Comfort Kids or Show Tough Love?

Children cry. Do they need a hug – or tough love? Here's what one local expert has to say.

Kids burst into tears because they get hurt, can’t get their way – or just because. Internet memes capture it perfectly: A photo of a bawling toddler spells out the ridiculous reason he’s weeping, like “Someone ate all the muffins. It was him.”

Whatever the reason, there are times when parents aren’t sure what to do when their child is crying. Do you cuddle them or tell them to buck up?

When to console

“Everyone has feelings,” says Dr. Cheryl Munday, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham and professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. “Crying can represent different feelings.”

Younger kids cry because they feel something and don’t yet know how to put those feelings into words, she explains. But parents can help them understand what is upsetting them.

“Always comfort a 3-year-old,” says Munday. “Talk about what the feelings are about.”

As children get older, into elementary age, they are developing sophisticated ways of thinking, and Munday suggests parents help to not just label the problem, but also help them brainstorm how to solve it.

Drawing a line

Sometimes, though, children are crying over things that really can’t be helped. Maybe they didn’t get a toy they wanted. Or someone did something they didn’t like but wasn’t wrong – for example, if another child was drawing the same picture they were, and they didn’t like that.

Kids may have hurt feelings, but it isn’t always anything a parent can fix or that would upset an adult. Comforting may not be effective in these situations.

However, avoid the denial approach. “Don’t disregard their feelings,” Munday says. “Don’t say they don’t feel that way.”

If a problem can’t be helped, Munday suggests trying a distraction. With younger children, it might be a comfort to them to play with a toy. For older kids, help them move on to something else.

It’s also important for parents to keep their own emotions in check. “Don’t be angry that they feel that way,” says Munday. “They don’t have words to express what they’re feeling.”

How crying evolves

Though most children have the words to express what they feel around first or second grade, some may continue to cry as an automatic reaction. Munday says if children continue to respond with uncontrollable crying and tantrums, it’s time to seek out a professional.

That said, children will continue to cry, even into adulthood, when appropriate. But as they get older, they’ll have the words they need to talk about their feelings.

“Let them label their feelings,” says Munday. Helping kids understand what they feel and why they’re crying gives them the tools they need to put their feelings into words – instead of crying over an empty bag of muffins.

Art by Mary Kinsora

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