Every parent knows how difficult it can be to watch your child burst into tears. Your instinct is to do whatever you can to bring comfort and calm the child. But in my work as a child psychologist, I sometimes observe behavioral interventionists suggest a different reaction for the children they work with, including those with developmental differences and behavioral challenges. “Don’t pay attention to the crying,” they say. “That’s just giving it power.” Behavioral interventionists often view behaviors as something a child uses to get what he or she wants.
Their underlying assumption is that the child has learned to use crying in an effort either to gain something (including attention) or to get out of doing something. Instead of giving in, they say, ignore it.
I couldn’t disagree more.
My advice: Pay attention to crying; it is likely an indicator of a child in distress.
Crying—like screaming, yelling, or tantruming—is a “fight or flight” response. It’s a child’s involuntary reaction to stress.
As parents and as people who work with children, we need to pay attention to crying and change the way we think about it. A few essential points to consider:
- Crying signals an autonomic nervous system in distress. Human Behavior patterns fall into three main categories: they indicate safety, fight-or-flight, or disconnection. Crying is one sign that the sympathetic nervous system, which allows us to perceive threat, has been activated.
- It’s a myth that most children use crying to manipulate or get their way. Our overly simplified view that behaviors are either “good” or “bad” leads to another common misunderstanding: that the way to “solve” challenging behaviors is also through good or bad—i.e. rewards or consequences. Following this logic, ignoring crying is giving a negative consequence. But the truth is that ignoring a crying child as a consequence simply doesn’t work.
- Instead of viewing a child’s crying as good or bad, it’s better to see it as providing useful information to adults about what the child needs. A child who is crying needs relational support and connection. Our reaction should be to soothe the child, in the process supporting the child’s brain-body connection.
- Once we stop perceiving crying as bad, we can move beyond simple rewards and consequences. For instance, interventionists may ask parents to withhold a child’s stuffed animal or a beloved activity– until the child stops crying. But doing so reinforces the message that crying is a form of misbehavior and children simply need to stop it. Instead, we should shift our lens and make human connection itself the reward.
- One reason we misunderstand crying is a gap in expectations. We mistakenly believe that at a certain age or stage, children should be able to control their behaviors and emotions. In truth, the timetable to acquire this ability actually develops slowly, along a wide time frame (between ages 3 and 26 in most people). Understanding this, we should adjust our expectations to be more realistic.
What’s most important in reacting to a child’s tears is to exercise empathy. Instead of seeing it as an attention-seeking act, we should think of crying as a subconscious appeal for human engagement and connection. When we pay attention to precious young humans, we build their innate understanding that the world will see and meet their needs. In turn, they will grow into healthy, resilient and flexible adults, people who see and address the emotional and relational needs of those around them.
I provide a roadmap for this lens shift for parents, educators and other caregivers in my book Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.