First Friday Q&A for March — Is it OK to Let Them Cry?

What a great question from Elexa, a caregiver in a toddler grouping.

(And I’d like to say those stacks of books behind me are waiting to be shelved because I’ve been such a voracious reader lately, but they’re actually left out after being used as weights for some fantastic fort building….)

(This video can also be viewed directly on YouTube.)

When children become upset, it isn’t about us controlling their emotions, it’s about us respecting their emotions and helping them build their own emotional regulation and self-soothing techniques.  Sometimes that includes giving them their space.  Verbalize, validate, and be available, but allow them to express their emotions. Of course there are boundaries on this, they are not allowed to hurt people or property in the process and they may have to find a more appropriate place to express those emotions, but be present if they need you and give them space when they need it (though that does mean you are still available).

Our objective isn’t for children to be perpetually happy, regardless of the cost.  Our objective is to teach them to recognize their emotions, feel they are validated, and learn to appropriately express and regulate their emotions for themselves.  This gift of emotional health offers happiness that lasts much longer.

Here are some great resources on the topic:

Parent Do-Overs: 7 Confidence Building Responses {Janet Lansbury}  (Pay attention to #1 on the list!)

Attachment Parenting Debate (For Crying Out Loud!) {Janet Lansbury}

7 Reasons to Calm Down About Babies Crying {Janet Lansbury}

Babies and Crying: What’s a Parent to Do? {Regarding Baby}

A Toddler, a Tantrum, and a Firetruck.  Lessons from the Trenches {NJC}

Teaching Children How to Handle Their Emotions: As Simple as PIE {Simple Kids}

Parenting Preschoolers: A Starting Place for Social Grace {Simple Kids}

**Edit 3/3/12:  I had to add this link via Lisa Sunbury on Facebook:

Validating Children’s Feelings {4 C…For Children}


What are YOUR thoughts on today’s topic?



Filed under Child Development & DAP, Positive Guidance and Social Skills, Uncategorized

8 Responses to First Friday Q&A for March — Is it OK to Let Them Cry?

  1. Adi

    I have a 17 month old who has been having passionate tantrums and crying spells for several months. We have been working on them with positive guidance and even removing many of the triggers. These tantrums and crying spells often last 45 minutes or longer, and come one after another. I do believe that I have been contributing to them by not giving him space, so I am very thankful for this video. My question is, if my toddler pushes me away, but then does not want me to leave, what is the appropriate action? I often will sit on the floor nearby, but he will throw himself on me and push and thrash. If I try to walk away or remove him, he will escalate, and usually follow me while pulling at my pant’s leg. I validate and let him know that it is okay to express the emotion, but he just escalates. I see that he needs space because he pushes and thrashes, but gets even more upset if I don’t pick him up. So, there’s thrashing if I hold him, and worse thrashing if I don’t. Is he perhaps confused as to what he wants? He just seems to have trouble self-regulating. What is the appropriate course of action for a situation like this?

    • Adi,

      I can only share what I would do (and have done) in situations like the one you are describing, which is to stay calm, quiet, and physically present in the room with the child while he thrashes and cries, until he comes to the end of his crying and thrashing. Then I’d offer a hug, and move on. I would not walk away, nor would I try to hold him while he is thrashing. If he threw himself at me, I’d calmly move out of his reach (but still stay in the room, if possible) while saying, “I understand you are upset/angry/sad but I won’t let you push/ hurt me. I’m going to move away, and if you need to push/ kick /hit/thrash you can use these pillows.” The key is to stay present while staying calm. Not easy, I know, but I’ve found this is often what most helpful. Wishing you all the very best…I know it can be heartrending and trying to see a toddler through a difficult time like the one you are describing, but it can and will get better in time.

    • Adi-
      You’re describing such a difficult situation, and I commend you for your patience through it. Lisa gives some wonderful advice here, and she speaks from great experience. I particularly agree with her key point to “stay present while staying calm”. She points out great ways to set appropriate limits for expression while still allowing and validating those emotions. You really do have to feel it out in each situation or with each individual child as far as how much space to give, but you mention he pushes you away but doesn’t want you to leave. As Lisa mentioned, I often sit just a few feet away from the child, unless they make it clear that they want me further away. It sounds like your child wants you present but wants his space as well. Giving just a few feet, but remaining present may help. Likewise, if he’s pushing you away, but also demanding your attention, then remaining calm as Lisa suggests, will help you to be sure that your child’s behavior isn’t being reinforced by an overly emotional response. Just as with every challenge in parenting, it feels overwhelming in the middle of it, but it will most likely improve with time and the proper support. Best wishes for you and your family!

  2. Elexa

    Thank you so much, Amanda! What a lovely perspective. What I didn’t tell you in my question was that I’m a mentor teacher at a lab school. This video would be AWESOME to share at our Friday Professional Meeting with our interns. Is this okay with you?

    Also, you will be pleased to know that we figured out the trigger for the child’s tantrum. It was the gate at the classroom entrance! EXACTLY as you said, the child was feeling a lack of control (not being able to physically enter the space where her personal items were and where her mother exited the classroom). She had no control over the situation, no way to verbally express it, and the adults around her had a hard time getting the message. That’s really hard! Fortunately for her, we DID figure out the message. The day after I sent you the email, we removed the gate and the child has been remarkably happy throughout the day.

    Oh the power of expressing yourself, being heard, and then being able to move on! Thank you again!

    • Elexa-
      Thanks so much for sharing the rest of the story. What an attentive and mindful group you are! I are absolutely welcome to share this at your professional development meeting, and I’d love to hear more about what your group has to say. Thank you for such a wonderful, thoughtful (and thought-provoking) question.

  3. Amanda, I am so glad I had the opportunity to watch your video tonight… Wow, such insight and so beautifully articulated! I hope everyone who spends time with toddlers has the opportunity to view this and take to heart your spot-on advice.

    Also, Adi is in very good hands…between you and Lisa you covered all of my thoughts about her question.

    ” It sounds like your child wants you present but wants his space as well. Giving just a few feet, but remaining present may help. Likewise, if he’s pushing you away, but also demanding your attention, then remaining calm as Lisa suggests, will help you to be sure that your child’s behavior isn’t being reinforced by an overly emotional response…. ”

    That is my perception of this exactly.

    @Adi, it’s very possible that your boy is picking up on your confusion and feeling a little unsettled because of that. Toddlers are extremely sensitive to our emotions…and the more calm and accepting we can be (while clearly protecting ourselves) the less “charged” and then less frequent these situations will likely become.

    One more thing, Amanda… I am so honored and touched that you recommended my posts on this subject. And I’m beyond thrilled to have you and Lisa as online colleagues! Thanks and cheers!

  4. Thank you SO much for sharing our blog for parents. This is such a valuable topic and I love seeing the work you are doing with it here!

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