It’s no secret that hearing our kids cry makes us uncomfortable. Just think about how anxious you feel when your little one tears up without an obvious reason. We know that a newborn’s main way to communicate is to cry, yet we still look at it as something to be “fixed”. Once that infant becomes a walking, talking toddler, we sometimes expect them to process emotion the way we do, rather than the way they have always done: through crying.
In fact, studies have found that our brains are hard-wired to have an instant reaction to a crying child, making us more attentive and ready to help — and fast! A crying infant triggers our fight or fight response, increasing our heart rate and pushing us into action… even if that child is not our own.
It seems we have to react to a crying toddler, but how?
Your Crying Toddler Is Not Necessarily Sad
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. The trouble is, they may also lack the verbal ability and self-awareness to explain how they’re feeling. This means asking them, “What’s wrong?” will rarely yield a productive response.
Saying “Don’t Cry!” Makes Life Harder For You
You may think that making the crying stop will also stop your child (and your heart!) from hurting, but when you tell your toddler, “Stop crying!” or “Don’t cry!” they’ll immediately think that you don’t understand how they’re feeling. Their message is therefore likely to become louder and more persistent.
By asking or telling them to “stop,” you’re also telling your child that their emotions are invalid and unimportant. Regardless of how trivial the reason may seem to you, your failure to acknowledge how they are feeling in that moment deprives both of you of the opportunity to learn how to process that emotion in a more positive way.
Our goal as parents, no matter how tricky it can seem, is to support our little one’s development of emotional self-regulation — something we can only do when we treat them with empathy and understanding.
As Tempting as it is, Don’t Distract
Many of us view distraction as the ultimate tool in our emotional arsenal. Figuring that if we can distract our crying toddler from whatever it is they are crying about, we can stop the crying altogether. We’ve all dangled a favorite toy in front of tear-streaked faces or sung a song through clenched teeth in high-pitched desperation! Sadly though, distraction misses an opportunity to connect with your child and teach them how to deal with their emotions.
Yes, if he’s fighting over a toy with another child, distracting your boy with a second toy is completely appropriate. But if your child is crying because you helped them put their shoes on instead of letting them do it by themselves, distraction is likely to only make them respond louder and more fervently in order to be heard.
It’s true that sometimes 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 in a more positive way in the future.
What to Say
The next time you’re faced with a crying toddler, try to take a moment to make sure you are calm. If you’re angry, stressed or frustrated, the things that you say will just add to your toddler’s distress. Take a breath or two, acknowledge how you’re feeling, focus on what’s going on inside your body (your heart may be beating a little faster; your jaw may be clenched; you may be feeling tense) and, when you’re ready, use a low voice, and try these 10 alternatives:
- “We’re on the same team. I will help you.” Even if your child says they do not want your help, they do want to feel as though you will back them up when they need you.
- “I can see this is hard for you.” This simple phrase acknowledges that you hear and see them.
- “I understand you’re sad/disappointed/scared/anxious/happy and that’s OK.” Reinforce the notion that feeling an emotion is what makes us human.
- “That was really sad/frustrating/disappointing.” Acknowledging the event that triggered your child’s crying helps them also see what triggered their emotion and figure out what to do next.
- “Let’s take a break.” Removing you both from the situation helps your toddler understand that sometimes you need to walk away in order to compose yourself. Your child may legitimately be tired or over-stimulated and simply need to have time in a quiet, soothing place before rejoining the activity.
- “I love you. You are safe.” This invites connection with your child rather than separation. They may need a hug, a snuggle, or to hold your hand in order to feel that you are indeed there to help them.
- “Would you like help/a break/to try again?” Many times when your child cries out of frustration, they need one of three things: help performing the task, a break from the emotional situation, or to try to do the task again, possibly with assistance. Asking them, not telling them, what they would like empowers your child, helping them to feel important and significant.
- “I can hear you are crying, but I don’t know what you need. Can you help me understand?” Even if your child cannot verbalize why they are crying at first, this can give them a chance to practice.
- “I remember when you…” While it may seem like a distraction technique, helping them recall a time when they felt happy and peaceful helps prepare their brain for rational thought. Trying to reason with a toddler who is in a highly emotional state is kind of like negotiating with a tiny dictator. They are not prepared to listen to reason when they are in the midst of feeling helpless or angry or sad or exhausted.
- “Let’s come up with a solution together.” Ultimately we want to help our children to develop problem-solving skills. Coming up with a solution that will help process their emotions teaches them how to look at the situation objectively and come up with possible solutions.
- Maintain silence and hold loving space for your crying child. Be a pillar of empathy and strength for them.
28 thoughts on “What to Say to A Crying Child: 11 Things To Say”
In my own personal experience, a crying child CANNOT stop crying when the parent demands that they do. My mom used to get angry when I couldn’t stop and it made it much worse. In her eyes I was wrong, she was right, and anything I had to say was only an alibi. Then I’d get sent to my room for what seemed like hours, which set up a massive case of self-pity. (I was her only child.) Bad news.
I don’t forget the time my dad found me crying (I’d gotten a sad letter from a friend). He didn’t say anything, just brought me a cold hot dog and left me alone. I have always appreciated it!
Great ideas. So important to allow feelings. Most people never got a chance to know that it is ok to cry!!!
Young children do not have the ability to process language while actually upset and crying, brain development when dealing with strong emotions activates the amygdala. You are better off soothing the child through close contact, soft singing, or just waiting it out before trying these talking points. Then yes, conflict resolution is the key to behavior learning and can be supported by age 3 if not sooner.
Kids forget to use their words..that is why they wine and cry…remind them to use their words…
GoZEN, words of wisdom indeed.
Lots of kids don’t have the words they would need to actually express themselves verbally. (I think lots of adults suffer from this too). Just noticing that the adult is attending and listening, and experiencing supportive closeness often stops a young child’s crying.. Or just saying simply to the child, “I think you must be sad, or scared.” Works like magic, and everybody feels better.
Yes,we must handle them with diplomacy,not tactlessly!
I work with young children with ASD and these methods are all relatable to my classroom. I would just add, sometimes patience and letting them cry it out is also helpful.
Acknowledging feelings is the best thing to do to validate that It is OK to have the feelings that if making the children cry in the 1st place. One of my pet peeves is when I hear adults til children that are crying that “you’re OK”, In hopes to get them to stop crying. To me that sends mix messages to the child, because they are thinking, “if this is OK then I don’t want any parts of OK, because I don’t feel OK or I would not be crying so why are they telling me I’m OK?”
Great ideas. I have learnd alot from them.
Nice beautiful article. Now i understand what is the meaning of cry.
Empowering parents to take control of upsetting situations through empathetic dialogue :). Excellent article!
Thank you for all of your input! When it says, “The next time you’re faced with a crying toddler, try to take a moment to make sure you are calm.” It reminded me of prayer and how that has always helped me in the past to be calm. I do not have any kids in my house yet, nor a family of my own, but I dream of that day and look forward to all the trials that come with it.
Should a Pre School Teacher take two twins out of classroom because they are both crying and separate them from the other children?
I’m a 10 year old girl and I’ve been crying nonstop today. I don’t know the reason at all. I mean, I listened to a song earlier, and this one part makes me emotional, and it keeps replaying in my head, but I don’t think that’s it. Heck, I’m even crying typing this. What should I do? Why do you think I’m crying?
I’m ten to, and it might just be when your ten you don’t know your your place in life. Also the song might remind you of something sad but you can’t remember what.
i´m 9 and i still don´t know where i belong it´s like i don´t belong where i am i just doesn´t fell right here something out of place
I been at that place I’m 26 now My name is Naylene if you ever need somebody to talk to I’m here. I know life seems hard now but I wish I would have taken the the out to enjoy my younger years
Hang in there! Life can be quite overwhelming. Take each day as it comes and surround yourself with those who love you and things that bring you joy! Wishing you lots of happiness and peace
I think crying is an emotional outlet. I have always cried all my life. But, I would cry deeply all day and sob at times. It could be a story I read or a picture I’m watching. After a good cry, I feel better. But I’m a grown woman. What would make a 17 year old boy cry? Is it emotional ? He will cry when he is frightened.
Could someone elaborate on “hold loving space,” please?
I’m not sure what a loving space is but I used to hold my children close whenever they were upset or crying, usually also talk very quietly and say whatever words came to mind even if they didn’t make sense it always worked. Perhaps they were just trying to make some sense of what I was saying though !!
I want to order this poster but cannot figure out how to do it on the site. Can someone please help me? This the second time I have asked for help. I need explicit instructions- just telling me it is for sale on the site is not helpful.
Hi Marta, there is no poster for sale–you can just print out the image in the article above. It’s designed to fit on a single sheet of paper.
hi i like your story about cry toddlers and emotion
A very helpful post to handle the crying kid. When the kids are crying. we parents either get tensed or yell at them to stop crying. Thank you for the very helpful post. This truly will be in the mind from now on.
awesome it was so helpful
im new to all this parenting thing so this really helped me and now my son knows he can count on me and when he sees me cry he hugs me and say’s mom i love you you are safe in a cute little voice and i just love it
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