It might sound counterintuitive but earlier this year mother Katie M. McLaughlin described a profound learning moment she experienced when her four-year-old son burst into tears.
The source of the upset? His favourite stuffed toy, whom he’d slept with every night since infancy, was sitting in the back of a relative’s car well on its way across the country. Now, while this is enough to make any child head straight for the waterworks, on her blog, Pick Any Two, Katie describes the incident as an enlightening one.
As a parent, she argues, it’s not her job to stop her child’s tears. Instead she recalls an analogy she once heard in therapy describing emotions as a tunnel.
"Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are trains traveling through them," Katie explains, "we have to move all the way through the darkness to get to the calm, peaceful light at the end of the tunnel."
This is where well-meaning parents tend to go wrong, she says. They "often attempt to intercept our children on their journey through an emotional tunnel." She could’ve told her son that he would get his favourite toy back the next day, for example, or that one of his many other toys would be a worthy replacement.
Yet in doing so she would be halting the natural course of her child’s emotions when parents should be allowing their kids to feel fully – both good and bad - and not sending a message that it’s wrong to be saddened by painful moments. She goes on to explain:
"So often when our kids are struggling with a difficult feeling—sadness, anger, fear, embarrassment, loneliness, guilt—we try to logic them out of it. We explain why they’re overreacting, or how we know it will turn out just fine in the end.
"We’re trying to help our children, of course, but if we peel back the layers a bit, I think we’ll find that what we’re really doing is trying to make ourselves feel better. Because our children’s pain hurts us so deeply, makes us so acutely uncomfortable."
"We’re trying to help our children, but if we peel back the layers a bit, I think we’ll find that what we’re really doing is trying to make ourselves feel better."
Instead of stopping our children midway through the tunnel, or even trying to keep them from entering it altogether, our role as parents is to comfort them as they travel on through to the other side.
In practice what did this look like for Katie and her son?
Well, for the first time she let him cry through his pain, offering him physical comfort through cuddles, but didn’t try to silence him with any platitudes. Eventually, he stopped crying on his own, and became distracted by a book.
The whole process had taken about eight minutes.
That evening Katie asked him how they could plan to get through the tough bedtime in the absence of his stuffed animal and, she argues, because she’d let him process his pain, he was able to calmly select two toys to sleep with instead and request extra bedtime stories to help him cope. Despite his certainty that he couldn’t sleep without the adored toy earlier that day, he slept soundly.
Of course this approach is not a new one and allowing children their tears is essential according to UK-qualified midwife Julie Mallon, who works for the UAE-based childcare and parenting-support service Babies and Beyond. She argues that, when used at appropriate ages, letting your children cry can help them avoid developing emotional problems in later life. Watch her talking about it here:
And even the founder of gentleparenting.co.uk, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, advocates for the necessity of children crying. She calls it the 'Crying in Arms' technique, which is wholly different to the 'Crying it Out' strategy. In the latter there is some expectation for children to console themselves - a method that remains controversial among the Gentle and Attachment parenting community - but in the first communication is key and parents focus on comforting children without ignoring their very real needs.
To Katie’s mind, the most important outcome of the entire incident with her son was building resilience.
If she’d driven miles to collect the toy right that moment she’d simply have been postponing her son’s sadness until another time when they couldn’t find it, and if she’d told him not to get upset then she’d have been telling him his feelings didn’t matter.
But letting him experience the panic and fear, being with him while he goes through it, instils in him confidence that the next time he feels that way, he’ll survive.
That’s why, Katie argues, "tears are a sign of parental success, not failure."
So next time your toddler gets dewy eyed, consider Katie’s breakdown of parenting dos for distraught little ones:
- Provide comfort through the frustration.
- Draw out your child’s cleansing tears.
- Show empathy to your child’s struggle.
- Allow the life lesson to be learned naturally — not through preaching.
- Support your child’s journey through the emotional tunnel.
And remember not to feel like a failure while they travel through the tunnel to the other side.