As a preschool director, I see a lot of tears, particularly during the first few weeks of school. For the first time, kids are going through an extended period of separation from their parents. This is a formative stage when kids are learning that they can be part of a group outside the family.
During these transitional days, preschoolers begin to discover how to cope with separation, anxiety, loss and change. These are skills and techniques they will need throughout their lives. Finding resources within themselves and comfort in others is an important emotional task for children. While parents are justifiably protective of their children, they often fail to realize that kids have great resilience and access to coping strategies.
One thing I notice is that children have easy access to tears. Most adults cringe when they see little ones crying, and often try to stop them. In my opinion, however, tears are one of the best coping strategies. Children should be allowed to cry. Crying is a socially adaptive skill particular to humans, and it has many benefits.
- Crying releases tension. Keeping feelings of anxiety, fear, anger or loneliness inside is like holding a beach ball underwater. You are probably holding your breath, your forehead is contracted, your shoulders are pulled up, and your body is rigid and on guard. Once you cry, your lungs expand and fill with oxygen. When your crying bout is over, your breathing returns to a healthy rhythm. The louder you cry the better, as this is an emotional release that reaches down to your toes. After you cry, your eyes sparkle and your muscles relax.
- Crying draws people to you. I have observed that the most popular children are the ones who show their feelings openly. Other children often come over to comfort the crying child. They trust the child who cries because “what you see is what you get.” Strong bonds are created this way.
- Crying helps other people. When a child is too tense to cry, he or she can relate to the person who has cried and feel grateful that an unspoken feeling is being expressed. It shows the fearful child that he or she isn’t the only one to have the urge to shed tears.
- Crying tests the teachers. Children observe how teachers react to their tears and to the tears of their friends. Once kids see that teachers have passed the test, given hugs or encouraged the crying child to seek comfort from friends, kids know they are in good hands and they can trust instructors.
How to Handle Crying
Some children just want to be held and understood. They appreciate that someone knows what they are feeling. Parents and teachers often say, “I know how you feel.” Even if they are crying loudly, these kids hear our words. Some want to be left alone. These children resist being comforted. They prefer to stand in a safe place, such as partially hidden behind a piece of furniture. They go in and out of a crying bout, processing their feelings, spending time observing others playing and crying again. Other kids have the urge to cry until they are unable to stop. These children may need a fun distraction, a job helping the teacher, water or sand play, something sensory to focus on or make them laugh. These are individual styles of adjusting to change and separation, and they all need to be respected. One child may employ a number of these coping mechanisms.
What Not to Do
Never tell a child, “Stop crying; you’re OK.” Also refrain from saying, “Crying will make your eyes red and make you look bad in front of others.” Abstain from trying to distract your child from crying unless you have tried everything else and he is making himself ill. Likewise, never say: “I don’t know what’s wrong with you” or “I don’t know why you’re making a big fuss.”
Crying can be a form of self-soothing if not done to the extremes. We should allow children to seek solace if they are not hurting themselves or others with an occasional crying episode.
It’s worth mentioning that some people cry because they are lonely or sad. Everyone cries sometimes, and it is acceptable to cry. We read books about crying and separation. Children relate to these symbolic representations and often play out their feelings in dramatic scenarios with toys. We can enter their play and let them lead us while they use play to help themselves cope.
Parents also need to allow themselves to shed some tears. Letting go of your child for the first time brings up many deep feelings. Acknowledging our own emotions helps in accepting the tears of the child and recognizing the beauty in this wonderful coping strategy that makes us truly human.