Raise your hand if you’re one of those parents stuck at home in quarantine, and the kids’ whining and crying is what is driving you bananas. 🙋🏽 Right here, people. Right. Here. Every adult living or working with young children has a “hot button” behavior that drives us crazy, and mine is too much crying. And I am a professional who has been working with babies and toddlers in multiple capacities since 2006. It is still a hot button.
The justified, and occasional crying, fine. Expected. Normal. I’m a 0-3 trained Montessori practitioner, so hell-o, crying is part of the deal. It’s the crying that will not stop; the this-kid-is-actually-screaming-in-my-face-as-loud-as-they-can-right-now crying; and when multiple children are yell-crying all at the same time that just…. that is where my tolerance starts to erode, every time. It’s just that I have learned better ways to manage myself and manage the room full of crying babies (or that one baby that will just not stop crying), which brings me to the tolerance point I am at today.
Unless your name is Maria Montessori, Magda Gerber, Simone Davies, or Janet Lansbury, you’re probably one of the mere mortals who has to admit there’s at least one behavior from children that bothers you. Crying is a very common childhood behavior that secretly or not so secretly bothers many adults.
However, the verdict on the “right way” to respond to crying is legitimately all over the darn place. So how the heck are any of us supposed to find a proper solution that also doesn’t make us feel like some sort of guilty, heartless monster; or force us into desperate, doormat subservience to our kids’ yelling, screaming, snotty tears?
Again, after being a self-professed ‘crying fully bothers me’ early childhood professional of over a decade, permission fully granted if you resonate with this. Humans are biologically wired to be bothered by crying so that it gets our attention. So you do not have to pretend that you’re totally cool with crying. I am not here to guilt-trip ANYONE into thinking you’re handling your life wrong if you’re not handling the kids’ crying “this way” or “that way”. Young children cry. A lot. And there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all answer.
So welcome to cry-triggered’s anonymous. Here are all my top tips to get that crying under control without also robbing the child of appropriate developmental phases they must move through, or their dignity, OR the opportunity to learn some tools of social emotional independence (because yes they are absolutely able), AND without robbing you of your sanity.
First, some child developmental background on crying.
- People who can’t talk and who are in distress are always going to find a way to communicate. As bothersome as crying is, at least it’s not physically harmful to anyone else short of your annoyance and eardrums. Crying + behavior is where we’re really getting into problem territory. Right now, we’re just addressing the crying.
- Babies’ and toddlers’ brains are not developed all the way, like an adult’s. Young children are singular-focused, they can’t tell time and remember logical sequences of events the way we do, they don’t rationalize the way we do, and their frontal lobe which controls overriding emotions, is not fully developed. Many adults still have some area where we’ll struggle and the engine boils over; or we can’t get steering wheel back in our grasp because the emotional storm got us hydroplaning all over the place. Babies and kids? The engine is incomplete, y’all. And they’re not big enough to see over the steering wheel. So while we know how to drive and just sometimes lose control of the wheel, they are in 3+ years-long emotional driver’s ed.
- With age and repeated practice, people are socially trained not to cry when upset. It’s not that crying is a “babyish” thing to do. It’s just that you got socially trained to control your public crying, just like you get trained to pee in a toilet when you need to pee instead of just letting it out whenever. Adults still cry, too. It’s just that toddlers and babies are the purest, unsocialized iteration of human beings that hasn’t been socialized not to just let all their emotions out, unabashedly and with complete abandon.
MANAGING CRYING IS A PROCESS AND A JOURNEY, NOT A “BAND-AID” KINDA THING.
The honest reason I am able to stay calm around crying children 95% of the time as of 2020 is because from 2006 to 2019, I had many, many teachers (aka toddlers) train my former response pattern out of me. They built my tolerance of what intensity level of crying is now “triggering” for me. Just when I thought a basic cry was annoying, I got a kid who responded like someone had set him on fire every single day at nap time. That made regular crying seem like a yawn.
I have also been forced by the professional setting to train myself in alternative ways to respond to crying that are socially acceptable for a fully-visible environment. Visible in an “other children, my assistants, their parents, school tours, and my boss are always hearing and watching me”, kind of way. There is nothing more convicting than when the toddlers start to mimic the way you respond to other kids’ crying when you can’t take it anymore. You guys are lucky at home, where no one sees you except your own family and God. Working in a school, it’s like a museum.
I will be the first to tell you that in a classroom of 12 toddlers, we aren’t gonna get much done if I allow them to all to cry all day long, and let all their emotions out however intensely and whenever they want. Therefore, I have a myriad of strategies I implement to help manage crying. And here they are.
MY TOP 8 TIPS FOR CRYING MANAGEMENT
1) Are their basic needs met? A content person has nothing to complain about. So first and foremost, are their basic needs met? Are they fed, physically comfortable, have they slept well or enough, are there any glaring external annoyances they can’t manage alone, and did they get enough movement that day (yes, physical movement is a basic human need)? Crying says “something’s not right and a problem needs solving”.
(but it doesn’t always mean we need to rush in and pacify the problem for them so that they never cry). This is like “does the car have a full tank of gas, air in the tires, clean windows to see out of, and oil”. This is not “the car must never run out of gas”.
2) Know thy triggers and calm thyself. This is one of the biggest parts to crying management. It is also, hands down, the hardest part of crying management. Managing YOURSELF, the adult.
Internationally-renowned AMI (the international style) Montessori trainer Sarah Brady once said:
“someone in the room must be more emotionally mature than the children at all times”.
If, like me, you know that crying triggers you, know this: an adult being triggered is our own inner cry 💡. You need to learn to recognize your own inner system “crying” if you want to become effective at learning to deal with children’s crying. Relating well with your kids starts with reading yourself and getting your own emotional state under control as soon as your kid(s) start crying. You are the first person whose “emotional management” you will be dealing with.
Adults triggered by crying might look like “inner anxiety rising”, “inner alarm bells going off”, “invisible eye roll”, “ugggghh, not again”, “what now?!”, “oh sh*t– this kid is seriously hurt “, “inwardly my blood is starting to boil”, or maybe even inwardly you fantasize about spanking that child to shut them up. If any of the above describes you, you then need to consciously work on training yourself to stay even-keeled, and more mature than that child at all times; which is a moment-by-moment, months-to-years-long, daily practice.
My boyfriend’s dad actually gave some awesome advice around quitting smoking that applies to dealing with your kid’s crying, too. He said he wasn’t quitting for a year, a month, a week– he was quitting for today. And if he really neeeeeeeded to smoke, he told himself he could do it tomorrow. And with that mentality, thousands of “tomorrow’s” later, he is now many years smoker-free after being a smoker for decades.
Similarly, you will be training yourself not to do emotionally crazy or emotionally destructive crying management techniques one child at a time, one cry at a time, one day at a time. And then years down the road, you won’t look back and recall destructive and crazed behaviors on your part.
Whether it’s training yourself to physically stand back, and take deep breaths, training yourself to sing Bob Marley songs while they cry to stay lighthearted, training yourself to say a mantra in your head, or training yourself to talk back to the baby in a sillier way, whatever it takes to hit the pause button and reset your state.
If you need to physically step away for a moment and talk yourself back from the ledge of exploding, maybe you need to do that. If you need to step back and just video tape the mayhem, and laugh on the inside whilst watching the surreality unfold before you, do that. Text your spouse to briefly vent before you step in to manage the situation. Whatever it takes.
You need to know you first; and it may be necessary to train out and redirect whatever negative strategy you are currently used to employing to manage your child(ren)’s crying. A crazy, or angry, or uncertain, or outta control adult cannot help a child land the turbulent plane of tears, OK? You are the autopilot that is supposed to take over when your child’s emotional airplane is screaming mayday and plummeting in a downward spiral.
3. If this situation involves more than one child, know that you only need to address one child at a time— you to NOT need to deal with a group of criers all at the same time. Deal with crying children in the following hierarchy of intervention: the child who is a) in immediate danger, and then b) the most emotionally distraught, then c) the youngest if they’re all losing it, and finally d) the instigator. In that exact order.
Deal with the instigator last and do not let them off the hook for their unacceptable. behavior. That still must be addressed unless you want them to keep doing naughty things and creating cryfests. However, you will address the instigator last because we want to send the clear message that naughty behavior does not win the social attention olympics– it makes you come in last place.
4. If the child is not irate, and it is just basic, daily crying or daily frustrations and squabbles, start to train yourself to observe your child objectively. Like Jane Goodall watching a wild gorilla baby. Can you discern a reason why your child is crying? Can you discern if there is a collaborative way to help them remedy the problem or soothe themselves? What do they seem to be struggling with in that moment, and what need can they not yet meet independently? Help them meet that need or solve that problem.
5. Give them emotional labels and try to be their emotional decoder. “You look frustrated/ angry/ upset/ annoyed. Can I help you? Do you need ___ or ____? Does your body hurt? etc”.
Children do need to learn emotions and other emotion-related communication, because their crying will later turn into words, and vice versa if they can’t get their needs met. It would amaze you once a child is empowered with spoken word that it will transmute their tears. Sometimes they might cry, and cry, and cry, until you speak what they’re feeling. And then they’re like “yes!”, and they will stop crying. Part of an adult’s objective observation practice of young children also involves mentally taking note of the things they say.
The older they get, the more complex emotional states they will start to reveal. Things like “I miss mommy” or “help you! help you! –> translation: I need help before I start crying”, or “I need dat! Dat mine!” –> “give that back before I start crying”. “My do it!” –> let me do it by myself before I start to cry.
6. Remove environmental cry-triggers. If siblings are always getting into fights over toys, do an assessment around how to make those squabbles disappear. Does each child need to play in their own rooms? Does each child need their own toy versus sharing toys? Is there a particular toy that always sets your child off because it’s too frustrating, or because the siblings can’t share it peacefully? My rule at school for sharing toys is if we can’t play peacefully we won’t play with that toy.
7. If a cry-trigger happens, you can either a)help with the part where they need help (don’t just solve the whole thing for them), b) if it is too difficult, you can encourage them to move on to something new (that’s hard today, but you’ll get it one day. You can choose something else), or c) redirect the child to something more positive if they are crying without a tangible item involved, and you can’t figure out exactly why they’re upset. (“Oh look! Here’s your favorite book! Let’s read!”)
But do not use redirection as a constant method of pacifying crying. Notice that I said “without a tangible item involved”, not just “redirect because you can’t figure it out and you’re annoyed” or “redirect every time they cry, never let them cry”.
8. Create a “soft spot”. The “soft spot” is my infant/toddler equivalent of a montessori peace table. You can see my favorite one on my instagram, @humblehorizonsmontessori. I’ve also seen something similar called “the peace place” from my friend who worked for an organization called “Go Girls” out of Oakland, California. For my classroom, my “soft spot” is just a soft, cozy rug on the ground, with a pillow on top of it.
Next to the soft spot can be an optional basket containing a photo album of their loved ones, a board book relating to emotions, and a calming sensory bottle or visually calming toy. I will often redirect the children to the soft spot 100% of the time I can’t help them calm down with my usual methods. And I say “this is where you can cry”. Eventually, they start to put themselves in the soft spot any time they need to take a time out from life, cry, or interestingly when they are sick they will also go there and pass out. Some people need a retreat when their emotions are just too much. The soft spot becomes the default place they know they can go lay down if they don’t feel their best.
IS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN YOU FEEL A CRY IS JUSTIFIED, OR YOU WILL LET THEM CRY?
If a child is crying for a very logical and justified reason, such as if they hurt themselves and it physically hurts, if they feel shame because they did something everyone agrees is not OK, or if they cry because they can’t have what they want, in my personal opinion these are situations where I will fully just let a child cry and stop when they naturally stop. Because I believe these are important life lessons that serve every human. Pain, shame, and disappointment. Adults all cry for those reasons.
Later after the cry naturally stops, you can always talk it out and reassure that child that getting hurt is part of life but they were very courageous. Or if it’s a shame situation, they can make a better decision next time. If it’s a disappointment situation, we don’t always get what we want, but it creates the opportunity to practice patience and having a positive attitude even when we’re disappointed. Hell, I still suck at disappointment. And to be honest I turn it into anger and maybe even mild depression because full disclosure, I rarely ever cry. And why do you think that is? Because my parents socialized crying out of me even when it was justified.
SOME PEOPLE SAY YOU SHOULD NEVER LEAVE A CHILD ALONE WHEN THEY CRY, AND THAT IS CRUEL. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
Some professionals will tout that it is never OK to leave children by themselves when they are emotionally upset. Again, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to managing a crying child. You have to know your child, know yourself, know your environment (the people and place around you at the time of the cry), and learn what that child needs and what suits them best. Some people desire to be alone when at the height of emotionality. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that so long as that person knows they are supported and safe.
My personal advice around the practice of leaving a child alone when emotionally upset is threefold.
Firstly, isolation cannot be used as a form of shame-inducing punishment when the child is crying/ upset; as in, “if you’re gonna cry, leave!”. yeah no. We’re never going to do that. That’s not solitude, that’s rejection. Rejection is unsupportive, impatient, and intolerant; and it can be highly confusing and thus emotionally damaging to children.
Similar, but different, is the practice of empowering or inviting children to “take space” when needed (see my previous section on the “soft spot”). Taking space is not borne out of frustration or anger. It’s an invitation and strategy to preserve dignity, sanity, and peace; as in, “if you desire to take space or need time to yourself to cry, you can always go to your room. We’ll be waiting out here for you to come back as soon as you feel better; and we’ll come check on you”. I’d rather the child learn to take space before they hurt themselves or others with actions or words, yenno?
Secondly, when children hurt others, I do believe they need to be distanced from others, even if “distanced” is a mere three feet away from the sibling, the peer, or the group; or if “distanced” is in their own room where you know they’ll be completely safe. Associating distance with hurting others is a very clear lesson: when you are hurtful you’re not welcomed here socially, because we value peace and safety (which, in Montessori, we absolutely hold those values dear).
Remind them that as soon as they are ready to be safe and peaceful, they are welcomed to come back and rejoin the play time, the family, or the group. If you absolutely cannot separate them spatially, sometimes the best you have is one child up in your arms, the other child down at your side with their hand being held. Or like, the baby in the bouncer, and the two older siblings one in each hand.
And thirdly, wherever it is they are taking space or distanced while they pull it back together, they must always be safe. The room should be Montessori-level child-proofed such that there is absolutely no way they can harm themselves when out of sight. If you don’t feel you can achieve that, then they must be supervised by an adult but remain distant from others. The soft spot, a play tee-pee, or a pod swing might be a better solution if your child doesn’t have their own room, or you do not feel they can be safe in their own room while they recalibrate their emotions.
WHAT IF MY CHILD IS REALLY LOSING IT, I’M ON EDGE, AND THERE’S NO ONE ELSE TO HELP ME?
If there is no help available, and your kid has full on lost it, remove any immediate danger, (including asking their siblings to give them space) and then momentarily excuse yourself to calm down before you help them if you’re not already calm. No one ever said you have to immediately deal with intense problems when you’re frazzled and unprepared. If someone was dying and I was alone, and I needed to run and grab the AED or grab my phone to call 9-1-1, I’d make sure the person was safe, then leave the person momentarily, go do what I needed to do, then come back. Just like CPR trains us to do.
Reassure the baby/child that you hear them after you’ve removed any glaring dangers, “I hear you, and I’ll be right there/back to help you”. Leave them where they are, step into a room real quick, and talk yourself down for a moment. The baby won’t die in one minute if they’re safe. “Maria, I know this baby’s crying is driving you bananas. You’ve been home alone all day for two weeks straight with these babies while your husband is at work in Chicago, and you’re a straight up goddess queen of babies. If you can’t say nothin nice, don’t say nothin at all. ::deep breath:: aaaaand go”. We want to respond, not just immediately react without thought. Then try:
a) THE WORDLESS SNUGGLE. go back out there, pick that baby up, and silently, wordlessly snuggle it out; or, if they aren’t having any of that,
b) THE TOUCHLESS, SILENT SAFE SPACE. If that baby/child is a raging bull and they clearly do not want to be touched, just sit to the side, in the same room as them until they calm the eff back down. You may need to pick them up and carry them to their room wordlessly, which may not look pretty momentarily. But if you feel it is best for them to calm back down in a soft, safe space where they can’t hurt themselves, or their siblings, or destroy your home, I do think that can be a better option in some cases.
FINALLY, LET’S ADDRESS “SPANKING AS A LAST RESORT” REAL QUICK…
Perhaps dirty lickins (spanking) is fully how you resort to managing too much crying after you’ve reached your breaking point and just can’t take it anymore. I was raised in a ‘we spank the children’ household’; so I’m gonna be fully real that this is a very commonly used method of crying management for some people.
My dad literally used to say “Do you want a reason to whine? Because I’ll give you one” whilst threatening us with lickins. My mom gave no warning, my grandma might remove and raise a slipper in the air, and we would promptly learn to STFU and make those tears stop on demand. Or we’d get lickins b/c our parents had had enough regardless; and then we’d finish the crying in our beds, pillows covered in tears and snot.
No one really wins when you spank because you have “boiled over” emotionally yourself, and can’t deal with the kids’ crying. All it did for us was create sore butts, angry/emotionally hurt kids (per my diary entries by the time I was in 2nd grade), and it just widens the chasm in your relationship with your kids by adding anxiety, fear, and rage into the mix, even if they survive the spanking with no visible wounding. Spanking absolutely is an outlet for parental rage, if you’re ever angry while spanking. The parent may momentarily feel a release of emotion; but it does not actually create lasting solutions or teach a logical lesson to the child if spanking is done with angry energy.
Spanking teaches your children that they can expect hurt in their relationship with you. If you would never dare to hit your spouse when triggered to the height of negative emotion, then it is also not right to spank a child when they’ve enraged you; let alone brought you to the edge with their incessant crying.
Spanking also doesn’t automatically make overwhelmed and desperate parents monsters; and I’m not here to judge parents or condone spanking in this post (I am fully anti-child-abuse though, just to be clear). Spanking is generationally passed down as a ‘thing people do when raising kids’. So I’m acknowledging it as a reality, because some people include ‘spanking as a last resort’ when they consider how to manage the worst of their children’s crying. Spanking is a very taboo subject in the early childhood world; but I do believe we can’t just sweep it under the rug.
This whole post is aimed at showing you all other ways to deal. And I hope I have given you a few new strategies around how to do that. If you are calm and in control, you do not need to resort to extreme methods of crying management to soothe your yourself, or your child. Hope this helps (: