The other day we were outside at a public place when JJ had a meltdown. He got angry and upset over something and began to cry loudly. I didn’t try to shush him.
It seemed like every person around turned to look at him and then up at me. They were asking me with their eyes, “Is he OK?” and, “Aren’t you going to do something?”
And the answers were: No, he’s not OK right now. And no, I’m not going to do anything about it.
I was there with him as we walked together, and that was enough. My presence added a necessary stability to his world, and my body was available for a touch, a lean, an arm-wrap, a hug, or a hand-hold if he needed it. The rest of his processing and recovery was up to him. It was his problem; they were his feelings.
Tears are what happen when the brain shifts from a state of stress to a state of recovery. They indicate that a child has moved out of problem-solving mode (acknowledgement of a problem) and into futility mode (acceptance of the problem). It’s an emotional release that occurs as the nervous system undergoes a shift from sympathetic (regulatory functioning: maintenance of the body in action) to parasympathetic (responsive functioning: maintenance of the body at rest). Tears are a body’s route to recovery; the return to a state of rest.
Tears need to play out fully for healthy growth to occur. During times of adversity, a child’s brain needs to go through each stage of processing in order to develop its resiliency “muscles”: acknowledgement of the problem, emotional response to the problem, acceptance along with an emotional release, and finally a return to homeostasis. The brain develops a ‘work-around’ to hardship.
All this to say: It’s OK to cry.
It’s great to tell kids, “It’s OK to cry.” It’s even better to show them how OK it really is by letting them cry and accepting their tears as part of healthy child development. In other words, by not shushing. Tears indicate the brain’s shift from stress to recovery. Kids need to be able to recover for as long as it takes.
Tears in the face of adversity are not evidence of spoiled behavior, they’re the very things that are making children strong.