Crying is not bad
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.