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Take Crying Seriously*

By Chris White, MD

*But Not Too Seriously

Let’s be honest—crying is tough on the nervous system. It’s designed to be. When children have an unmet need that is beginning to cause a disruption in their nervous system, they cry, or get really whiney, as a direct reaction to the discomfort. The crying then enters us through our senses—mostly through sound, but visually, as well, if we see their contorted faces and the tension in their bodies. Then it travels from the sensory areas of our brain, into the limbic system and down into our bodies, all resulting in this feeling: “Something is wrong, and I have got to fix it now!” Since crying usually is the signaling of a dysregulated nervous system—usually that some need of the child’s has not been met—it is important that we pay attention to our instincts and respond by going to the child and finding out what is wrong.

Whether the crying is coming from your infant because he is hungry, or if he is colicky and needs to release the tension accumulated from the day—in either case, go to him. Perhaps it is coming from your clingy toddler who is in her rapprochement phase of development—pushing hard for independence in some moments, but seemingly terrified of you leaving the room in others. Still, when she lets out those blood-curdling screams that seem so dramatic when you’re just going downstairs, respond to her anyway. Her fear is real.

Or maybe your 5-year-old just took a spill on his bike in the driveway and is starting to bawl. You saw the whole thing and know he isn’t gravely injured; go to him anyway. He may need for you to be close by to help move easefully through the tears, and digest the shock of the bike crash.

In each of these cases, your child’s nervous system is doing what it is designed to do: make distress calls to his caretakers when he feels he needs some help. It is important to take these distress calls seriously by finding out what your child needs.

But don’t take crying too seriously.

Many times I see parents become dysregulated themselves whenever their child cries. They come running in, yelling, “What’s wrong?!?” and find that the child was simply frustrated because he was unable to get a toy to work right, and was a little overtired, so his frustration bubbled over into tears. The dysregulated mother may then get irritated with her son and say, “Why are you having a hissy fit over something so small? Pull yourself together!” What great advice, for both child and mother!

Even in a situation like this, where a child’s crying is over something relatively minor, she still needs comfort and to be brought back to a state of better regulation. More frustration and anger are not going to help. Discharging your own dysregulated emotions will only add to the child’s sense of frustration and lack of support.

In other situations, I have seen parents go running to their kids whenever they cry, as if trauma will ice over their nervous systems forever. They explode onto the scene with an intense, anxious fretting and nervous dancing around, trying to make everything perfect so the child won’t experience any discomfort. These parents seem to be afraid of tears, and will do anything to keep their children’s state “sunny and 75 degrees” at all costs. Their anxiety is, in itself, somewhat dysregulating, and their children get the unspoken message: They are fragile, they can’t handle the bumps and bruises of life, and they’ll always need Mommy nearby to make things right. These kids grow up believing that they are made of glass.

As a parent, do your best to “get yourself together” before dumping your own anxieties or frustrations on your kids. Try to understand your own histories around crying and other states of dysregulation like frustration, anger or an intense compulsion to make everything go right. Inquire into why your particular nervous system reacts the way it does. Most likely, it formed this way in an attempt to protect you from a lack of attunement you experienced as a child. Have compassion for yourself: We are all still children in so many ways.

If you are one of those moms or dads who gets intensely activated by hearing your child cry (I know I still do from time to time, especially if I am awoken from sleep!), there are some things you can do to help soothe your limbic reactivity.