From fear to fatigue to frustration, learn about the emotions behind your child’s cries.
Your child doesn’t just cry when they’re upset. Even when children are old enough to talk, they may cry to let you know that something is wrong and that they need you to take care of them. It’s therefore important to understand what your little one is trying to say when they cry so that you can address their needs and help them communicate in other ways. Here’s what your child’s tears may be telling you.
Your little one may be crying because they’re afraid of something, such as the dark, monsters, storms, or even Santa Claus. What’s more, around age 3 or 4, a child’s imagination takes off. It’s still difficult for them to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary. This means that when they cry because they’re afraid of the monsters in their room, their fear is genuine.
In addition, some children get anxious about surprises and are afraid of new things. They may start to whine when it’s time to try a new activity or go somewhere new. A change in routine, such as a new daycare educator, can also induce anxiety and tears.
How should you react?
- Be understanding when your child gets scared. Comfort them by talking with them about their fears. If they’re afraid of the dark, for instance, you can say, “What worries you the most when you go to bed in the dark?” or “Show me with your hands how big your fear is.” Taking the time to listen when your child talks about their fears without judging or trying to reason with them will make them feel better. Next, involve them in the process of finding a solution. For example, ask, “What would make you feel better and make your fear a little smaller?” This will show your child that you believe in their ability to deal with their fear.
- Reassure your child if they’re scared of certain characters (clowns, Santa Claus, cartoons, etc.). Try asking them what they don’t like about these figures and what they find frightening. Simply helping your child verbalize their emotions and taking the time to listen without judgment may be enough to calm them down. It can also be helpful to read books with your child about the characters they’re afraid of. With you by their side, your little one will feel safe and be more likely to gradually overcome their fear.
- Let your child know what to expect before a new activity or outing. This may reassure them and ease their anxiety. Describe where you’re going, what will happen, and who will be there. Help them express their feelings in words when they become anxious about a change. For example, if their regular daycare educator is away, you might say: “You seem upset that your regular teacher is on vacation this week.” Show your child that you trust their new educator by saying: “You’ll see, she’ll take good care of you and you’ll have lots of fun.”
“I want to do it, and I want to do it by myself!”
From age 2 to 3, you can expect your child to go through tantrums, frustrations, and a budding desire for autonomy. This is a normal stage in their development: they’re asserting their identity and want to be independent. But while your little one may want to do things on their own, they won’t always know how. This can lead to frustration, which in turn can lead to tantrums. Tearful outbursts caused by a need for autonomy often occur at mealtime, at bath time, and when getting dressed.
How should you react?
- Stay calm and try to name your child’s emotions. Encourage them to use words to express how they feel. For instance, you can say: “I see you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?” The more you get your child used to talking about their emotions, the less often they’ll resort to crying.
- Give your child opportunities to be more independent. Let them do some things on their own, even if they make mistakes. They’ll improve with practice. Give them small tasks and let them decide certain things by offering choices. For example, ask them if they’d prefer to wear their red socks or their blue socks.
- Don’t try to reason with your child if they’re upset to the point of throwing a tantrum. Wait for it to pass. Remember that when your child throws a tantrum, they’ve lost control and are in no state to listen to you. Keep calm and stay close to make sure they don’t hurt themself. When your child has calmed down, be affectionate and help them talk about what happened.
From age 1 to 3, your child experiences so many new things that they’ll often get tuckered out. On top of that, they may have several frustrating experiences throughout their day. When this happens, your child may become irritable, whiny, and defiant in the evening. They’ve reached their limit, and the slightest thing can set off the waterworks. This is a sign that they’re tired and need to be comforted.
How should you react?
- Go easy on your child; try to soothe them to help them relax. Now is not the time to try to teach them a new rule or expect perfect behaviour.
- Show empathy by letting them know that you understand what they’re going through. Describe what you observe: “It seems like something’s bothering you.” During these moments, your child needs you to be close and to know you’re there for them. Take a moment to show them some affection. For example, pick them up, rock them, or sing them a song. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, it may help your child calm down.
- If possible, start your evening routine. Suggest calm activities (drawing, reading etc.), read your child a story, draw them a bath, etc.
If your child gets tired often, it may help if you tweak their schedule (e.g., move up their bedtime or plan for more free time).
“I want that!”
Has your child gotten into the habit of whining and pointing at things they want instead of asking for them? If they always get their way once they start crying, this behaviour isn’t likely to stop.
How should you react?
- Encourage your child to use words to communicate what they want. For example, you might say: “Are you hungry? Would you like some cheese? Use your words—say, ‘I want cheese.’” If they refuse or get angry, don’t insist, especially if your child is just starting to talk. Teach by example by showing them how to express what they want in words. Gradually, your child will develop other ways to ask for things besides crying.
- Praise your child when they ask for something properly. It’ll encourage them to keep using words to express themself. Here’s an example: “You asked for that so nicely. It was easier for me to understand what you wanted this time.”
Even if your child’s crying gets on your nerves, don’t punish them, as they may think you don’t care about how they feel. Instead, acknowledge their emotions while encouraging them to say what they’re feeling. Remember that your child’s brain is still developing and that they need time and your help to learn how to deal with their emotions.
“Take care of me!”
Your child may cry to get your attention. They may even go so far as to invent imaginary problems.
How should you react?
- Describe what’s going on, but avoid accusing your child of lying. For example, you can say: “I think what you really want is a hug. You don’t need to have a boo-boo to get one from me. You just have to ask!” This will encourage your little one to say things clearly instead of whining.
- Give your child attention before they ask for it. Spend some quality time with them every day, even if it’s just a few minutes. Consider playing a game, chatting with them, tickling them, drawing something together, or reading them a story. When you anticipate your child’s need for attention, you can prevent them from crying to get it.
“My gums hurt.”
Some children go through the teething process without experiencing any pain. For others, however, it can cause a lot of discomfort. Your child may be crying because they don’t know how to tell you that their teeth hurt. For more information, read our fact sheet on teething
Things to keep in mind
When children cry, it’s usually because they’re trying to tell you something is wrong. They may want something or they could be scared, tired, or in pain.
Staying close to your child, listening to them, and helping them put how they feel into words will comfort and reassure them.
By encouraging your child to say what they’re feeling, you’ll gradually teach them to express themself in other ways besides crying.
Scientific review: Marie-Hélène Chalifour, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: September 2019
Photos: iStock.com/emholk and GettyImages/Tassii and Georgijevic
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
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Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
Filliozat, Isabelle. “J’ai tout essayé!” Opposition, pleurs et crises de rage : traverser sans dommage la période de 1 à 5 ans. Éditions JC Lattès, 2011, 176 pp.
Macnamara, Deborah. Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or Anyone Who Acts Like One). Aona Books, 2016, 304 pp.
Rossant, Lyonel, and Jacqueline Rossant-Lumbroso. Votre enfant : guide à l’usage des parents. Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, Bouquins collection, 2006, 1,515 pp.