Why Some Children Cry More Than Others


There are children who routinely respond with tears to what seems like only the slightest provocation or challenge. Often they are viewed with disdain by other children and with embarrassment by their parents. Even the word "crybaby" reflects our disappointment that they aren't as mature or resilient as we'd like them to be.

Genetics and temperament seem to play a role in determining which children become crybabies. They are often the newborns who startle easily, have difficulty adjusting to bright lights, or seem very sensitive to the texture of clothing and diapers.

More Tears and More Laughter

That sensitivity appears to have a positive side as well: later on, these children generally become more empathic. They are quick to pick up and respond to the emotions not only of other children but also of animals. In their social interactions, they not only cry more than their peers, but laugh more as well.

Almost all toddlers and young preschoolers show dramatic emotional responses, such as anger or crying, over what parents and other adults think of as trivial issues. This is especially likely if they do not yet have the verbal skills they need to express their frustration when a playmate grabs their toy, for instance, or steps on their sand castle.

Such melodrama and tears are not expressions of weakness. Rather, they are signs that a young child is emotionally overwhelmed. Since he cannot express the intensity of what he's feeling in words, his emotions come out in tears. Generally, toddlers and preschoolers are quite forgiving of a playmate who occasionally cries. It's more of a problem for the parents, who sometimes (and wrongly) interpret their child's tears as evidence of a failure on their part.

How You Can Help

There are a few things you can do to help a sensitive child learn other ways besides crying to handle stress.

  • Don't discourage your child from crying, especially when she's already upset. Remember that bursting into tears is a sign that your child is emotionally overwhelmed. If you choose this moment to tell her not to cry, she'll become even more upset and produce even more tears. Instead, give her the comfort she needs to regroup emotionally.

  • Focus on the positives, not the negatives. Don't spend time telling your child that routine experiences like doctor or dentist visits "won't hurt" or "won't be scary." This only raises a child's anxiety. After all, she figures, you wouldn't have brought up pain if there weren't going to be any! Instead, arrange a visit to the dentist's office to look at the equipment, go for a ride in the chair, and have her teeth counted. That way, she'll be more relaxed and cooperative when she returns for her actual exam.

  • Check whether you may be reinforcing the crying unintentionally. Some children come to believe that crying is the only way they can get their parents' or teachers' undivided attention. This is similar to children who misbehave because they'd rather be yelled at than ignored. If you think this may be what's going on, be sure to pay extra attention to your child when he's behaving the way you'd like, such as negotiating with another child who wants to play with his toys.

  • Teach your child alternatives to crying. For example, a preschooler will often focus on the emotions of a situation ("She's mean. I hate her!"). This tends to perpetuate the crying. After acknowledging his intense feelings ("I can see you're very angry at your sister"), help your child focus on the behavior that led up to the problem ("Did she push you?").

  • Talk about what else he might have done besides bursting into tears. (Wait until he's calmed down, of course!) You'll have to supply the alternatives, especially at first. Do a little role-playing so he can practice one of these new approaches for the next time he's stressed out.

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