It’s OK to Cry

August 7, 2012 at 6:55 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)

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.


  1. valleygirl said,

    Hm, I suppose it depends to me on WHY they are crying. For us we teach our kids to deal with the situations they are in in an age appropriate manner. It is not acceptable to me that my 5 year old runs upstairs crying and yelling because she lost at a game. I understand the sadness that might come as she processes how things didn’t turn out as she hoped but I am not willing to allow her to feel that her response is appropriate or warranted because it’s not. No I am not her and no I don’t feel what she feels but I still think that we ought to encourage appropriate ways to express our emotions and going off the deep end and wailing to me, is not.

    • Joshua Koepp said,

      Valleygirl, how is “appropriate” determined? Some define it as what is appropriate in a social setting, which is usually determined by what embarrasses us. Some define it developmentally. Some define it by where the child is at and what they need to do to process. It could be that the best measure of what is appropriate is from the child. If she is able to reflect on it and think, “Whoa, I’m too big to act like that. I think I’ll let it go,” then growth happens. If her processing says, “Acting like that makes mommy mad,” it will be something different. The question becomes: How do we facilitate developmentally appropriate reflection.

    • Kelly said,

      It has to do with the maturity of the brain. At this young of an age, the connections between the midbrain (emotional center) and the frontal cortex (logic, reason, ‘appropriate’ behavior) are still *very* immature. Kids are really just starting this development.

      The emotions are strong and the child’s brain simply does not have the capacity for regulation when it is in “flipped lid” mode. The fight-or-flight reflex has activated and parasympathetic nervous system has taken over. “Appropriateness” only occurs after the brain has returned to resting/ recovered/ “closed lid” state. *This* is what we aim to teach kids…not necessarily how to suppress their emotions and behave appropriately in the face of adversity, but how to recognize their emotions and move through the stages of processing. Appropriateness in this example (of losing) *is* going upstairs to process as much as she needs to without hurting other people, either verbally or physically. Crying and venting, as over-the-top as it may seem, is much more appropriate that lashing out physically or yelling hurtful words.

      So, your daughter stomping off to her room and crying is exactly the kind of thing that will help her get better at losing games. But it will take TIME. She needs to be able to process those big feelings, get to the point of futility over her loss of the game, and develop that ‘work-around’ regarding competitive loss. Shell get there! Give her time to react, be ridiculously mad, cry, then recover, calm down, and close her flipped lid. THEN you can come together and be rational, talk about games, winning, losing, reactions, brainstorm what to do next time. And then you try it again next time. And the next time and the next time. As her brian matures, so will her reactions.

      (Also, some kids feel competitiveness and loss much more intensely than others. So while her reaction may seem WAY over the top to you, it feels very right to her. (My son is the VERY same way! 🙂 It helps me when I remind myself of our competitive differences and that we are going to have different responses that feel appropriate.))

      • valleygirl said,

        I guess I should have explained more. My children can usually process outwardly through talk as we do that a lot. We talk. We process. We sympathize. And when I can call my daughter back from running and stomping up the stairs and remind he, “Wait a minute, what are you doing?” then it triggers her to stop, slow down and sit. Sometimes she will continue to cry and that is fine with me. But we talk it through. We discuss that games are fun and it’s ok to be sad about losing but that there is no reason to leave the family like that. So as always, you have given me much to think about. And I will. I do not want to hinder her processing. And I do not see her reacting like that 100% of the time, I can usually tell it’s when she is over tired or hasn’t gotten any quiet/down time so I read those signals when I can. But I don’t know….I see what you’re saying by what is overreacting to me might not be to her and I need to digest that for a bit. But I can’t help but wonder then do we end up with 15 year olds that think it’s ok to slam doors and throw things in their room to “process” their emotions because we have allowed them to as children? That doesn’t sit well with me. When do we draw the line?

        • Kelly said,

          I see what you’re saying! And yes, that’s a fine line to draw. I didn’t include in this post anything in addition to crying, I was simply focusing on crying itself–and that that’s OK. So there are certainly other “stress relievers” that may accompany a child’s crying such as hitting, kicking, slamming doors, throwing/ breaking objects, etc, as you said. And, like you say, this is what you work on with your kids about where to draw the line. What’s acceptable, what’s not, we teach kids how to manage their very physical reactions to upset. But crying–just crying–over anything (whether or not we agree) is normal, natural & healthy.

  2. Great Post from Parenting from Scratch « Fiddlehouse Dad said,

    […] of social/peer disapproval. I’ll let you read it from the author by following this link to It’s OK to Cry. One of the thing that I love the most about this perspective is that it doesn’t pamper […]

  3. Positive Parenting Connection said,

    And we agree again 😉 I like what Larry Cohen said in one of his books (or article don’t remember exactly…) that a child and his cries are often on a different time table than our own, so I like to remind myself of that when I think it’s been “long enough”. this also reminds me of a post I wrote about acceptance and how children often just need to know that whatever they are feeling, we are still there to love and accept them. Great post!!

  4. abundantlifechildren said,

    Thank you so much for this! Do you have any book recommendations about the brain and crying?

  5. Katherine Collmer said,

    Great post and a great discussion! And just one more thought, so maybe we can relate to a child’s need to “cry-it-out” a bit better. The chemicals that are released when we cry assist us in letting go of the stress, grief, fear or whatever was the springboard for the tears. Sometimes those tears don’t come for adults for a long while – and sometimes we hold them back. But, it seems that for most people, letting go of some tears helps to set us back on track, as Kelly said, reset our heads. Thanks for this great post and the opportunity to contribute a bit of my thoughts as well.

    • Kelly said,

      Thanks, Katherine! It really is about brain chemistry, which is so hard to understand. Thanks for your clarifying comment.

  6. » Sharing Sunday Positive Parenting Connection said,

    […] It’s Ok to Cry by Kelly Bartlett of Parenting From Scratch […]

  7. Kelly said,

    It’s interesting…I just had a similar conversation with another parent about fake cries! And yes, they’re definitely different than genuine tears of hurt, anger, frustration…emotions that are coming from a much deeper place.

    I didn’t really clarify, but the purpose of this post was to emphasize the importance of “real” tears as a regulatory body function, how important they are for a young child to develop resiliency, and how parents can play a role in that development by accepting them unconditionally. I see this as different from whining, complaining, ‘manufactured’ tears, or other types of expressive behavior.

    But, in thinking more about fake (or maybe a more accurate word is ‘forced’?) crying, what if you didn’t try to stop even the fake tears? What if you acknowledged them as what they are–a sign of disappointment–and still stayed firm on your answer of “No”? I don’t think it’s necessarily manipulative behavior unless we let it be. So, an exchange might go something like this:

    Child: I want to ___ (have candy/ play at a friend’s house/ watch TV/ etc).
    Parent: No, it’s not a good time for that right now.
    Child: [starts whining or forcing some fake crying] But why!? I want to!! (General complaints, etc.)
    Parent: Yeah, I know you don’t like that answer.
    Child: [fake cries, more protests]
    Parent: You’re angry that you can’t ____.
    Child: [crying, anger, pleas, etc.]
    Parent: You’re upset that the answer is no, that’s OK. It’s OK to be mad about that.

    You don’t need to rationalize your “no,” argue back to the child, or try to convince her to understand your logic. You’re just stating the limit, sticking to it, and acknowledging & accepting her feelings about it.

    The child’s tears may be fake at first, but they’re still a sign that she is upset and angry, and THAT part is OK. You’re sending the message that her anger is normal and you understand…AND it’s not going to change your mind. You understand her feelings, AND the answer is still no. It’s that balance of kindness (empathizing with her feelings) and firmness (not being manipulated) coming together.

    It is at this point that the tears may stop (if the issue wasn’t that big of a deal in the first place and she’s just decided to accept it), or they may escalate into bigger, louder, perhaps more “real” tears. At which point, you’d do the same thing: offer your genuine empathy and acceptance and perhaps also offer (non-punitively) a place to cry as loudly as she needs to (if she is disturbing others). He brain will still get to the point of futility about the issue of the “No” and develop that ‘work-around,’ that resiliency.

    But the most important thing is to send the message that her tears (or “tears”) are OK, as they are an indication of her feelings (which are always OK).

    • Katherine Collmer said,

      Kelly, sorry! My last comment was entered under Grammie – a blog I no longer update! Sorry, it should have been my Handwriting With Katherine Website. Ugh!

  8. How to be a “Conflict Lightening Rod”, and Why You’d Want the Job « Abundant Life Children said,

    […] deep inside, finding unhealthy ways out later in life.  Thanks to advice from Kelly Bartlett of Parenting from Scratch, I am nearly half way through The Science of Parenting.  Oh, how a little science serves to make […]

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