Babies cry, toddlers cry and older children cry. At some point, children learn that crying is a human expression of emotion that carries a lot of weight with it, and is often triggered by a bad experience, fear, pain or even a memory.
While tears also come from overwhelming feelings of joy and happiness, it can be disconcerting for others to see another person crying — no matter the cause — and if it’s an adult, it can be alarming for a child to witness. What does a child think when an important adult in their life is crying, and how should you explain your feelings to him?
Crying is an expression of normal human emotions. Some are moved to tears by a sappy commercial or a sad movie, but life-changing experiences such as death, the loss of a job or a troubled marriage can also lead to an episode of crying. If your children are nearby, you may feel that you need to shelter them from your grief, stress, sadness or frustration, but it isn’t necessary.
“Would it make sense for parents to hide their laughter from their children?” asked Nancy S. Buck, PhD. “The same answer applies to both laughter and tears.”
Beth Proudfoot, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist and parent educator in San Jose, California, and co-author of the audiobook, The Magic of Positive Parenting. She said that children often draw the wrong conclusion when they witness a parent crying, so you want to take care to explain why. “This will be a relief to them, because they will always assume that your strong feelings are somehow about them,” she told us. “Be sure to also tell your kids that there's nothing they need to do or say… just wait a minute, and you'll blow your nose and be OK again.”
Here are a few things our experts suggest that you can say — and what to not do — when your child sees you crying:
Tell them: Jessica S. Campbell, LCSW, said it’s important to explain why you are crying. “The most important part of this process is to explain, on a level your child can understand, why you are crying,” she said. “Tell them what is happening, reassure them that there are no ramifications that will destabilize their lives, and hug them!”
Reassure them: “It is important for parents to let their children know that their parents will keep them safe even if they are feeling sad now,” said Dr. Buck.
Relieve the burden: Proudfoot also cautions that you should not expect your child to comfort you. “The mistake that many parents make is in expecting their children to comfort them,” she shared. “This is absolutely not fair. It's not their job. So, if Grandma has died, and you are crying, let them know you're going to be OK, you just need to cry a whole bucket of tears to get your grief out about Grandma.”
Avoid some details: If you’re crying over a fight with your spouse, you don’t need to give a play-by-play account to your kids, so keep the above tips in mind when discussing your feelings — reassure them they are not why you are sad, and relieve them of a need to comfort you.
It’s normal to desire to shelter our kids from our feelings of sadness and pain, but letting them see that Mom and Dad feel a full range of human emotions is normal and healthy. Even if you try to hide your tears, kids can and do pick up on our nonverbal cues, so be sure to share what’s going on in simple terms they can understand.
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