Isn’t it funny how becoming a parent can help you grow? And I don’t mean grow up in the traditional sense. What I’m referring to is the emotional and personal growth that comes with parenting a child.
For me, the learning curve has been steep when it comes to handling my own emotions and behaviours when my son expresses his sadness. I’ve learned a lot in the last few years about why it’s okay to let your kids cry and in fact, why it’s beneficial for them.
Read on to find out why crying is sometimes so hard to hear as a parent, and why you should allow it (and even encourage it!) for your child’s mental and emotional health.
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“You’re 7 years old now. You’re too big to cry.”
“Stop crying right now. I don’t want to hear it.”
I overheard parents angrily saying both of these things to their children in the last few weeks and both times, I began to wonder…
Why are so many parents afraid to allow their children to cry? What are they so worried about?
And why do so many of us react to a child’s upset feelings with anger or irritation instead of empathy?
My Journey with Tears
When I first became a parent, I was completely caught off guard by how my son’s tears affected me.
It started in the hospital after my son was born.
The nurses all joked about how loud and lusty my new son’s cry was…but all I could feel was panic when he cried. It wasn’t a laughing matter to me at all.
My son would start to cry and immediately my stomach would clench, my heart would race and a feeling of dread would come over me. Thoughts would race through my head like, “What does he want? What am I supposed to do? How can I stop this? What if he never stops crying?”
It was super scary for me because I had never really experienced anxiety like that before.
And although everyone told me that what I was feeling and thinking was “normal,” I struggled with the reaction my body was having to those tears.
It was visceral. I felt it in every inch of my body. And my mind. I didn’t like how desperate I felt. Desperate to stop the crying. Desperate to get away. It scared me. And I also felt ashamed of how I felt.
Of course, as life as a new parent progressed with its ups and downs, the dread reaction began to subside. However, it was slowly replaced by another type of reaction.
When my son was 3 months old, my husband and I had to drive to a funeral that was a few hours away. Because I was nursing, we brought our son with us. The timing was not ideal and we were a little worried at how our son would react to the long drive, but we figured it would be okay. Little did we know…
Starting half-way there my son began what can only be described as a scream-crying marathon.
By the time we were at the funeral, both our nerves were frayed. Because the funeral was for a young child who had passed unexpectedly, we didn’t feel like we could bring my son into the funeral home, and so my god-sent husband tried for half an hour to console him in the car while I attended the visitation.
Walking back out to the car, I was dismayed to find my son still crying and my husband about to lose his cool completely. After trying unsuccessfully for another half hour to stop my son’s distress, we decided we were just going to have to start the two hour drive home.
Ugh…I cringe just remembering it.
The entire way back, the crying continued.
I clearly remember us stopping every 10-15 minutes on the way home, to try to nurse my son, change his diaper, snuggle him…everything. Nothing worked and we still had to get home.
That was the first time I felt really annoyed with my son’s crying.
It was so frustrating. Nothing we did could stop the *&%$ crying. I felt like I was going to lose my mind!
For at least a year after that infamous drive, my husband and I vowed we wouldn’t drive further away than 15 minutes from home. It just wasn’t worth the stress. On any of us.
A Dawning Awareness
The most defining moment for me though was the first time my son threw himself down on the floor in a classic temper tantrum at age 14 months.
I remember looking down at him with this overwhelming feeling of disgust and anger. In fact, I was so angry that I literally felt like I left my body and was looking down at my son and myself from above.
I could see his teary face and my shaking body and I all I could think was, “What the hell is going on with me?” That’s when I realized that I needed some help.
Suddenly, waves of guilt came over me as I realized that being angry with my son was not in alignment with the kind of parent I wanted to be. It wasn’t helpful to him, or me, and it certainly wasn’t going to help him learn to deal with these big feelings.
Most of all, I realized that I needed to figure out what was going on with me when my son cried.
My reaction just seemed so dissonant to me. Why was I so angry?
The intellectual part of my brain knew that my son was just upset and I knew that he wasn’t trying to manipulate me with his tantrum. But I still felt this overwhelming anger.
I realized then and there that I better start finding some different ways to help my son with his big feelings and to help myself cope too. As someone who has struggled to overcome depression, I wanted nothing more than to try to raise an emotionally healthy child. And I also realized that I was starting to go down a path that would not lead in that direction.
I had to give my son at least a fighting chance to learn how to handle his negative emotions in a healthy way…something I recognized that I knew very little about.
Tears of Joy
And so I began my learning journey… I started pouring over parenting books, taking parenting workshops, and listening to experts’ podcasts on emotional intelligence and resilience.
And I learned a lot – about parenting and myself… and about tears.
But most importantly, I learned that what we teach our kids about feelings in their first 7 to 8 years has a huge impact on their future emotional resilience and health.
Benefits of Crying
It turns out there’s general agreement in the mental health and social work communities about the benefits of allowing children to experience their negative emotions fully as well as the benefits of allowing them to cry.
In other words, most experts today agree that it’s okay to let our kids cry. In fact, it’s healthy and beneficial to let them do so within our caring presence.
Crying is our body’s way to release upset feelings. It’s a tension release valve that when allowed to function as Mother Nature intended, lets the body rid itself of variants of the chemical cortisol which is produced in times of stress.
The Fascinating Chemistry of Tears
When cortisol is present in our bodies, it keeps our brains and bodies ready to fight or flee.
It effectively shuts down our frontal cortex (the part of our brain that solves complex problems) and lets the ancient and deeper parts of our brain take over – the parts that know how to help us fight or run away from giant, attacking sabre-tooth tigers and forest fires.
It’s not a chemical that you want (or need) to keep pumping through your body after a stressful event. In other words, once that tiger is gone and the fire is out, you want your frontal cortex working again in order to socialize and begin functioning in normal day to day life again.
The crazy thing that research has found is that tears cried after stress are chemically different from tears generated from say, itchy eyes. Researchers believe that tears literally help relieve stress because they are allowing some of the by-products of cortisol to be released from the body so that it can achieve chemical equilibrium again.
That’s why once tears are fully released, our bodies feel lighter and more relaxed. Our brains literally return to a state of being able to think clearly as the cortisol is released and our frontal lobes become active again.
In fact, many experts agree that when we stop our kids from crying, or try to block or prevent the tears, that’s when real emotional problems may start to develop and our kids’ resilience may suffer.
Wow – that’s pretty awesome isn’t it? Just about makes you want to go and have a good cry just for the heck of it, huh?
If you’re looking for even more discussion of the benefits of crying, be sure to check out Cooperative and Connected by Aletha J. Solter. Aletha talks a lot about tears and how you can support your children in a helpful way when they are upset, especially if this is a new thing for you as a parent.
Parenting Implications: Let Your Kids Cry
So what does all this mean for us as parents?
It means we can choose to find ways to support our children better when they are upset.
We don’t have to try to stop our kids from crying.
We don’t have to bribe them, chastise them, or even get upset or embarrassed ourselves when they cry.
We don’t have to try and make our kids feel better either if they’re crying. Just allowing them to release the tears in a supportive environment will do that for them.
It doesn’t matter why they are crying, or where they are crying, or how hard they are crying – it’s okay to just allow it and support it.
Okay, So If Crying is Good…Why Do I Feel So Bad?
Alright – let’s say I’ve convinced you now to allow your kids to cry, and even feel good about making that choice to not interfere with Mother Nature’s natural stress remedy. But, you’re still having a hard time hearing the crying yourself.
That was me back when my son was 14 months old – except that I didn’t know that crying was good for him at the time.
Probably, what this means is that your child’s crying is a parenting trigger for you.
I’ve written an entire post about parenting triggers that you can read here (I highly recommend it!). And I honestly believe this post has some of the most important and helpful information in it that can affect your parenting.
What is a Parenting Trigger?
In a nutshell though, a parenting trigger is something your child does that pushes your emotional buttons in an unexpected way. If you find yourself suddenly very angry, or even sad or hopeless, after your child behaves a certain way, and this seems to happen repeatedly – it’s almost guaranteed that you have a parenting trigger around this issue.
If you’re anything like me, you probably have a couple triggers, if not many. Triggers were created in your past, in your childhood, and are a result of times when your needs weren’t met.
For example, if you were strongly discouraged from crying as a child, or mocked for crying, or perhaps you were even ignored when you were upset, or separated from comfort (a.k.a. sent to your room, allowed to cry it out, etc.), you may have a parenting trigger around crying.
Your Body Remembers…
Essentially, your child’s crying or expression of upset feelings, may take you back to a time when you felt the same way and experienced negative consequences for that behaviour. Your body can become flooded with the emotions of anger, or sadness or even helplessness that were unresolved.
A child and family therapist once told me that even though the mind may not remember what happened, the body never forgets. Essentially, your body is remembering those experiences from your childhood where you didn’t receive the comfort or permission that you needed to process and move through your anger, frustration, or sadness.
The irony is that if you don’t recognize that you’ve been triggered, you are in danger of repeating the same response to your child that caused you to store these unresolved needs as a trigger. That’s why, regardless of how they developed, once you learn to recognize your triggers, you are on the road to getting rid of them.
Even just becoming aware of your triggers allows them to have less power over you and your ability to parent the way you want. Dan Siegel talks a lot about the power of naming in his books and refers to this strategy as, “Name it to tame it.”
If like me, your child’s crying is a trigger for you, start naming it as so, and be sure to read my post mentioned above!
Positive Parenting and Feelings
Learning about the positive parenting approach has been a true gift for me. It provides a basic framework for intentionally raising kids with their future well-being in mind.
I write a lot about this parenting style and emotional health, and whenever I learn something new and beneficial for me and my family, I get really excited about sharing it with other parents. Today, I’ve rounded up all of my best posts on how to help kids handle negative emotions like anxiety, unhappiness, and anger to share with you.
You will find helpful information and ideas in these posts that will make it easier for your child, and yourself, to handle negative emotions. These strategies made all the difference to me and to my son!
And maybe, just maybe, you too will find the same excitement that I get every time I support my son through a strong emotion with empathy now, instead of anxiety or irritation.
I like to think of it as a sign that I’m growing into an emotionally healthier and more resilient person myself.
Positive Parenting Posts That Support Emotional Health
What big feelings does your child struggle with? What about you? I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below.
All the best on your parenting journey,