Is it OK for kids to cry? Experts say tears can help kids learn how to express their emotions

·9 min read
Experts say shedding a few tears can be good for kids, as long as parents are also helping them understand and name the emotions they're feeling. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Experts say shedding a few tears can be good for kids, as long as parents are also helping them understand and name the emotions that come with them. (Photo: Getty Creative)

If you have a kid, you've been there: Strolling the freezer section for frozen pizza and Popsicles when your typically adorable toddler drops their sippy cup and the whole world comes crashing down. Full-on meltdown in aisle nine.

What's a parent to do?

Abandon your cart and shopping trip altogether and exit in a cloud of shame? Wait patiently for the kid to stop crying and avoid eye contact with other shoppers? Slump down next to the ice cream sandwiches and cry right along with her?

Experts suggest turning the mortifying moment into a teaching experience that sends the message that while it's OK to feel sad, it's not always appropriate to cry.

"There's a difference between expressing our emotions and experiencing our emotions," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a child psychologist and author who wrote a brief "mini-guide" for parents titled When Your Child Cries Easily. "Teaching our kids the difference between the two is an essential life skill."

Kennedy-Moore says while crying is a sign of emotional overwhelm, parents can use these tear-filled times to teach important social skills without invalidating kids' feelings or harming their mental health.

Crying changes as kids grow

"Babies cry because it's the only way to signal that they need something," Kennedy-Moore tells Yahoo Life, pointing out that as children grow, they develop coping strategies and better ways to communicate — typically using words. "But sometimes we all feel overwhelmed by our feelings and crying becomes a signal that we need comfort and help. That's not a bad thing," she says.

According to a 2021 Harvard Health study, there's a scientific reason why we feel better after we shed a few tears. And the health benefits of a good cry aren't new: In ancient Greek and Roman times, crying was seen as purifying, similar to today's psychological view that "letting it all out" allows us to release stress and emotional pain. In fact, the National Library of Medicine found that when we repress our tears — pushing down negative emotions or ignoring them altogether — we may have a less resilient immune system along with cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

There are physical benefits to crying, too: When we cry, we flush stress hormones and other toxins out of our system. The act of crying also releases oxytocin and endorphins, which make us feel good emotionally and physically. Kids are no different: When they cry, they are able to feel those big feelings and wash them away with their tears.

But, children also learn to cry manipulatively, usually to get their way, avoid punishment or stir pity. "This kind of crying is just part of learning how to make choices about our emotional communication," says Kennedy-Moore. "It's part of feeling emotional overwhelm and choosing how to communicate that to an adult. As we get older, we make more and more of these choices."

Claudia Farrington, a mom of a 5-year-old from Seattle, Wash., says she can tell when her daughter is about to act out in an unhealthy way. "I always ask her if her tears are real or if they're 'dramitas' — fake 'crocodile tears'— and usually she laughs if they're fake," she says. "She's a person in miniature, so I approach her crying the same way I would my best friend's tears or my own."

Kennedy-Moore says emotional moments are essential learning opportunities. "Kids learn that when they're angry, they should use their words instead of hitting someone. Similarly, they start to have some ability to choose when they cry and around whom. We can guide them through that," she says.

Frequency matters

"If your child is crying four or five times a day at school, that's a problem," says Kennedy-Moore, adding that the time a child spends crying is time spent away from doing things that will enrich their lives — playing, socializing and learning.

Eventually, children pick up social cues about when it's acceptable and not acceptable to cry, simply by observing their peers. "Children want to be around others who are laughing and having fun," she says. "Around first grade, kids start realizing that no one wants to be around them when they cry because that's not fun."

Kennedy-Moore emphasizes that this doesn't mean encouraging your child to "bottle up" their emotions, only that your child will likely figure out the appropriateness of their behavior on their own.

On the other hand, Kennedy-Moore acknowledges some children are just more sensitive to feelings than others. "Some people do feel things more deeply," she says. "Those are the people who really have to become experts at emotional regulation, which can start quite early in life. You learn to understand, communicate and cope with your feelings in healthy ways."

The key: addressing without invalidating

Just like we teach children to express anger without screaming or hitting, "kids are absolutely capable of feeling sad and not crying," says Kennedy-Moore. "Kids can and should feel whatever they want to feel, but there's a difference between experiencing emotion and expressing it."

Kennedy-Moore advises parents to equip their kids with a game plan for when they feel like crying — ideally, something that takes their mind away from the downward spiral. "I like to encourage parents to take deep breaths with their kids or with the older ones, to do a simple math problem like '100 minus 2' or count to 20 slowly together," she says.

With smaller children, she likes to play the "find five" game, where she asks a child on the verge of tears to "find five things in the room that are blue or that have a certain shape."

Hillary Landers, a mom of twins from Orlando, Fla., says she employs this technique by trying to get her daughters to laugh or distracting them by asking them to do something silly like jumping jacks or barking like a dog. "It's just silly enough that they crack a smile and then we talk it out," she says.

Kennedy-Moore also suggests saying mantras to your children like, "This is hard but I can do it," or "I've dealt with hard things before and I can do it again," or "This is not the worst thing in the world: I'll get through this." She says by doing this exercise, you acknowledge the event that made the child sad and validate their feelings about the event, but also focus on healthy coping and communication.

The science behind tantrums

So what about that meltdown: The full-on kicking and screaming in the middle of a public place that makes every other parent look at you pitifully? Kennedy-Moore says there are strategies for that, too, and they don't involve dragging your child out of the store or having a breakdown of your own once you reach the car.

"There's a marked difference between the sounds a child makes when they're angry and when they're sad, and you can hear that difference if you slow down and pay attention," says Kennedy-Moore. "When a child throws a tantrum, they're not in a logical state of mind. There's really nothing you can say to them to make them stop the tantrum or calm down."

Kennedy-Moore says tantrums occur when a child is "emotionally flooded," and suggests parents use a tool called the "foot-in-the-door technique" with a child throwing a tantrum.

"Wait it out," she says. "Clear the area but stay nearby so you can make sure they don't hurt themselves or move them to a place where it's safe." Kennedy-Moore says when you hear the shift in tone from anger to sadness, try to get your 'foot in the door': approaching the child and asking two questions: "Do you want a tissue?" and "Do you want a drink of water?"

Once you get a yes to both of those questions, "you're well on your way to a more reasonable child," she says. Now, you can talk to them.

Karen Marmaras, mom to three adult children in Pen Argyl, Pa., relates. "Before we went out in public, my husband and I would agree on who would leave the store or restaurant if one of them had a tantrum," she recalls. "No words. No explanation. We picked up the child and walked out. Once we were outside, we explained why they were no longer welcome in the restaurant or store and we listened to them only after they calmed down. We gave no attention to the tantrum."

Marmaras says each of her children only needed to be taken out of a restaurant or store once. "The tantrum didn't work," she says, "and they learned that."

Let it out, or bottle it up?

"Emotions aren't something you just vomit out," says Kennedy-Moore. "Emotions are a source of information about ourselves and our environments."

Kennedy-Moore says there's a huge gray space in the middle between repressing our emotions and expressing them all the time that parents can help children explore in themselves.

"We learn as adults that not everything and everyone deserves our emotions," she says. "When I'm with my close friends, I let my hair down. When I'm with someone I don't know as well I might keep my cards closer to the chest. It's difficult, but it's also a very useful life lesson that kids can learn early."

The bottom line: It is possible to encourage our children to develop emotional intelligence without sacrificing social skills or invalidating their feelings.

"Sometimes bad things happen," says Kennedy-Moore. "But we don't want our kids to feel overwhelmed by normal things that happen in everyday life, like a teacher telling them to sit down or their favorite blue cup being in the dishwasher."

"Teaching these coping skills allows our children to learn about big emotions and communicate them in a way that's appropriate — even if that means squeezing out a few tears from time to time."

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