Big (and small) girls do (and should) cry

Big (and small) girls do (and should) cry

As a Headteacher of an all-girls school, and a father of girls myself, I see the whole range of emotions that children go through – happiness and joy from discovering new things or playing with friends, to inevitable sadness when they graze a knee or have an upset. 

I have also heard many parents trying to stop their kids crying, myself included, as it is the natural thing for a parent to want to do. When we first become parents it can, at times, feel like your child will never stop crying as this is their first form of communication. The first scream-crying marathons because your baby is hungry, tired, needs a nappy change, needs winding, needs a hug etc. can feel like they will never end and, as a result, we do all we can to placate them and see smiles over tears. For some families this can include driving them to sleep, pushing them out in the buggy in the middle of the night and, of course, often ‘sleeping’ on their bedroom floor…

As a result, it is hard beyond this phase to ever see crying – and sometimes very loud crying, as a good thing. We are conditioned to try and supress our emotions – especially when in public. It is frowned upon to have a child that is crying and ‘making a fuss’ when we venture out – but it is time for us all to accept that crying, actually, can be a good thing for our children and try not to react with anger, but rather try and use empathy, when they do. It is important to not instil in your children that crying is a bad thing.

There are many benefits to enabling children to experience negative emotions fully and to cry openly. As Amy Morin, a US-based psychotherapist, explains

“crying is a healthy way to express emotions and children shouldn't be taught to not…one of the reasons adults say sorry when they weep is because they were taught it was bad as a child”.

There is general agreement in the mental health and social work communities about the importance of letting children experience their negative emotions – especially when in a caring presence.

There is also a chemical rationale behind letting our kids cry more. Researchers believe that tears can literally help relieve stress because they are enabling the by-products of cortisol – which is present in all our bodies to keep us ready to fight or flee – to be released to that the body can achieve chemical equilibrium once more. Cortisol can ‘shut down’ our frontal cortex – which is our problem-solving part of our brains, and research has found that tears cried after stress are chemically different from tears that come as a result of a different trigger – e.g. hay fever or tiredness.

Children will feel more relaxed once the tears have been released, and their brains are then able to think clearly once more. By stopping this reaction, we may in fact be creating more emotional problems, or affecting our children’s resilience.

So, what should we doing as parents and educators? Ultimately, I think we need to try, when we can, to not stop them from crying; and to find ways to support them when they are upset. In addition, we should not feel the need to tell them off, bribe them, or feel embarrassed or upset when they do. Sometimes we won’t be able to make them feel better, but just being there for them and supporting them when they do, should help.

If we can we should help guide them to deal with their negative emotions in a healthy way and understand that an emotionally healthy child will, and should, cry.

Matthew O’Reilly