bottle and a cardboard tube coming apart, to our children these kinds of events ARE a big deal. And it’s in learning to respond to stress about their creations breaking that they learn how to respond to the ‘big’ stressors of adulthood.
So how do we adults handle stress? Typically, we respond in one of two ways: we either suppress or reappraise our feelings.
When we suppress our feelings – as we teach children to do when we tell them ‘you’re ok’ – we’re essentially stuffing our feelings down. We’re experiencing a negative emotion and deciding that it’s too difficult or scary for us, so we deny that the emotion exists and as a result, our sense of self and our relationships with others suffer. Sharing intimate feelings is a critical component of adult relationships, and when we suppress emotions it’s not too difficult to get to a point where we can no longer really tell what we’re feeling – which makes it very difficult to have authentic relationships with others.
When we reappraise, we manage stress in a healthy way. To reappraise a situation, we consciously view it in a way that is less stressful. We aren’t ignoring our emotions – in fact, we’re acknowledging them – but we then reinterpret the situation and choose how to respond (rather than feeling like our response is determined by our emotions).
We can help our children develop this skill by treating them with empathy.
And how do we feel when someone treats us with empathy? When they show us through their words or actions that they truly understand our experience? For a short time, it often causes us to feel the emotion even more deeply. We cry harder – because it feels amazing to be so fully understood. The same is the case for children.
Why do parents tell children ‘you’re ok’ when they are crying?
It’s common to hear parents telling their children, ‘You’re okay.’ after a fall or disappointment.
Children crying can make adults feel uncomfortable.
We’re accustomed to responding to our child’s tears by finding out what’s wrong and solving the problem. When our children are babies, crying is their only way to communicate. It’s essential for caregivers to respond. When the baby’s problem is solved—they’re fed, they’re safe, their pain stopped—they stop crying, and we know we’ve done our job. (And on the occasions when we just can’t figure it out we often feel like failures.) We’re wired to want to stop our children from crying.
As our children get a bit older, we still want to protect them. It’s painful to see your child in pain. We instinctively want to make the pain stop, and since crying is an indicator of pain it needs to stop too.
Unfortunately, many parents grew up in houses where emotions weren’t allowed. Many parents grew up hearing messages like, “shut up,” “stop being silly,” or “big boys don’t cry.” We were trained to see crying as shameful; something to be hidden; as an emotional expression that could earn us “something to really cry about.”
As a result, on top of wanting to stop our children’s pain, we are often uncomfortable with children crying because it triggers reminders of our own childhoods, when these emotional expressions weren’t allowed. For many parents, the automatic response – as we are suppressing our own feelings – is to tell a child, ‘stop crying,’ ‘calm down,’ or ‘you’re ok.’
Unfortunately, it turns out that this approach didn’t help us to truly experience and regulate our emotions, and it isn’t helping our children to develop this skill either. It may seem in the moment that since they have stopped crying that they are successfully regulating their emotions, but what they’ve really learned is how to stuff their feelings down, how to ignore their feelings because the adults around them can’t handle seeing big feelings, and how to put on a happy face.
Respectful parenting in practice
When trying to imagine what is the appropriate way to respond to my child, I often try to think about how I would respond to an adult in a similar situation.
So imagine you are on a bike ride with a friend. They take a corner too fast and fall. They scream and cry. It looks and sounds a bit different than if a child fell and got hurt, but they are definitely upset.
The first thing most of us would do is go over to them and see if they are OK. We’d ask: “Where are you hurt?” If medical attention was obviously needed, we’d act. Otherwise, we’d give them a minute to figure out how badly they were hurt, and we’d try to understand what happened: “It seemed like you turned a bit hard into the corner and the wheel slipped out from under you?” If our friend doesn’t seem physically injured but is still obviously upset, we might say “That must have been really scary!” and if our friend really had been scared, they might even cry a bit harder when we say it.
But I can’t imagine anyone telling an adult friend in this situation: “Oh, you’re OK! Look, it’s barely even a scrape! There’s nothing to cry about!”
Just like we wouldn’t tell our friend that they are OK when they are clearly physically or emotionally hurt, we also wouldn’t casually leave them behind or ignore their pain while they figured it out on their own (as we might feel like doing after our child falls for what seems like the fiftieth time today).
We would be present with our friend. We’d offer assistance. If we didn’t know what to do, we’d ask if there was something we could do. We’d express empathy.
Our children are no different. They need our empathy too.
How will emotional regulation help our children?
Emotional regulation skills help children in three critical ways.
First, emotional regulation makes children physically and mentally healthier. Chronic stress leads to physical problems like high blood pressure, as well as the use of alcohol and illicit substances as well as mental health problems like depression that can show up decades after we experienced the original stressor.
Second, children who can regulate their emotions have better social relationships with peers. It’s easier to like peers who can understand what their friends are thinking and deescalate conflicts.
Third, the ability to regulate emotions at a young age predicts later academic success – if only because it is associated with the ability to sit still in class and pay attention to the teacher.
How can we support our children in learning emotion regulation?
It may seem like children are ‘overreacting’ to slight injuries, and they need to learn to determine the seriousness of an injury rather than making everything a crisis. Indeed, they do! Children react strongly to injuries that aren’t particularly serious in an adult’s mind—this is natural and expected. They are children. Emotional regulation develops with age. Parents can support this process, but it takes time.
There are three primary ways children learn about emotional regulation:
- Direct teaching – when we tell them, ‘you’re ok!’ (or, conversely: ‘Wow, it looked like you were scared when you went down the slide really fast. Would you like to come and sit with me for a minute?’)
- Parental modeling –how do you react to upsetting situations? Do you swear at bad drivers – or wonder aloud if they’re from out of town? Are you quick to anger – and slow to apologize?
- The emotional climate of the family – how do family members get along with the child and how do they get along with each other?
We can use each of these factors to help our children learn how to regulate their emotions with our support rather than our judgment.
How mindful parenting helps children develop emotional regulation
The way to help children learn emotion regulation is to practice mindfulness in our parenting. When we are mindful, we can stop our automatic response and observe without automatically reacting or judging. When we respond to a meltdown with acceptance and compassion, we are working toward the long-term goals of supporting our child’s healthy development – and having a strong relationship with them.
When our children stop crying on command, they’re learning to stifle, or suppress, their emotions. They’re learning that pleasing others is more important than honoring their own feelings. They’re learning to ignore their feelings, when what we want our child to learn is how to recognize and manage their feelings. Telling them they are OK – when they clearly are not OK at all – sends the opposite message.
That leaves the question, what should we do when our children are crying?
Four steps to take when your child starts crying
Next time your child is upset, try to avoid saying, “You’re OK.” Instead, try taking these steps:
First, pause and watch (it might not feel like you’re doing anything, but this is really important!). The pause will give you time to check your own emotions and allow time for your child to react on their own terms – they may get right back up and return to play.
Second, set an intention. While you pause, take a breath to center yourself. Check in with your own feelings. Remind yourself not to say, ‘You’re OK.’
Third, take action. Go over to your child. Assess what your child needs. Sit with your child and demonstrate empathy.While you sit with your child, you can try to breathe deeply and audibly. This will help you stay calm, and your child is likely to notice your breathing (consciously or unconsciously) and imitate it without prompting.
Instead of, “You’re OK,” try saying something that shows respect for the pain your child is feeling. You can (slowly and calmly; without making it seem like an interrogation) say whichever of the following feels most natural: “That’s a big scrape. Does it hurt? Do you need a hug? Should we go sit on the bench for a while? Is there something I can do to help you feel better?”
When your child seems ready, describe what you saw happened, “It looked like you tripped on that crack in the sidewalk.”
Fourth, move on. After the crying subsides, decide what to do next. Your child may have an idea, but if not, offer some choices. Ask if they are ready to play again or if they want to take a break.
Respectful parenting is a long game. It doesn’t mean our children won’t have meltdowns – at home, at school, at the park, or at the grocery store (ugh – those are so hard, right?). Sometimes it might seem like our methods aren’t ‘working.’ We need to get rid of the idea that being a good parent means our kids will be ‘well-behaved.’ We need to stop equating crying children with bad parenting and have confidence that our child’s emotional expression is a sign we’re doing this parenting thing right.