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Crying is not bad

October 7, 2009

I’ve tried writing this post and related posts over and over again, and can’t seem to hit that “publish” button. I guess it’s because society has turned crying into a bigger issue than it ought to be. I’ve also been overwhelmed with all the wonderful wisdom written in Aletha Solter’s book Tears and Tantrums that I just don’t know how to share it all.

So I’m going to start small.

Crying is not bad. I used to think it was because I read or heard someone say that crying causes stress. But do you feel worse or better after a good cry? I don’t know about you, but I feel better!

But ignoring crying is bad. How do you feel when you are crying and people around you just ignore you, or walk out of the room? If your significant other were crying, would you hold them, or would you walk away from them? Would you punish them? What if it were your child, who is so innocent and so dependent on your love?

The premise of Tears and Tantrums is that crying, under conditions in which they feel safe and loved, can help children release tensions and heal from trauma. Having started out as a mother who soothed her baby every time he started to cry (going so far as to plug him with a pacifier, wrap him tightly in a blanket, and rocking him until he was in a state of hypnosis), I went back and forth on the issue of allowing my baby to cry (in my arms). Much pondering, much praying, and much analyzing later, I have come to the conclusion that it is okay not to stop the crying, as long as you can be attentive to your child while he or she cries. Oh wait, clarification: If the child is crying because of an unmet need (this is how babies communicate), then all must be done in order to meet that need. The type of crying I am talking about is often referred to as “blowing off steam.” It is about releasing stress, not the type of crying that communicates a need.

But back to my point. Crying is not bad, and children who cry a lot are not “bad” children. They don’t even need to be seen as “difficult” children. If we can recognize that they are crying because they are under stress and are trying to release that stress, then we can be much more supportive of them during these trying times. So why do we tend to view crying as a negative? Perhaps because we haven’t fully understood it:

“During the Middle Ages in Europe, many people thought that babies and children who cried or raged a lot were possessed by a demon or devil. The treatment was to have a priest exorcise the devil from the child.

“During the 18th century, attitudes began to change. Tears and tantrums were still considered evil, but gradually the blame shifted to the parents, who were told that they had been too indulgent and had “spoiled” their children…Parenting manuals from the 18th century through much of the 20th century spoke about “breaking the will of the children” so they would become docile and obedient.” (Tears and Tantrums, page 3)

From this history it is easy to see where our negative attitudes about crying came from. These days parents either view crying children as manipulative, or they view them as distressed and in need of soothing. Now, comforting is good, but comforting does not necessarily mean to stop the crying. Let’s imagine that you have had a hard week and in particular a very hard day. Finally, something just pushes you over the top, and you get angry at your spouse. Your spouse thinks you are overreacting and tells you to calm down. The lack of sensitivity from your spouse makes you even more upset and you begin to cry. Your spouse still thinks you are overreacting and does not comfort you. So you cry harder. Finally, you realize just why you are crying and start blubbering out all the stressful things that have been happening all week. Suddenly understanding, your spouse feels compassion for you and gives you a hug and continues holding you while you let Niagara Falls splash down your cheeks. You cry until you let it all out. Afterwards, you notice that you feel so much lighter and feel supported that your spouse now understands what you are going through and was loving enough to help you through it.

Unfortunately, children are not always able to articulate what is stressing them out. Parents may think their child is overreacting to some small thing in order to manipulate them into getting their way. Or a more compassionate parent may view their child’s behavior as a reaction to a genuine need and try to fix it. Or they may just think their child is tired or hungry and deal with it that way. But having a tantrum over some small thing is what Solter refers to as the “broken cookie phenomenon.” Basically, when the child has reached her limit of stress, she will use anything she can to set the tears into motion. This might be something insignificant, like being given a broken cookie, and she will just have a tantrum over it. Not because she actually cares about the cookie being broken, but because she needs a premise from which to cry.

I used to hate the sound of crying. With my own child, I felt that I was failing him somehow if he was crying. But now I know that his crying does not mean that I am failing. And I already knew it didn’t mean he was trying to manipulate me. But what it can mean is that he needs to release some stress, and I can lovingly support him in that. Crying does not bother me anymore. So long as it’s not a baby that is being ignored, anyway. Michael’s crying doesn’t stress me out anymore. I know just what to do…encircle him in my arms and allow him to release his stress. I don’t care if others look at us and wonder why I can’t shut my baby up. And you know what else? “Tantrums” just aren’t tantrums to me. If he stamps his feet and cries, I know that it’s because of the way he is feeling, not because he is trying to “get his way.” And I support him through that as well. It just gives me so much peace to know that crying is not bad.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2009 11:07 pm

    It’s a really interesting social history behind all this isn’t it? And even as recently as the ’50’s parents were told not to “spoil” their babies…

    I’m with you on this one completely. In the first weeks of my girl’s life, her crying would get me running to her to stop her crying, and I think when they’re really little they usually just need that, (and when they are tiny and their fontanelles are still really open, it can be unwise to leave them to cry apparently – not that I could bear to leave her). But as the months went by and I noticed and got to know her cries and different kinds of cries, and I would let her cry sometimes if she was tired or a bit over-stimulated, and she just needed to get it all off her chest. I think you make a really important point about not ignoring them. Acknowledging them, and being there while they cry is totally different to just turning your back on them and ignoring their crying.

    It can take a while to get the confidence, and resilience to do this don’t you think? It’s kind of a process of coming to that as the child grows…or something.

    • October 9, 2009 12:46 pm

      I think that first, in order to be able to handle the crying appropriately, we need to understand what crying is all about and not see it as a negative thing (this may mean dealing with issues from our own childhoods). Once you have a healthy view of crying, then it is a matter of being in tune with your child. I definitely agree that a small baby needs instant comforting when upset–they understand so little of their world and can be traumatized if someone doesn’t come right away. But as they get older you can adjust your response to fit their needs (yet always keeping it loving and responsive). That is an interesting point about their fontanelles–I didn’t even think about that.

      Oh, and I’m pretty sure people are still giving out advice not to “spoil” babies. Seems pretty archaic by now, but people still follow that advice!

  2. October 16, 2009 2:32 pm

    Thanks for reminding me of this. I have so many negative attitudes left over from my childhood when I was labeled a “crybaby” by my brother and “sensitive” by my parents. I try so hard now never to cry so that I won’t feel foolish, and I think that leaks over into my relationship with my son, feeling a little overwhelmed when he rages and is very emotional. It’s easier if there’s a reason for his crying: hurt, tired, hungry when he was a tiny baby, but harder (for me) when it’s just, as you say, an emotional release. Anyway, thanks for the reminder to keep working on accepting crying as normal and healthy.

  3. July 22, 2011 1:33 am

    lovely article, sharing on FB and in Sunday Surf


  1. Your Baby is Not Trying to Manipulate You… And Neither is Your Toddler | Adventures of Lactating Girl

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