Cry me a river (or at least a puddle)!

I LOVE a good cry!

Why? Because after (many, many) years, I have learned to embrace my emotions. To really understand and accept all of them and the information they give me.

I ably demonstrated my love of crying just a couple of days ago as I watched Mama Mia 2. This film had the ability to parachute me into emotional aspects of my past, present and future in one hit. Whilst also feeling a significant amount of empathy for the characters on screen. I found the whole experience very cathartic and quite exhausting. As I wandered out of the cinema looking like I was ready for undercover combat (must buy waterproof mascara), my friend turned and said “thank goodness you cried too, I would have felt so embarrassed if it was just me getting over emotional”.

This comment got me thinking. When were we taught that showing our emotions is considered being “over emotional”?

There seems to be a threshold in which many parents are willing to accept crying from their child. We know in the first few months babies cry to communicate their basic needs, however once we start to learn how to communicate using language, we tend to expect our children to stop crying and communicate verbally. Maybe this is because we’ve had enough of the crying day in, day out or maybe it’s because we expect them to immediately understand the depth of feeling behind the words as soon as they learn to say ‘sad’ & ‘happy’.

Here’s where I believe the problem lies… we’re often not giving enough time or support to understand and process the depth of our feelings.

Most of the time parents view crying or emotional outbursts from their own perspective. We feel guilty that our child is crying and feel we should’ve done everything in our power to make sure they didn’t get hurt or upset. Or we feel we should be able to fix the problem immediately. Or we’ve become accustomed to the ability to stop the crying with a practical activity – change a nappy, feed, rock to sleep, etc. etc.
We also check in our own databank of experience and knowledge and understand that most problems can be fixed, that crying doesn’t help when we’ve spilled the proverbial milk but that a cloth and cleaner will. So, we expect to be able to convey this information onto our children with well known phrases like….

“Please don’t cry.”
“There’s no need to cry.”
“There’s nothing to get upset about”

Even though we know having someone tell us to stop crying doesn’t fix the underlying problem, we still feel the need to say it, in the hope we can make the tears and the emotions go away.

In my formative years, I used to cry a lot!! I had a lot of mixed up and misplaced emotions and I didn’t have a clue how to deal with them. I often heard the frustrated phrase “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.” How many of you are familiar with that one?

Did it help? Did you manage to hold back the tears at the thought of the “something” you were going to face or, like me, did you cry even more? For me the idea of the “something” coming my way and the original problem were enough for me take crying to a whole new level.

Being told not to cry doesn’t help us. Why? Because we’re not sitting consciously thinking “I need to cry now” (unless of course we’re using crocodile tears style manipulation), crying is triggered by unconscious emotions.

In short, you feel an emotion, the message gets sent via your nervous system to the bit that controls tear activity and you start to tear up. The amount of tears you produce is generally in line with the ‘size’ of the emotion you’re feeling.

Crying helps.
It helps us to identify there is an emotional reaction to a situation. Once we spend time identifying the emotion effectively, we’re able to move on from it.
The act of crying gives us the opportunity to release the emotion and naturally soothe ourselves – did you know crying contains a natural painkiller (Leucine enkephalin)?

So, how can we help our children to understand and embrace crying without turning them into crying machines who cry at the drop of a hat (literally the drop of a hat, or toy, or anything that can be dropped really). We help them understand their emotions…

Empathise (see the problem from their perspective). What could seem like a tiny insignificant action in your day could seem like a massive deal in theirs. Remember too they have very limited knowledge of their feelings at a young age, they may generalise many emotions under sad & happy until they start to get to grips with more complex emotions.
Help them identify the feeling. Acknowledge the feeling they have identified and then help them add feelings to their repertoire by being more specific, e.g. “I can understand how frustrated you feel when things didn’t go how you planned”, or, “I can understand you feel sad you can’t have the toy you want”.
Give them time to feel the emotion and self soothe. This may mean they need to cry it out. Let them know, through words, tone and body language that it’s okay.
Help them find a useful alternative (if one is available*), e.g. “Let’s look at how you can do that differently to make it work even better next time” or “Let’s put it on your wish list so you can buy it for yourself when you’ve saved your allowance or we can ask Santa for it”.

*Remember a solution isn’t always available, sometimes we just need to fully embrace a feeling and that’s okay.

Debbie K is an NLP4Kids practitioner working with children and parents in Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire. She’s also the author of the Feelings Basket series of books.

For more information on how to help your children navigate their emotions more effectively, contact or call 07747 090871.

It’s only when we’re truly able to acknowledge our feelings are we able to let them go and move on.