We’ve all been there: your toddler’s sobbing because their strawberries are being served in a bowl rather than on a plate, or you’re playing in the park and they start crying over a microscopic scratch. It’s natural to respond by saying “don’t cry, you’re ok.”
It’s a fact of life: babies and toddlers cry. The reasons they cry change as they get older, and so do our reactions. We tend to be more forgiving of infants (although a colicky baby can put anyone’s patience to the test), as we know that crying is one of their only ways to communicate.
Once kids start to walk, talk, listen, and follow simple directions, adults can become less accepting of crying. Parents naturally want to prepare their children for the world beyond home, and sometimes we react as though expressing negative emotions is a sign of weakness.
Crying can be a way of processing any strong emotion. Toddlers, of course, cry when they’re sad, but they might also cry when they encounter something new, confusing, unexpected, or difficult.
Here are some ways to help your toddler work through big feelings without telling them to stop crying:
Validate & empathize
A simple step is to just say “I can tell you’re upset” or “that looks really frustrating for you and I can see why.” It may help and it shows you care. At this age, your toddler is crying for a reason, even if it doesn’t make much sense to you.
Notice how you are feeling when your toddler starts crying. We may tell our toddlers to stop because we’re frustrated or out of time and patience. Watching our reactions can be an instructive way to tap into our own empathy.
Finding the patience to listen to your toddler struggle to communicate with you in a difficult moment can be hard, but even with a limited vocabulary, they want to tell you about their feelings. Some of it may come in the form of words, some from body language and other cues.
Your toddler is starting to remember more and more. A day after a tough episode, revisit it when your toddler’s in a calmer state: “remember when you were so sad yesterday?”