When is it okay to tell your child to stop crying?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

A generation or two ago, it was normal for a parent to come out with quips like, "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about" – but these days we're all about allowing children to express their emotions.

It is certainly a healthier approach, but if you've got a child who cries a lot, you could be forgiven for feeling at your wits' end as you allow them to "express their emotions" several times every day. 

As author Michael Gurian wrote in a Psychology Today article, "Constant suppression of a child's emotional life is harmful; crying and expressing feelings are important social-emotional skills."

But he also points out that teaching a child to channel their emotions into more constructive behaviour can also be helpful.

"While 'Stop crying!' can be used too harshly and too often, still, this parenting/social-emotional strategy can also build resilience, strength, and social adaptation," he says.

Australian psychologist Donna Cameron agrees. Although she agrees that children's emotions should be validated, it's important as parents to understand why our child is crying. 

"It very easy to tell our kids to stop crying as to us, the parent, what they are crying about is often a very small issue, but remember to them at that point of time it is very important in their world and for their age," she says.  

Cameron says that instead of telling a child to "stop crying" she has found the best results come from validating the emotion and then offering strategies to release the emotions.

"It is perfectly ok to give a child other options to release their emotions, so instead of saying 'stop crying', you could say, 'I can see you are really upset about this; do you want a cuddle or how about we put on some music to listen to.'"  

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Cameron says that as parents we can usually see the difference between a tantrum and genuine emotional upset. 

"If a child is having a temper tantrum because they are not allowed the iPad, you as a parent will know that these tears are very different from the tears of a child worried about something like starting at kindy for the first time. 

"In these situations you can still validate the emotion while also maintaining your parenting. You could say, 'I know you are upset, but these are the rules' – then use a time-out strategy  to help teach your child how to self-regulate their emotions."  

Cameron says as parents it's up to us to model positive emotion management.

"Teach them about all the emotions including happy, sad, anger and worry, just like you would teach them their colours and their numbers," she says. 

"Talk to them about strategies for all the emotions such as cuddling a teddy bear when they are sad, kicking a ball when they are angry or drawing when they are nervous. Then, when we see our children expressing an emotion encourage them to go and try out one of these techniques."

It's also important for parents not to hide their emotions from their children, says Cameron.

"Parents need to let their children see that they also have emotions and that they use their own strategies to release their emotions," she says. 

"Clients who come to me as adults saying that they never saw any emotions in their parents often do not have good emotional regulation themselves! So don't hide your emotions; if you are sad and your child sees you crying just tell them you are sad and are going to have a nice hot shower to help you feel better, or if you are angry tell them that you are feeling angry so you are going for a walk.  Children can then learn that emotions are completely normal." 

Cameron says it's important to remember that, as adults, we are good at using our words to communicate our feelings, but often for children, crying is their way doing the same. But she says it's important to allow children to express their emotions.

"Emotion health is often ignored," she says. "Many of us do not take the time to listen to our emotions and release them. This causes our emotions to build up and eventually explode.  

"My recommendations for my clients is to acknowledge the emotion they are feeling, release the emotion and then problem solve the situation if you can."

"Crying and expressing feelings are important social-emotional skills."