Let’s be honest—crying is tough on the nervous system. And it is designed to be.
When children have an unmet need that is beginning to really cause a disruption in their nervous system, they cry or get really whiney as a direct reaction to the discomfort. The crying then enters us through our senses—mostly through sound, but visually as well if we see their contorted face and the tension in their bodies—and then travels from the sensory areas of our brain, into the limbic system and down into our bodies, all resulting in the feeling of “Something is wrong and we have got to fix it NOW!”
Since crying usually is the signaling of a dys-regulated nervous system—usually that some need of the child’s is not yet met—it is important that we pay attention to our instincts and respond by going to the child and begin finding out what is wrong.
“A wise mother knows: It is her state of consciousness that matters most.” — Vimala McClure, The Tao of Motherhood
Whether the crying is coming from your infant who is hungry, or maybe is colicky and needing to release the tension accumulated from the day; in either case, go to him. Perhaps it is coming from your clingy toddler who is in her rapprochement phase of development—pushing hard for independence in some moments, but seemingly terrified of you leaving the room in others. Still, when she lets out those blood curdling screams that seem so dramatic when you are “just going down stairs,” respond to her anyways. Her fear is real. Or maybe your five year-old just took a spill on his bike in the driveway and is starting to ball. You saw the whole thing and know he is not gravely injured, but go to him anyways. He may need you close by to help move ease-fully through these tears and digest the shock of the bike crash.
In each of these cases, your child’s nervous system is doing what it is designed to do: make distress calls to the caretakers when they feel they need some help. And it is important to take these distress calls seriously by finding out what they need.
But don’t take crying too seriously.
Many times I see parents become dys-regulated themselves whenever their child cries. They come running in yelling, “What’s wrong?!?!” and find that the child was simply frustrated because he was unable to get a toy to work right, was a little overtired, and the frustration bubbled over into tears. The dys-regulated mother may then get pissy with her son and say, “Jesus! What are you having a hissy-fit for over something so small?! Pull yourself together!”
And of course, what great advice for both child and mother!
“The greatest gift you can give someone is to get yourself together.” — Wendy Palmer, The Intuitive Body
Even in a situation like this, where the child’s crying may be deemed to be over something relatively minor, they still need help with comforting and with being brought back to a state of better regulation. More frustration and anger are not going to help. Discharging your own dys-regulated emotions will only add to the child’s sense of frustration and lack of support.
In other situations, I have seen parents go running to their kids whenever they cry as if trauma is about to ice over their nervous systems forever! They explode onto the scene with an intense anxious fretting and nervous dancing around trying to make everything perfect so the child won’t experience any discomfort. These parents seem to be afraid of tears and will do anything to keep their child’ state “sunny and 75 degrees” at all cost. Their anxiety is in itself somewhat dys-regulating, and the child gets the unspoken message that “they are fragile, can’t handle the bumps and bruises of life, and will always need mommy nearby to make things right.” These kids grow up believing that they are made of glass.
So as a parent, do your best to “get yourself together” before dumping your own anxieties or frustrations on your kids. Try to understand your own histories around crying and other states of dys-regulation like frustration, anger, or an intense compulsion to “make everything go right.” Inquire into why your particular nervous system reacts the way it does. Most likely, it formed this way in an attempt to protect you from a lack of attunement you experienced as a child. Have compassion for yourself. We are all still children in so many ways.
But if you are one of those moms or dads that get intensely activated by hearing your child cry (I know I still do from time to time, especially if I am awoken from sleep!), there are some things you can do to help soothe your limbic reactivity.
Here are a few things to remember the next time you hear your child cry:
- Crying is a communication of need; rarely is it anything serious.
- Crying is also, oftentimes, the intelligent response of the nervous system when tension needs to be released. The movement of tears and sobbing are ways the body cleanses itself of toxicity and potentially “frozen memories” that might otherwise get stored as trauma.
- Whatever the cause of the crying, you will be of sounder mind and more spacious heart if you begin “getting yourself together” as you move towards your child.
Here are a few things you can try to help “get yourself together” the next time your child’s crying revs up your nervous system:
- Even as you reflexively get up to go to your child, mentally note the intensity that is now a part of your body and mind. Feel the electricity or warmth or tension in your body as you continue to move to your child’s side for support, and remind yourself that this is how the body is supposed to react.
- Grounding down is a great way to smooth out the intensity and stay level-headed as you move to help your distressed child. Take a deep inhale into the belly, and then as you exhale imagine the breath going down from your belly, through your pelvis and legs, and exiting down into the earth. Make the exhale as long as possible (as this activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system) and release it through an open mouth with a little “Haaaaaaaa” sound from the back of the throat. This will leave you in a clearer state of mind and feeling more “warrior-like” to meet whatever challenge presents itself.
- Even as you arrive to find out that nothing too serious is wrong — that no major fire needs extinguishing — take your child up in your arms and begin breathing deeply as you hold them. Again, try to gently emphasize the exhale as this is very calming — to both your system as well as to your child’s. And as you are holding them, let the exhale and your awareness dissolve outwards in all directions, creating a feeling of vast space for this difficulty to be held in. In my experience, all difficult feelings run their course more quickly and gracefully when I give the difficulty room to breath and allow Kai to be exactly where he is at emotionally and allow his nervous system to heal itself in its own way, and in its own timing. Get spacious and trust the process.
- And as you hold them, you will probably feel the natural response of your heart — its kindness and sensitivity and compassion — flow from you into all pain and suffering: your child’s and your own. There is no need to work hard to make everything all right; no need to fret and try to placate or distract them from the tears. Just stay grounded, stay spacious, and let the natural kindness of the heart pour from you effortlessly.
Take Home: Crying is usually a signal of some unmet need, and therefore deserves to be taken seriously and responded to. But if we allow the fear-based part of our nervous system to spread a wild-fire within us, we won’t be able to respond in the most effective, loving, and spacious way possible. Develop a basic trust in the nervous system and its cycles of tears. Your openness and confidence will help your children mature into healthy, vibrant, and courageous beings.
Try: Over the next two weeks, pick one of the suggestions above to work with when your child cries. You might start with simply becoming aware of how your body feels when you hear your child cry. Once awareness is established and becomes second nature to you, you might try adding “grounding down” or “getting spacious.” Or if you often feel you need to distract your child from their tears — to give them something else to focus on like a treat — consider not doing that and instead simply give them room to have their tears in your loving arms. Your quiet confidence will ignite and support their innate capacity for resilience.