Thursday, February 10, 2011

To cry or not to cry

There are a few people in the world who believe that every fundamental aspect of who we are is decided by our genetics. There is another group who contend that such things are completely the result of influences from one’s social environs. All the rest of us fall somewhere in between. We recognize at some level that any argument of biology versus culture or “nature versus nurture” is a gross simplification of the complex interweaving of physiological capacity and social experience that is at work in the making of a human being.

The parents of young children repeatedly encounter instances where they must negotiate this interweaving in direct and immediate ways. When a child starts to talk depends on the development of muscle coordination within the lips and tongue and the exposure to sounds the child can mimic. When a child starts to walk depends on the development of muscle strength in legs, hips, back, and stomach and the availability of opportunities to safely practice getting up and moving around on two feet; When a child begins to eat solid foods depends upon the development of the proper gastric chemicals (and eventually teeth) in combination with cultural expectations about what constitutes appropriate nutrition for babies. When a child begins using the toilet depends on the development of the muscles necessary for bladder control and on parental choices regarding when and how to pursue toilet training.

In each of these cases, the opaqueness of how the biological and cultural influences intersect with each other created some uncertainty in exactly how I should handle them. However, as they are all skills that are basic functions of the human repertoire, I was able to approach them with the confidence that as long as I was patient both Pip and Polly would eventually get them.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of other practices, habits, and behaviors – both ones that I wish for Pip and Polly to acquire and ones that I wish they could lose - for which I have no such confidence. Saturday brought us one of the latter.

That evening, as I was preparing to put Polly and Pip into bed, Polly whacked her head against a chair. It was one of those dumb things that happen when we’re all tired and slightly off-kilter. She was standing on the floor and pulling a blanket up over her head when she stepped on the blanket and stumbled. Turning around as she fell, she crashed her head right into the seat of a big wooden rocking chair that occupies one corner of the kids’ room. The impact was solid enough to knock her head back and make her body go limp for just a moment as it slid to the floor.

After a moment of stunned silence, Polly started crying. Then Pip did, too. Actually, I think Pip, seeing what happened and anticipating Polly’s reaction, buried his head in his bedding and began wailing even before the tears started running down Polly’s face. He kept crying in a jerky and flailing fashion even as Ava took Polly out of the room and walked her around to comfort her. He only calmed down when Polly’s cries had dissipated. Then, seeing that she was no longer upset, he too smiled and asked me to wipe away the snot that was running down from his nose.


Pip’s reaction to Polly’s distress was not unusual or unexpected. It is his normal pattern, one that has been in place since Polly was born two years ago. For the longest time, I have had trouble making sense of it because in the moment it feels very manipulative – Polly cries and gets lots of attention so Pip then cries to recapture some of that attention for himself. But in facing this situation over and over again, I have come to wonder how much control over this reaction he really has.

My uncertainty derives from two points.

First, Pip’s reaction to another’s tears is not limited to Polly. When he first started swim lessons, he was in a class with other kids who had never been in a swimming pool before. Two of these kids were terrified of being in the water, screaming and crying while the swim instructor gently moved them around the pool. The other kids in the class watched these two with quiet nervousness, but Pip burst out in tears the moment either one of them made so much as a whimper. When I would go to comfort him and try to show him that the kids were okay, he would just repeat over and over in a desperate voice, “Why are they crying?”

Pip encountered a similar situation during his time in preschool. One of the other boys in his class experienced significant separation anxiety during the first couple of weeks. This anxiety would lead to prolonged crying episodes each morning when his parents’ dropped him off. Again, while the other kids in the class seemed unnerved by this behavior, Pip would break out into full on tears. All it took was for Pip to hear this other boy start to cry and he would instantly go from happy and excited to apprehensive and crying. The whole situation made those first weeks of preschool very difficult for all of us. Fortunately, the teachers and the boy’s parents worked to find activities that would ease that moment of separation and eventually they seemed to develop a pattern that got him – and, consequently, Pip - into the classroom without undue stress.

The second reason I wonder about how much control Pip can exercise over his reaction to the tears of others is the intensely visceral nature of his crying. When he loses it, it’s a full-body experience. The crying doesn’t ramp up. It just bursts out of him. His feet kick. His face goes into his hands. Everything else shuts down. Then, after its done, he’s right back to normal.

This burst seems driven by the same pattern of feelings that I experience whenever I am dealing with a crying child. For example, when I saw Polly start to fall, my stomach involuntarily tightened and my breathing stopped. As her head hit the chair and her body flopped backward, I felt myself grimace and heard an audible groan come up from inside me. After the impact, I felt a frantic rush of worry as the worst case scenarios flashed through my head. Then, I took a deep breath to release that tension and slow down the rush of adrenaline before I picked Polly up and simultaneously tried to calm her and evaluate her (she was fine).

What I think happens for Pip is that he goes through the same internal tightening and adrenaline release as I do, but at the moment that I take a deep breath, he breaks into tears. His body seems to overwhelm whatever control his mind is trying to exercise.


At first, I was not very sympathetic to these outbursts as they usually place me in the difficult position of soothing two crying children instead of one. I would get frustrated with Pip because I needed his support in helping to calm Polly and instead his actions were just making her more upset. Over time my frustration with him in these moments has lessened. I have watched him over and over, and now I can see that the nature of his crying is very similar to what I experience when I crack from a buildup of tension, frustration, and exhaustion. When this happens to me, there is very little I can do about it. I have to let the tears come out because my body has decided that this is what it needs to do.

And all this crying feels very well be therapeutic. I have found that in the moments when I feel completely overwhelmed some crying helps clear away enough tension to make me functional again. It is a bit like vomiting when I feel nauseated; I don’t really want to do it, but I know that if I go ahead and let it happen it will make me feel better. Pip seems to be the same way. His moments of intense feeling pass quickly and are generally not followed by a period of brooding, sullenness, or morose behavior. Once he is done crying, he pops right back to being happy and energetic and usually starts laughing about all the snot that is now running out of his nose.

All of these dynamics complicate the question of what I should do with Pip in these moments when the emotions of others overwhelm him. There are basically four options, each with its own problematic elements:

- comfort him: This poses two problems. First, it is difficult to comfort both kids at once. Bringing them close together just intensifies the crying of each. Second, it reinforces the idea that crying is a guaranteed attention getting mechanism. I want both Polly and Pip to be able to cry when they are hurt or frustrated. But I also fear the power that crying gives them. I don’t want them to learn to use it as a tool of manipulation.

- tell him to stop: This is one of those unrealistic commands that people try but never works. Once the tears are flowing, you can’t order a person to stop crying, regardless of how nicely or harshly you phrase it.

- leave him alone/send him to a safe spot to work it out: This tactic is the one I tend to use. It has the advantage of separating the crying children and allowing Pip to continue crying for as long as he feels he needs to. It also avoids the extra attention dilemma that comes with the comforting tactic. However, in using this tactic it feels like I am abandoning Pip in a time of difficulty. I worry that by sending him away from me I may be undermining his trust and his willingness to come to me in future times of difficulty.

- teach him to head off the emotions before they start: I think this is the best option. Ava and I have worked with him to create ways of holding off the tears – like moving to a different room or saying a funny word. This has worked sometimes though it is difficult to tell whether the gradual decrease in crying incidents over time is the result of our tactical deployments, Pip’s physical and emotional maturation, or just fewer instances of crying by Polly. My biggest concern here is the stigmatization of crying that is implied in the process. How do we parse when it is okay to cry and when it is not?

Ultimately, what I am running up against is the fact that in all but a few, well-defined situations (e.g. funerals), public crying is not a socially acceptable practice. It makes people uncomfortable and marks the one who is crying as incapacitated or out of control. As such part of me wants to teach him never to cry except in strategically useful situations. And yet, there is something physiologically important in crying that I want Pip to be able to access. It not only provides a physical release of internal stress but in the process it also facilitates an acknowledgement of the emotional intensity of a moment. It took me thirty years to recognize that this acknowledgement is an important thing, that it helps generate the kind of positive attitude coming out of a problem moment that makes handling the next array of challenges much easier. I see no reason why he should have to follow the same pattern as me.

So for now, I am stuck in a dilemma. I want Pip to understand when he can cry and when I need him to hold it back. But the tools I have at my disposal are too crude to teach him the nuances of this pattern. Instead, Pip and I flail about in a haze of incomplete knowledge and incommunicable frustrations with one another. It is a failure that is all too human and one that we can never fully overcome. The best I am hoping for is to not do too much damage in the process.


  1. Is there some combination of these approaches that might work? For example, the one that feels natural to me is to start with asking him to comfort himself (which can be easily explained as because, while both he and his sister feel bad, she is actually *hurt* as well, and needs you right away), and then take the time once Polly is calm to go to him with comfort, letting him know that you know he was also upset and hope that he feels better now. That lets him know that sympathetic crying is ok, even if emotions are something we sometimes have to deal with by ourselves.

    In a more public setting, it is complicated in other ways, of course. But he'll get plenty of the "crying is unacceptable" message from others, so you hardly need to find a way to teach that. Going with the same sort of "you have to let your emotions out when they're overwhelming, but then find constructive ways to work through them" message that you would apply to other displays of emotion (say, hitting for anger) seems perfectly appropriate...

    Just my two cents. Enjoy the honesty of your explorations.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, ACM.

    I agree with your first suggestion regarding comforting Pip after Polly has calmed down. This is what generally happens with us though I do wonder if it is 'too little, too late' sometimes.

    As for public settings, I wonder if crying actually is the most constructive way to work through overwhelming emotions, and by telling kids to find other ways, we shut down the crying too quickly. I don't know. I still have to come to a place of comfort with this balance.