How to Comfort Your Kid's Tears, No Matter Their Age
Not all babies cry with their first breath, but many do — and for some parents, it might feel as if the tears don’t stop for years. But it’s normal for kids of all ages to cry. They might be hungry, tired, sick, uncomfortable or in pain. They might need attention or affection. They might not be able to talk yet, or simply unable to find the words to tell you what’s wrong.
From tiny tots to teens, here are the most common reasons kids cry, and what you can do to help.
Why Do Babies Cry?
Until babies can talk, crying is the main way they get attention and express themselves. This means they cry for lots of different reasons, including sleepiness or fatigue, hunger, pain, overstimulation from activity or noise, stranger anxiety and needing a diaper change.
Over time, it gets easier to interpret a baby’s different cries.
Pro Tip: Try a Process of Elimination
Often, soothing a crying baby is a process of elimination to figure out what they need: A diaper change? A feed? Comfort? “Tears from a baby are sad, scared, angry or hurt,” says Psychologist Margaret Ann Dixon, who recommends starting with physical comforting.
Often, a cuddle and soft words will help to soothe a crying baby. When it comes to an overstimulated baby, every tot is different — massage, cuddles and some downtime in a quiet room are all things you can try to stop their tears.
Is My Baby Colicky?
Colic, still something of a mystery to the medical profession, is a general term used for otherwise healthy, well-fed babies who cry more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks. Some experts think colic, which affects one in five babies, could be connected to the development of the baby’s intestinal system or linked to food allergies or acid reflux (GERD).
Colic is characterized by high-pitched crying that may start out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, combined with certain physical signs: a stiff body, clenched fists, bent legs and a hard belly. A colicky baby can be very difficult to console, which can be a huge source of frustration and worry — not to mention exhaustion — for parents.
Pro Tip: Do Your Research
According to WebMD, colic almost always goes away on its own by three or four months, but that can feel like a lifetime with a baby who cries nonstop for three hours a day. In the meantime, more sympathetic doctors may recommend Mylicon (simethicone) drops or gripe water.
Parents of colicky babies should ask for as much help as possible to get through this testing time — from their partners, family and friends as well as medical professionals.
More Tips: On Handling Your Baby's Tears
Often, it’s the simple things that stop a baby from crying. Put them in a pram, sling or carrier and go for a walk. If you’re not too tired, take them for a drive in the car. If your baby tends to get fussy and cry at the same time every day, ask a friend or relative to be there to help you out and lend some emotional support.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, put your baby somewhere safe and take a break for a few minutes. Letting your baby cry for a moment won’t do them any harm, and taking a short breather can help you control your emotions and focus on what to do next. Remember, it’s always OK to ask for help.
Why Do Toddlers Cry?
Like babies, toddlers have certain basic needs to be taken care of, and meeting those needs is often all that’s required to settle an upset child. If your toddler is fed, well-rested, dry and comfortable, soothing them requires a little more effort.
A toddler may cry because they are sad, scared, angry or hurt, but their tears may serve quite a different purpose: controlling their parent or caregiver. For example, a toddler may cry if they want their parent's phone.
Pro Tip: Investigate the Source of Emotions
Gentle words, a cuddle and displays of affection help comfort toddlers. “By the toddler stage, your child can understand language and communication, so your soothing words count,” says Psychologist Dr. John Mayer. “You can also now use these words to investigate the source of their emotions.”
Dixon warns against giving into pleading and demanding crying. “‘This can be a step toward reinforcement of problem behaviors,” she warns. “If you are feeling manipulated or embarrassed by your child's crying, that is a cue you can empathize but not give in. For example, you might say softly and lovingly, ‘This is Mommy's phone, but we can read a book or take a walk.’”
More Tips: On Handling Your Toddler's Tears
If you think your toddler is tired, encourage them to have a rest, or give them some downtime, listening to music, reading a book or cuddling on your lap. If your toddler is having a tantrum, take them somewhere safe to calm down. If you think their tears come from frustration, try to find a solution together.
For instance, you could say something like, “You’re frustrated because you can’t turn the pages of the book. Let’s do it together.” This approach helps your child learn self-regulation and reassures them that you understand their emotions.
What Causes Tears in Early Childhood?
Children tend to cry less when they get older, but it’s still perfectly normal for young preschool- and school-age kids to cry. It’s easier to get to the root of your child’s tears when they can use their words to tell you how they feel and what they need.
“After soothing them with a soft voice and loving touch, you can find out with more certainty why they are emotional,” says Mayer. “Problem-solving and working to ease the issue together are important at this age.”
Pro Tip: Validate Your Child’s Feelings
It’s also important to validate what your child is feeling before soothing or giving advice, says Dr. Richard Horowitz, parenting and family coach and author of “Family Centered Parenting.” In other words, let them know that what is causing the tears is real for them — even if you feel the tears are unjustified.
Horowitz suggests using something like, “You are really upset — tell me about what is going on, and we can work together to figure it out” as a basic response.
More Tips: On Handling a Young Child’s Tears
If your child isn’t sick or in pain, give them a chance to calm down, then ask them why they are upset. If you repeat their feelings back to them — for example, “You’re upset because Jessica told you to go away” — they know you’re listening, and are more likely to be comforted. Your child may not be mature enough to figure out how to fix the problem, but you can help them with that. Try saying something like, “Why don’t you give Jessica some space, and ask Jack if you can play with him instead?” Sometimes, kids just need another option to distract them.
It’s important to let your child know that it’s OK to cry. Sometimes, the best way to deal with tears is simply to offer a hug and commiseration: “I’d cry, too, if I fell off the swing.”
Why Do Older Kids Cry?
Just like younger children, kids aged seven to 11 may cry when they get hurt or anticipate something difficult or painful, but there may be other reasons for their tears. They may cry in response to emotional pain, such as being rejected by their peers, coming in last at sports or watching a sad movie.
Some kids are more sensitive — and prone to tears — than others, whatever age they are. Crying is a natural response to overwhelming feelings, which don’t automatically switch off at a particular age or stage.
Pro Tip: Reinforce Problem-Solving Skills
Dealing with an older child who cries frequently can be tricky. On the one hand, you don’t want your child to think there’s anything “wrong” with them for being a sensitive sort. On the other hand, kids who come across as “weak” can be a target for bullies.
“Other kids tend to view frequent criers as immature or just not fun to be around,” wrote psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore Ph.D. in Psychology Today. “Also, children who spend a lot of time crying are missing out on enjoyable experiences like learning, playing and hanging out with friends.”
At this stage, your responses should be similar to early childhood, but you can apply problem-solving skills even more. “At this age you can model how you handle similar situations that make you emotional,” says Mayer. “Tell them your methods of coping to help them through this.”
More Tips: On Handling an Older Child’s Tears
It helps if you’re prepared to listen and reflect back.
“Older children and adolescents may respond well to comfort and an invitation to a listening ear,” says Dixon. “Start the conversation with something along the lines of, ‘Tell me how I can help,’ or borrow, ‘If your tears could talk, what would they say?’ from a therapist's toolbox.”
What’s Behind Teenage Tears?
Every teenager — and their parents — can relate to the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence (and it typically starts at least a year or two before the big 13). Preteens and teenagers are dealing with lots of physical, emotional and social changes, and feeling the pressure of exams, changing friendships and social media. And that’s just for starters.
Many teens struggle with body image, a sense of distance from family and figuring out their place in the world at large. It’s no wonder that they often struggle to keep a lid on their emotions.
Pro Tip: Manage Expectations
At this stage of your child’s life, you can still use all the techniques you used to handle their tears when they were younger, says Mayer — soothing them, using a sympathetic voice and managing expectations. “Understand that, even at this age, they are still learning about their emotions,” he adds.
Additionally, working together to uncover coping mechanisms should be a priority.
More Tips: On Handling Your Teen’s Tears
Psychologist and Marriage Counselor Dr. Wyatt Fisher believes that one of the best ways to respond to teen tears is by being present, affectionate and providing empathy statements. “Being present means noticing when your teen is upset and making yourself available to talk with them,” he says. “Being affectionate means providing soothing touch, such as rubbing their back. Providing empathy statements means comments such as, ‘I can see how you would feel...’ or ‘It makes sense that you feel…’”
Your goal shouldn’t be to fix or gloss over their feelings, but to meet them in their feelings by being supportive.
The Best Tips for Every Age
Remember, two overriding principles explain crying in children. “Firstly, tears are a form of communication in the absence of other forms of communication; secondly, crying is linked to psychosocial learning and development, which means that the child is learning how to cope with emotions and express these emotions to others,” says Mayer.
Regardless of your child’s age, Mayer advises to always be understanding, even when you feel the tears might be unwarranted, preconceived or immature. “Tears are a form of communication and learning for your child,” he adds. “Manage your expectations, and don’t expect the child to handle emotions as you would.”
Crying in Front of Your Children
Don’t feel ashamed about crying in front of your children — they learn how (and when) to express big emotions like anger, sadness and happiness by following your lead. Seeing you deal with those emotions teaches your kid that you are a person with feelings, too.
However, if you find yourself crying a lot without knowing what’s causing it, feel unable to control your emotions or have other signs of depression, like feelings of emptiness, restlessness, irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than normal, check in with your doctor.