Our first instinct when we hear our baby cry is to make her stop crying. So we wonder whether the baby's hungry needs a nappy change or wants merely her mom's touch. We try everything because infants can't tell us the source of their discomfort. We're frustrated, but we are patient. But, come toddler age, our patience runs out quickly, and we find ourselves saying, "Don't cry!" and "Stop Crying!"
Toddlers are just beginning to explore the world and learning more about other people and themselves. They need help processing events and emotions, and crying is one of their ways to do so.
"For many toddlers, crying is not a reflection of sadness — it’s a way to process any emotion. They may cry out of anger, frustration, fear, excitement, confusion, anxiety or even happiness," Renee Jain, a certified life coach who specializes in cultivating skills of resilience in both adults and children, writes on PsychCentral.
Many toddlers have yet to learn how to express their emotions through words or any other action other than crying. That's sometimes hard to believe when you see them acting beyond their age, but remember that's role-playing and a lot of mimicking mom. "Stop crying!" or "Don't cry" sends a message to your tot that you don't care to understand her feelings or that they don't matter at all.
Distracting your child could work like a charm to make him stop crying, but it may not be the best course of action every time. "It’s true that sometimes a distraction can work, but it’s often just a band-aid. It doesn’t help your child to learn how to cope with a similar situation or emotion," Jain said.
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"Your failure to acknowledge how [your children] are feeling in that moment deprives both of you of the opportunity to learn how to process that emotion more positively," she explained. If you don't help your child to manage his emotions, he might resort to throwing stuff and hurting himself to other people.
So how should you react when you hear your toddler cry?
First of all, get a hold of your emotions — don't yell. Remain calm and try to empathize, advises Janet Lansbury, a parenting advisor, author, and a host of the popular podcast Respectful Parenting. "If you’re angry, stressed or frustrated, the things that you say will add to your toddler’s distress," Lansbury explains.
"'Just acknowledge' sounds so easy, but it can be the hardest thing to remember, and it means much more than just saying words," Lansbury writes on her blog. Acknowledge your child's feelings even if you think she is upset over the littlest things — it is a big deal to your toddler and questioning it won't help you or her.
Here are some phrases you can say to your crying tot while also teaching her to learn how to manage his emotions.
"I can tell you're feeling..."
"I can see this is hard for you."
"That would also cause me to feel..."
"I bet you really felt..."
"If I were in your shoes, I'd also be feeling..."
"It's okay to feel..."
"I know you're feeling...—and that's okay."
"I understand you're feeling...It's okay."
"I can hear your crying, but I don't know what made you upset. I'm here for you."
"It looks like maybe you need a break. Let's take a break and talk when you're calm."
"Take your time to calm down. When you’re done, we can talk."
"If you want space, I'll let you have it, but I’ll stay close so you can find me when you’re ready."
"Let's try to breathe. You want to count to 10 slowly?"
"I know there's a valid reason why you're crying. I'm here to listen."
"Tell me about it. I want to understand. What is this about?"
"I'm here to help. How can I help you?"
"Let me help you work it out."
"Let's come up with a solution together."
"I love you."
Mix and match these phrases and see what applies to your toddler's crying situation. Start using them early on. They might not all work out on your first try, but with consistent implementation, your little one would get on board the program eventually. Your toddler will also take the cue from you and learn from how you're managing her crying bouts and your emotions.
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If you're unsure what to say or need time to calm yourself down, sometimes it also helps just to be quiet and wait when your child is ready to engage.