This morning, I was comforting a friend who had just lost a family member. As she was talking to me about what had happened, a tear trickled down her face and I before I could think, I immediately uttered the words “don’t cry”.
As soon as the words came out of my mouth I heard them back and froze with a stark realisation. I had just told someone I cared about, who was in a lot of pain, to stop showing their emotion to me. Why did I do that? The reality horrified me.
I told my friend to stop crying because it made me uncomfortable to see it.
When you think about it, we’ve been told to stop crying ever since we were born. Not because our parents were monsters but because that’s what they were told by their parents, too. We’ve been in a cycle of emotionally stunting behaviour for centuries and we haven’t even been aware of it. And now as adults, we often feel embarrassment or shame when we cry and we try to cover it up if at all possible. Coincidence? I think not.
Once I got back home after visiting my friend I opened up my laptop to do some research on using the phrase “don’t cry” and how it might be impacting emotional development in children. Sure enough, psychologists around the world are advising parents to let their children cry.
“Crying is a healing mechanism that allows people to cope with stress and trauma. Crying can be considered a natural repair kit with which every child is born. People of all ages cry because they need to, not because they are "spoiled" or immature.” Aletha Solter, Ph.D
Research by Dr. William Frey, a biochemist shows that tears actually contain the stress hormone ACTH and crying could be our body’s way of getting rid of excess stress. There are countless other studies that show the benefits of crying for long-term healing in children so we need to stop saying this seemingly harmful, yet highly damaging phrase.
While you most likely are well-intentioned when you try to comfort a crying child by saying things like “there there, don’t cry”, or “big boys/girls don’t cry”, what you’re really telling them is that their feelings are not important to you and they're not acceptable.
This then causes children to suppress their feelings in future instances where crying could have been the healing mechanism they needed. As children grow older, they tend to become less capable of showing sadness and therefore, hold all of their stress inside which can often develop into anxiety or depression.
What can you say instead?
We have been programmed for many years to say “don’t cry” so this change will likely not happen overnight but it’s extremely important for your child’s development that you try to change your vocabulary. Here are some examples of other ways to calm a crying child that acknowledge the emotions they may be feeling rather than suppressing them:
- “I understand that you are upset”
- “You have a right to be upset”
- “I’m here for you”
- “Was that scary for you?”
- “I see that you’ve hurt yourself”
- “I see that your toy has broken”
- “You are really sad about that”
No matter what the situation, it’s important to let the child feel like it’s safe and acceptable for them to show their emotions and they should never be punished for it. Even when a child is crying for something that seems trivial to you, it could be the final straw in a very stressful or frustrating day for them. Giving them a safe space to share could open them up to talking about other things that have been on their mind.
The research shows that people who can openly express their emotions and talk about their feelings are less likely to develop anxiety and depression. So while it may take some additional patience from you to sit through the crying rather than stop it, rest assured that you will be giving your child an incredible advantage for the rest of their lives.
If you ever notice someone else saying the words “don’t cry” to a child or an adult, please inform them of this article. Together, we can help reduce anxiety and depression in the world.