You’re out at the soft play with your child and everything is going well.
Until you look up and you catch him taking a swing at two children.
Concerned – and then mortified as you see the other child’s parent right there with them, you rush over and you get there just in time to hear him let out a piercing wail that heralds a glorious tantrum that can last for ages.
What do you do? What do you say?
Not only does every single doubt you’ve ever had about the way you parent now trip over each other in your mind, but you’re also horribly aware that you are now the centre of attention.
And maybe you’re not fully aware – but certainly, you have an idea – that what you do now, how you interact with your child will impact not only your own relationship with your child but also the way the other adults treat their own children.
So, faced with so much pressure, what do you do?
Well, if you are in any way traditional or grew up in a traditionally parented society, then your immediate goal is probably to get your child to stop crying.
And to do that, you’d probably go with the most direct way because hey, your child is so young yet and probably won’t understand anything more complicated than “stop crying”.
So that’s what you say, “Stop crying!”
You say it firmly too just so there isn’t any doubt as to who is in charge in this relationship.
Did it work?
Or did it make your child cry all the harder, making forlorn sounds that would make anyone not watching think something far worse is going on than parental intervention gone wrong?
But, but, but what can you do in a situation like that? You need to calm the child down, people are looking for heaven’s sake! What would they say?
Let me ask you, does it matter what a bunch of strangers you’ll never see again think about the way you parent your child? Is their goodwill (which is not guaranteed by the way) worth the cost to your relationship with your child?
The answer, of course, is no.
And in the heat of the moment, that’s what we as primary caregivers need to remember.
Our focus is on our child who is clearly in distress. Otherwise, I can tell you your child will not be experiencing an emotional meltdown.
Remember that she doesn’t enjoy the experience any more than you do.
So, resist the tendency to dismiss or minimise your child’s feelings.
What You’ll Learn
Why you shouldn’t say “stop crying”
Okay, what’s the first reason?
Well, the first reason is the most pragmatic and is simply a question of effectiveness. Can you honestly say that the words are effective?
I asked this question in the previous section and I’ll ask again.
When you say “stop crying”, do you ever succeed?
What’s your success rate?
Did you know that the more you try to suppress your child’s feelings – the very frustration and fear that drive their tears, the more they don’t feel heard? And the more they don’t feel heard, the more they will need even more support from you in the future?
Instead of helping them become more independent, they become more needy and clingy – needing more and more reassurance.
It’s the same with adults, come to think of it.
When you’re trying to send a very important message but that message gets ignored, you get louder and you try harder to get heard.
What’s the second reason?
The second and probably the more important reason has to do with the role that crying plays in a young child’s life.
Scientific studies since the 1950s have shown that young children simply do not have the brain development necessary to self-soothe – one of the more insidious myths of parenting that is extremely popular despite any lack of evidence to support its use.
So, I will repeat here what scientists discover time and time again.
Crying is an important outlet for the tumultuous and passionate feelings that often swamp young children.
In other words, it’s healthy and necessary.
It’s appropriate for them to “lose it” when they’re experiencing negative emotions that they do not understand or when something is happening that they cannot control (e.g. divorce, a parent introducing another partner etc).
It’s okay and totally normal for them to need your help to regulate their emotions because they do not have the skill to do so.
And telling them to “stop crying” is not only ineffective, but it is also disrespectful.
When we say “stop crying”, we show our children that their feelings – no matter how intense (and if they are this young, feelings are always intense) – are unimportant.
We trivialise them and mock them and tell them they are silly for feeling the way they do and acting the way they do.
This, in turn, results in young children growing up to be the kind of obnoxious teenager who lacks empathy and mocks weakness and upset in other people. Precisely the kind of child we don’t want ours to eventually be.
We also show our children that they cannot trust us with their true feelings and thoughts and we then drive them to the arms of other people (mostly their school peers) who could fulfil the need that we cannot.
So, do you want your child to learn how to regulate his emotions and to trust you with his problems and his feelings?
If your answer is yes, then you need to be worthy of that trust and stop flinging it back on their face when they give it to you.
But, I don’t want to make it worse (AKA it’s positive reinforcement for tantrums!)
One of the most pervasive myths about showing empathy and compassion to young children whilst they are in the throes of a tantrum is that doing so will reinforce unwanted behaviour.
So, let me just clarify this.
Showing empathy and compassion does not mean you are giving positive reinforcement (although to be honest, I hate this phrase because we’re raising children, not training rats, which is what the psychologist B.F. Skinner used to show the principle at work).
It is acknowledging the fact that your children are people too.
Let me ask you this: what would you do if your closest friend had an emotional meltdown?
Would you tell her to “stop crying because she’s being silly”?
No, you’d make sure she knew that you’ve got her back.
What would you expect your partner to do if you were having an emotional meltdown?
Would you appreciate it if he came to you, rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, stop crying already or I’ll give you something to cry about!”?
It’s the same with a child.
Instead of: “Stop crying!”
Say: “I can see you’re having such a hard time. It’s hard when you don’t get what you want.”
That’s a true statement regardless of age, so why wouldn’t you acknowledge it? Agree that it’s hard to be denied or rejected because let’s face it, it is damn hard.
You don’t have to give in to what she wanted. She just needs to know that whilst she’s not perfect, she’s loved beyond measure.
Instead of: “Stop crying! You’re being so silly.”
Say: “You don’t want comfort from me and that’s okay. I’ll be right here until you’re ready.”
Then stay in the same room with her so she knows her mother will always love her even when she’s experiencing ugly emotions that she doesn’t understand.
Instead of: “Stop crying and stop hitting me! That’s it!” *SMACK*
Say: “I can see you’re angry. You’re so angry you want to hurt me. I cannot let that happen. I’m your mother and I’m not for hitting. I’ll leave the room for now but I’ll wait for you outside until you’re ready.”
Then leave the room but check in once in a while. Make sure she’s safe. Make sure she knows she’s loved.
And when the storm has passed, that’s when you talk about what happened. That’s when you discuss what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
Because when she is in an emotional meltdown, her brain won’t have the ability to process new information. It’s in stress mode and you won’t be able to get through to her.
What to Say Instead of “Stop Crying”
Now, you may be in the position I found myself in when I was first confronted with the cascading emotions of a toddler on a full-blown emotional meltdown.
I knew that “stop crying” was likely not going to end well (you can ask my husband how we both know the answer to that question hah!) but I had no idea what to do next.
Luckily, I froze and just held my child without actually saying anything, which I later found out was one of the best ways to handle the situation.
It’s true though. Sometimes, we just need someone to hold us close and rock us until the emotions have passed.
But what else can you do?
First, just remember that if you were traditionally raised (in other words, the “children are to be seen and not heard” kind of parenting where you’re not allowed to express your own emotions), you may find it triggering to experience a scenario where a child is fully expressing their sadness, anger, disappointment, or any other negative emotion.
Fortunately, children will always give you a new opportunity to practice your parenting skills.
So, keeping your head firmly on your shoulders every time it happens and resisting the impulse to bark “stop crying” will help not only your relationship with your child but also with your inner child.
Many find the process incredibly healing.
Second, take a look at your options below and start practising how the words feel on your tongue before you actually need to use them so they become second-nature:
1. It’s okay to be (*insert emotion here*).
2. I can see you’re having such a hard time.
3. I’m right here.
4. You’re not alone.
5. We’ll get through this together.
6. I’ll help you.
7. I understand.
8. It’s hard when you don’t get what you want.
9. You don’t want comfort from me and that’s okay. I’ll be right here until you’re ready.
10. I can see you’re angry. You’re so angry you want to hurt me. I cannot let that happen. I’m your mother and I’m not for hitting. I’ll leave the room for now but I’ll wait for you outside until you’re ready.
Sometimes, knowing what not to do is just as important knowing what to do and in that vein, please remember the following:
Resist the urge to distract your child to stop him crying. Imagine telling someone you love that you are feeling depressed today and they respond with, “Wow, do you see that cake? You love cake! Quick, let’s go get some! That’ll make you feel better.” before dragging you to the shop whilst talking non-stop – as if you hadn’t said anything. How would you feel?
Saying “Shh, it’s okay, don’t worry, you’ll be fine” is totally NOT okay. Yes, you meant well. You wanted to reassure your child that you’ll get everything sorted and whatever they’re feeling right now will pass. But for a child who doesn’t even have a proper concept of time, this doesn’t help. Things aren’t okay. They are worried. And they’re not fine. So, what you meant to be reassuring, makes them feel invalidated. Say, “It’s ok to cry” if you can’t stop yourself from saying “it’s okay” (like me).
Enough with the interrogation already. When anyone – yes, including your child – is full of huge overwhelming feelings, they cannot answer questions. Try it yourself. Get a friend to question you when you’re crying your heart out and see how quickly you’ll snap, “Just stop talking!”.
Don’t lecture whilst your child is crying. Yes, we want our child to learn a great lesson but when they’re crying their hearts out, their brains are in flight-or-fight. Nothing logical will filter through. This means statements that start with a “but” are better made once everyone is calm. Again, you can try for yourself and see how effective a lecture is when you’re completely emotional. Get someone to lecture you when you come home from work incensed at your boss. Then remember that children experience the same feelings that we adults do.
The current system of reward and punishment is detrimental to a child’s development. Our obsession with punishing or rewarding children means that we keep employing ineffective “ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning”. Research after research has shown how bad punishment and its kinder but equally manipulative counterpart, the reward, so I won’t repeat them here. For more information, check out the resources below.
Forget the time. Parenting is a long-term game. You cannot expect to be empathetic one time and then disparage it for not stopping the crying. Your goal isn’t to end the tears right now. Your goal is to teach your child a highly important skill – the ability to regulate his emotions and you do that by ensuring that your child feels heard, understood, validated, and supported. That will most likely take a long time, especially if you’ve been silencing their feelings before.
Let us know what you think by commenting below. We’d love to hear from you!