John Cowan - What do we do with our child's tears

Publish Date
Thursday, 9 November 2017, 10:01AM
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

By John Cowan

Some of us find it hard to handle our children's tears.

The way people show emotion is very much  a personal thing  – some people’s emotions just burst out of them and others are as cool as cucumbers even though they might be boiling inside. It is also cultural: some cultures are expected to be much more subtle and self-controlled than others. Which is right?  I could not possibly say!   But what I can say is, a little child’s tears are natural and we should respond in a natural way  – with love and empathy. It is not a sign of weakness or lack of character; it is a sign that they are full of emotion and a wise parent will follow their heart and head in responding to them.

So, do not be alarmed by your own feelings that rise up when your child has strong emotions – this is empathy, feeling what they feel, and it is actually one of the most beautiful parts of being human.

Do try to understand where the tears are coming from.

If the tears are a response to pain or fear or sickness, go with your heart and give the comfort they need. For a baby, crying is one of the few ways they have to signal that they have a need.

Are they tears of frustration? There are always going to be many, many gaps between what a child wants and what they are able or allowed to get. Don’t argue or reprimand them – their emotion is real. But the situation is real, too; life is frustrating and often there is nothing we can do to change that. As parents, we are sometimes the actual cause of the frustration as we place boundaries for their own good. So a weep may be the way a child processes the grief, and anger of frustration; it resets them emotionally, it is a self-comforting tool. Maybe we do not need to be much more than sympathetic – get down to their level, listen to their frustration with your heart and let them know that you care. You might not be doing anything to relieve their frustration, but you do care...and you let them know that you care. And you can sympathize without actually agreeing with their opinion on what is causing the frustration.

“It’s okay to be sad.” “I can see you’re upset.” “This is tough, aye.” “I know you want an ice-block but not today, honey.”

Two responses to their tears can be unhelpful. One is to let the child believe that tears will always get them what they want: all they have to do is cry and we will quickly respond with snacks, toys and attention, or even reverse a decision that they didn’t like. It’s a great way to train a child to be manipulative, whiny and grizzly. The other unhelpful response is anger… when does anger ever work?

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About John

John has been with The Parenting Place ( for seventeen years as their senior writer and presenter.  He had various roles working with youth and families prior to that but actually started his working life as a scientist in neurophysiology at Auckland Hospital.  As well as writing and speaking, John is frequently on radio and television.

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