Why You Shouldn't Tell Your Kids To "Stop Crying" And What To Say InsteadJun 22, 2023
If you are a parent who says this to your child, then this article is for you.
If this was said to you as a child, then this article is for you.
“Ok, you made your point. Enough now.”
“That’s not a reason to cry.”
“I’ll give you a reason to cry.”
“Get over it.”
Kids often hear these phrases from parents, teachers, family members and peers. Many adults and parents don’t realize the emotional harm that these two simple words can cause. Telling our kids to suppress their emotions causes them to miss out on opportunities to learn some really important life skills. Forget the fact that this never works, the harm it causes is real and often long term.
Before I go on with this article, I want to validate how hard it can be to listen to crying and tantruming. I have definitely said “Stop crying” more than once (like, many times) to my own kids. There are many reasons adults say this to kids ranging not being able to stand the noise, to feeling enraged by the “defiance” or “dramatics”, to wanting to speed up their feeling better, or not having time to deal with a tantrum, to not knowing what else to do, feeling overwhelmed with your own feelings, impatient, or simply feeling like it is effective (because sometimes they actually stop crying but as you’ll learn it’s actually not very effective long term).
The thing is, letting kids feel their feelings and validating those feelings reduces the frequency and intensity of outbursts and helps them build crucial life skills like empathy, emotion regulation and resilience. Our kids will feel negative emotions just like we do. They are unavoidable. It is part of the human experience. Our job is to let them know that it is okay to feel negative emotions and then give them the tools to deal with those emotions.
Here are a few reasons you may want to stop telling your kids to “Stop crying”:
It represses emotions that are already very much there: Imagine you had a terrible day at work. You messed up a huge project, your boss yelled at you, you forgot your lunch and then on the way home you tripped on the way to the train and twisted your ankle. Imagine you come home overwhelmed and in tears. You start telling your partner and they respond by saying “Okay, so you had a bad day. That’s not a reason to cry. Stop it already.” How would that feel for you? Not very good, I bet. Would you stop feeling awful about your day? Most likely not. You would probably feel worse and on top of that you probably feel really bad about your partner now too. You may even feel like you don’t want to share hard things with them in the future. You may feel like they are not a safe person to share sensitive things with and you might start to feel intensely lonely and misunderstood. Just because you stop crying doesn’t mean you don’t actually feel sad anymore.
Our kids’ and teens emotions are just as real as ours. We tend to look at the things that are distressing our kids with an adult lens but when you are four years old and someone knocks over your tower, that really feels like the END OF THE WORLD. In their little universe, this is devastation. Our teen’s fight with their best friend makes them feel like they’ll never make up or have another best friend ever again. If we
can validate that for them and model how to cope with that disappointment, we are helping them build skills to deal with the bigger disappointments they will inevitably face as they grow up.
Remember that the goal of parenting is not to make sure our kids never face any struggles rather it is to give them the skills to deal with struggles when they happen. Strong mental health is not the absence of negative emotions. It is having the right emotions at the right time (ex: feeling sad when something sad happens) and having the coping skills to manage those emotions.
Allowing kids to cry gives them the space to sort through big feelings. Telling them to stop, limits what they can express. Besides, crying is necessary—it’s cathartic and a natural process. The tears we cry from sadness contain cortisol, so we are literally “letting it all out”. We all cry and feel better than had we just bottled a negative emotion. And the younger and more limited kids’ vocabularies are, the more
tears they will cry. This is healthy!
When our little kids cry, it can help to narrate their feelings so that they will eventually be able to speak what they feel (sometimes through their tears) versus screaming.
It deprives them of teachable moments: Better responses to their emotions from you help them build better responses to their own emotions and the emotions of others. What if instead of telling your child to stop crying you used it as a moment to teach him something valuable?
You hold him and make it clear that you are there for him no matter what.
Instead of sending her to her room to be alone with her feelings, you sit next to her and practice taking deep breaths to teach her to calm her nervous system.
You hand him his favorite stuffed animal to show him how to self soothe.
You listen quietly to his “rant” without lecturing him about a positive attitude or being “dan l’kaf zchut" (benefit of the doubt). Rather than calling her a ‘drama queen” or rolling your eyes and calling her “such a teenager” remember that you probably once faced the same struggles and dilemmas and just wanted someone to say “Wow, that sounds really hard.”
Some other supportive responses can sound like:
“It makes sense that you feel like this.”
“This feels unfair.”
"Wow, you feel really mad about that."
"Oof, you sound really sad."
"You're really upset at her. It's okay to feel upset."
“I’m staying here with you.”
Simple observational statements that can do so much for our child's nervous system and emotional language. Language is the way we connect, heal, learn, grow. Emotional language is one of the ways we help our kids build resiliency. When we are able to make sense of our feelings and adequately express ourselves, we can manage our emotions in a way that helps us get through them in a healthy and
It doesn’t work: You know those memes that say “Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down”? Telling someone to stop feeling something doesn’t actually stop them from having that feeling. Sometimes it can even make it worse, causing them to lash out more (this is communication “Stop shutting me down!”) and other times they stop the behavior but all those emotions need to go somewhere.
Kids growing up in an environment where emotions are denied, hidden or never taught in a healthy way may struggle with anxiety, depression, self-regulation, impulsivity, anger management issues, eating disorders and substance use disorders. When we have a hard time identifying and naming emotions it
can tremendously impact our ability to handle challenges effectively. Often, people with unexpressed or repressed emotions tend to look to harmful vices to find relief from their pain. This is why talk therapy, even if no “solution” or “fix” is found, can be so healing.
A 2015 study found college aged males who said their parents punished them as young kids when they got upset had more anger management issues than college aged kids who reported having supportive parents.
Nobody wants to be talked out (or screamed out) of their feelings. Feeling seen and heard is the best way to help calm the nervous system. If we want our kids to be regulated, we need to learn to regulate ourselves. We need to stop getting angry and lashing out at them when they can’t regulate themselves. The way that parents regulate, or fail to regulate, their child’s emotions according to their own emotion
regulation skills has a strong effect on the child’s emotion regulation.
"Get away from me if you're crying!"
"You better stop that or else....."
(Or worse, hitting. I’ve written about hitting kids previously.)
I get that saying or doing things like this is likely a fear response but responding to dysregulation with even more dysregulation only serves to create increased fear and shame. This kind of response doesn't
give your child any method of handling their emotions other than to just absorb your anger then adding on experiencing feelings of loneliness and confusion. Plus, you probably feel awful too.
Not being able to safely feel and articulate emotions can make anyone feel hopeless and angry. In those moments, our children look to us for skills. If you are feeling scared, angry and overwhelmed then they will likely (continue to) feel the same (on top of that they are already feeling.) I KNOW it can feel hard to show empathy and validation when the screaming and crying feels so triggering. Remember that the short-term response dictates the long-term result.
If you’re still not totally on the “emotions” train, here are some things that we know to be true: parents who respond to their kids in comforting manner have kids who are more socially well-adjusted than parents who tell their kids they are overreacting or get mad at them for being upset.
Psychologist Alan Sroufe and his colleagues found that children who had secure relationships with their parents because their parents had been warm, nurturing and responsive early in life were less clingy, less demanding and had better social skills than kids whose parents had been unresponsive or standoffish.
Parents who show warmth and positive expressiveness had children who were high in empathy and had better social functioning than those with parents who were dismissive or detached.
WHY IT MIGHT BE HARD FOR YOU TO HANDLE YOUR CHILD’S CRYING AND OUTBURSTS:
If you are struggling to deal with your child or teen’s big emotions or tantrums, you are definitely not alone. Sometimes tuning in to what we are feeling and thinking when kids get upset can help us to regulate ourselves and then tend to them with a calmer mind and body. I am offering just a few ideas here but if you feel like this is a real challenge and therapy is accessible to you, I highly recommend working with a licensed therapist.
*You may get upset at their tears because you interpret their reaction as an indication of something negative about yourself.Sometimes parents think their child being upset or sensitive is because of some failing of theirs but your child is their own person and has their own emotions. Crying is not objectively a problem behavior. Crying can be a healthy expression of emotion. You can’t (and shouldn’t try to) control the things they have emotions about but you can control how you respond to those emotions.
*You might fear judgment from others. Not too long ago I was the parent carrying the tantruming kid out of Target feeling the judgmental stares. “She’s a therapist? Look at how her kid is behaving!” Kids cry. Kids have melt downs. Teens talk back. They get emotional and moody. Your job as the parent is to stay focused on what they need in that moment. “I have a good kid who is having a hard time.” It’s easy for people to judge when they aren’t in your shoes and don’t have your experiences but the more confident you become as a parent and the sturdier you are in your relationship with your child, the less those judgements will affect you.
*As a child, you were not allowed to have big feelings. Maybe you grew up in an environment where you could not express your emotions freely because doing this would have gotten you punished, ignored or otherwise invalidated. Maybe you witnessed someone you love experience being shut down. So, when we see our child express emotion it feels threatening or overwhelming. Remind yourself that your home is different now. Your child can safely and freely express their emotions with you. When they can do this, they can go out in to the world feeling more confident, safer and lighter.
*You don’t know how to respond to their feelings. Maybe when you were upset as a child, nobody ever modeled how to calm yourself down, so you don’t know what to do. You hate feeling so helpless or clueless and you just want it to stop.
Remember, that sometimes it is your calm and loving presence
that is needed rather than some brilliant line or insight. Certainly with teens, most of the time they don’t want your advice they just want you to LISTEN.
If any of these explanations sound selfish or crazy, I want to reassure you they are not. These are all protective responses from your brain that were likely wired at some earlier part of your life. But the thing about protective responses is that sometimes they are necessary in certain situations but harmful
in others. You can learn to do things differently and offer support to yourself and your child in a more loving, validating and productive way.
The next time your child (or any loved one, because all of this applies to all relationships) has an emotional outburst, can you take a deep breath, remind yourself that those emotions are okay and not for you to fix and then offer a huge dose of calm, validation and empathy?
For more learning on this topic, I recommend reading The Emotional Lives of Teenagers by Dr. Lisa Damour, Good Inside by Dr. Becky Kennedy and Brain Body Parenting by Dr. Mona Delahooke. For podcasts, I love Dr. Justin Coulson’s Happy Families (really short and informative episodes. Great for busy parents), Ask Lisa: The psychology of Parenting by Dr. Lisa Damour (also great short episodes) and Good Inside Podcast with Dr. Becky
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