Family Tips

Perhaps the toughest thing when our children cry are the emotions their tears trigger in us: empathic upset and sadness, plus a sense of helplessness that comes from thinking we need to do something while unsure what that would be. If we ourselves feel uncomfortable with those emotions -- upset, sad, helpless -- our kids' tears will be that much harder for us to be around.

For some parents, kids' tears trigger discomfort with vulnerability (crying being an obvious expression of vulnerability). Many men in particular can't tolerate the sight and sound of a crying youngster, regarding it as a sign of weakness and, with tearful sons, effeminacy. Those parents may sharply insist: "There's no reason to cry," "I'll give you something to cry about!" "Big boys/big girls don't cry," "Don't be such a cry baby," etc. In contrast, parents less unsettled by the vulnerability of crying may offer gentle words of comfort yet still wish to stem the flow ("It will be all right," or "It's not worth crying about"). Such parents often pull their tearful child into a physical embrace.

Why do people cry? A prevailing view is that certain positive and negative emotions -- upset, sadness, awe, joy, hurt -- experienced at strong intensities knock us off our emotional equilibrium, crying being the body's natural way of restoring equilibrium. Strong feelings create a build-up of a kind of emotional tension which crying releases, allowing emotional balance to be restored. Some researchers believe that emotional tears (versus tears generated by itchy eyes or chopped onions) release stress hormones or toxins. Emotional tears contain a natural painkiller -- leucine encephalin -- which may explain why we can feel better after "a good cry."[i]

What our sobbing kids need from us is precisely the opposite of what we tend to deliver: they need to feel our uncritical acceptance of crying (and the feelings behind it). So give the crier room -- emotional and physical space -- to experience the tears and the feelings, without doing anything to interfere. Being touched, and especially hugged, interrupts the restorative process that crying seems designed to deliver. Delay the urge to touch -- the hug can come later. Offer caring words of empathy: "I see how sad/upset/frustrated you are..." while staying physically close. Say, "It's good you can cry," and just remain quiet while reminding yourself that tears, allowed to run their course, restore our emotional balance.


Your daughter comes home in tears. She can barely choke out words to describe the mean things some girls said to her on the school bus. You listen to her story and try to comfort her. If you’re really skilled, you’ll offer her attunement (Are You Okay? March 2014).

After a couple months practicing for his first driver’s license, your son fails the behind-the-wheel test at the motor vehicle department. On the way home, you sense his distress as he complains about the unfair examiner and how he deserved to pass. You try to comfort him.

Recent research suggests that there’s something else — something enormously helpful — that you can do that may reduce the intensity and duration of a child’s distress: coach your kids to identify and name the specific emotions they’re feeling during moments of emotional pain.

Studies have found that when people identify and specifically name their emotions, they are “less likely to be overwhelmed in stressful situations.”i That’s because when we use precise labels for our feelings, we understand more about what’s happening to us emotionally, which then can lead to identifying a smart (and healthy) course of action. Clearly labeled emotions become easier to regulate (“I’m sad” rather than “I feel bad,” or “I’m disappointed” rather than “I’m really bummed out”). Once we know the feeling we’re dealing with, we can tailor our response to it rather than just fall back on the customary habits we rely on in order to feel better (especially unhealthy habits like erupting into anger, turning to alcohol, bottling up the pain, bingeing on food, etc.)

People skilled at naming their feelings have been found to drink 40% less alcohol when stressed,ii and are 20% to 50% less likely to retaliate with verbal or physical aggression against someone who has hurt them.iii Impressive evidence exists that teaching school-aged children to expand their understanding and use of precise emotion words improves both their social behavior as well as their academic performance.iv

If we’re going to teach our kids to speak the language of emotions, we’re going to need to speak the language ourselves. It doesn’t require a huge lexicon; angry, sad, hurt, afraid, upset, disappointed, discouraged, guilty, and ashamed are the basics. Incorporate those words into your vocabulary, and when your kids are distressed, coach them to do the same.

i Kashdan, T.B., L.F. Barrett, P.E., McKnight. “Unpacking emotion differentiation: transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving emotion differentiation.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2015 vol. 24 no. 1, pp.10-16. doi: 10.1177/0963721414550708.

ii Kashdan, T. B., P. Ferssizidis, R.L. Collins, & M. Muraven. “Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers.” Psychological Science, 21, 2010. 1341–1347.

iii Pond, R. S., T.B. Kashdan, C.N. Dewall, A.A. Savostyanova, N.M. Lambert, & F.D. Fincham. “Emotion differentiation buffers aggressive behavior in angered people: A daily diary analysis.” Emotion, 12, 2012. 326–337.

iv Brackett, M. A., S.E. Rivers, M.R. Reyes, & P. Salovey. “Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum.” Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 2012, 218–224.

Imagine that for twenty minutes, your 4-year-old has been fussing at the playground, crying and complaining and kicking sand at other children. Feeling growing irritation, you inch toward delivering a serious scolding. But you sense the watchful eyes of parents nearby, and so you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with faked aplomb.

Checking in on your daughter, who has been playing quietly in her room, you discover that her dresser drawers have been overturned and clothes are heaped everywhere. Your temperature races to a boil but before you react, you remember reading about never disciplining children from a place of anger. So you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with forced calm and equanimity.

Are we and our children better off when we suppress our negative emotions, or when we’re honest and transparent with our feelings?

Researchers at the University of Toronto studied this very question with 162 parentsi. They found that when parents suppressed their negative emotions — squelching feelings like upset, anger, and sadness — they reported a reduced sense of their own emotional well-being, poorer quality of relationship with their children, and less effective responsiveness to their kids’ needs. In other words, both parents and children seemed to pay a price when parents suppressed negative feelings. Why might this be?

Hiding our negative emotions decreases our sense of authenticity, defined as operating according to our core sense of who we are.ii Authenticity seems to be a critical component of personal well being, whether in our role as parents or any of our important relationships. By regularly suppressing negative feelings when we interact with our kids, we seem to lay the foundation for a less satisfying parenting experience.

In addition, suppressing negative emotion requires effort, which researchers suspect may deplete our emotional and energy resources. Depleted in this way, we may be compromised in our ability to effectively meet our children’s needs.

Better to strive for a modulated middle ground — without excessive volume or drama, without allowing our anger to burst forth suddenly and without restraint — so that we can say “I’m frustrated” or “I’m angry” or “I’m upset with you right now.” Our children seem better off — and so are we — when we bring emotional honesty to the challenging task of guiding our kids along a smart and healthy path.

i Le, Bonnie M. & Impett, E. “The costs of suppressing negative emotions and amplifying positive emotions during parental caregiving.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. March 2016 (42,3) 323336.
ii English, T., & John, O. P. “Understanding the social effects of emotion regulation: The mediating role of authenticity for individual differences in suppression. Emotion, 2013,13, 314-329. doi:10.1037/a0029847


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