Just over two weeks into the school year, our preschooler was tearing up often enough in class that her teacher mentioned the excessive crying to us at a back-to-school night.
While kids do become more adept at handling their emotions as they grow, some kids (and adults) continue to find tears springing to their eyes when they least expect -or want – it. I wasn’t surprised at my daughter’s behaviour, given that I also tend to burst into tears at inopportune times.
Of my four kids (two boys, two girls), three cry easily. One cries when she’s frustrated with herself; another tears up when he’s angry.
Acknowledge that tears are part of being human.
“Crying is a normal, healthy behaviour that has both a biological and social basis,” said Cheryl Rode, vice president of clinical operations at the San Diego Center for Children and a licensed clinical child psychologist. “It can be a release for stress or emotional energy, and it can serve as a communication tool to share emotions or seek comfort.”
Elementary-school-age kids vary widely in their ability to regulate their emotions, but teenagers also sometimes struggle with crying because of spikes in hormones during puberty. Rode cautioned that sometimes kids may cry excessively because of depression or anxiety.
Tim Elmore, president of the non-profit organisation Growing Leaders and author of Generation iY: Secrets to Connecting with Today’s Teens and Young Adults in the Digital Age, lists four key reasons children shed tears: disappointment, fear, selfishness and inadequacy. We need to teach children when to give in to their feelings and when to rein in the tears.
Here are suggestions from Elmore and Rode on how to assist a child during and after a crying episode, and some things that helped our kids.
- Model healthy emotions. Adults need to set the example on handling emotional outbursts, including crying. When our children see us cry, they learn how to deal with tears.
- Acknowledge that tears are part of being human. Let kids know that crying is a natural outcome of pain, sadness, disappointment, fear, frustration, anger and even joy.
- Talk about emotions when things are calm. Rode recommends using characters in books or movies to connect to your child's experiences. “Remind your child too of times they have handled difficult situations well, or times when strong emotions had been overcome.”
- Remind kids that emotions are fleeting. Children and even teens often don't realise that the huge emotion they're feeling at that moment won't last long. Frequent reminders that emotions blow hot and cold “doesn't solve the problem instantly, but over time, kids begin to realise that tears and crying come and go”, said Elmore.
- Avoid using “rewards” to calm kids. A parent or teacher sometimes bribes a child to stop crying because an emotional child may make us instinctively want to offer comfort. “It can be especially difficult to not jump to the rescue,” said Rode. “The more attention you give to the crying, the more you encourage it.”
- Provide a safe place to cry. An audience can feed into and prolong a child's tearful bout. “If kids cry frequently, suggest a safe but secluded place where they can go and emote,” Elmore said.
- Teach them coping strategies. If a child is having trouble controlling tears at school, suggest he put his head down on the desk and count to 10 to get the tears under control. This gives him a way to regain his composure.
- Help kids problem solve. Often, the best way to keep tears at bay is to figure out how to handle the situation that caused the outburst. The key is to let the child come up with the solutions, because those will be more effective than a parent-directed strategy.
* Hamaker is a certified leadership parenting coach. She blogs about parenting at parentcoachnova.com. Follow her on Twitter @parentcoachnova.