Sunday, July 31, 2011

Let your kids cry

Last summer, we traveled to Park City, Utah for a family reunion. The return flight from Salt Lake City was overbooked. We volunteered to be bumped (in exchange for $900 in airline vouchers!). The next flight didn't leave until the following day, so we spent the day in downtown SLC.

All of this doesn't really matter, except as the backdrop for the rest of the story. Eric wanted to see one of his college roommates who worked downtown. "Back in 10 minutes!" he told me. I had Dio (1 year old) and Zari (3 1/2). We waited...and waited...for him to return.

Finally we took a bathroom break in the basement of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Something upset Zari, and she refused to move. I had to pull her up the entire flight of stairs (while carrying Dio and being newly pregnant with Inga). Her tantrum continued unabated. I dragged her outside to a nearby park. I still couldn't get her to calm down. I probably could have, if I hadn't also had Dio to take care of and if I hadn't been frustrated by a missing husband. I was fed up with her behavior.

So I just left her there.

I sat down with Dio about thirty feet away. Zari continued throwing a tantrum. I played with Dio and kept an eye on her. Some of the other park-goers threw questioning glances at me. "Yes, she's mine," I would shrug and smile.

I've occasionally wondered if I should have done more to calm Zari down. I did get some nasty looks from other park-goers (as well as people telling me how calmly I was handling the situation!). But I read an article today that confirmed what I believe--that your children need to be allowed to feel sad, frustrated, angry, or disappointed. In How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, clinical psychologist Lori Gottlieb urges parents to back off. By being overly attuned to our children, by working so hard to ensure they are always happy and successful, we're actually doing them harm. In her practice, she encountered growing numbers of young adults who felt depressed, adrift, and unhappy, despite loving, engaged parents:
They truly did seem to have caring and loving parents, parents who gave them the freedom to “find themselves” and the encouragement to do anything they wanted in life. Parents who had driven carpools, and helped with homework each night, and intervened when there was a bully at school or a birthday invitation not received, and had gotten them tutors when they struggled in math, and music lessons when they expressed an interest in guitar (but let them quit when they lost that interest), and talked through their feelings when they broke the rules, instead of punishing them (“logical consequences” always stood in for punishment). In short, these were parents who had always been “attuned,” as we therapists like to say, and had made sure to guide my patients through any and all trials and tribulations of childhood. As an overwhelmed parent myself, I’d sit in session and secretly wonder how these fabulous parents had done it all.

Until, one day, another question occurred to me: Was it possible these parents had done too much?....

“Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.” It’s precisely this goal, though, that many modern parents focus on obsessively—only to see it backfire. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?

Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at my clinic, says the answer may be yes. Based on what he sees in his practice, Bohn believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.
When your child throws a tantrum, scrapes a knee, or fights over a toy and loses, give her some time to cry and feel entirely frustrated with the unfairness of the universe. It won't kill her. In fact, it will do her some good.

And next time you see a parent with a tantruming child, doing nothing about it, give her a sympathetic smile. It might be me.

Thanks to cjane for the heads-up.


  1. It's nice to hear someone else say this. We're a pretty attachment-oriented household - we don't do any of the "cry it out" stuff for sleep or otherwise. BUT when my almost-two year old is throwing a tantrum over something I consider "silly," there's often not a whole lot I can do but let her get through it.

    I've definitely gotten stares at the playground - and even accusatory, "Who's child IS THIS?" questions lobbed in my general direction... even if I'm 5 feet away and watching her closely - but honestly? Sometimes when she wigs out, I just have to let her wig out. And I won't apologize for that.

    Heck, if I tried to pick her up in those moments, she'd probably just throw herself to the ground headfirst, screaming. So meh.

    We've all got to work it out sometimes. It's the way life goes.

  2. we also believe this - children need to have their tears, tears of sadness, of disappointment, of meeting futility - these are actually tears of cleansing. Child psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld speaks about research (that I haven't actually seen my self, but I believe him) that show that these tears are actually detoxifying, and cleanse the body of toxins.

    I believe that it is in the small futilities of life, the not getting of ones own way, the toy that is broken beyond repair, the cereal that is all gone, and the tears that are shed over these actually create children who are resilient enough to navigate life's larger losses as they get older.

    Our society has become too afraid of children's tears and children are growing up without the ability to be adaptive in frustrating situations.

    (most of these thoughts are my own regurgitation of the teaching that I have had in courses with Dr. Gordon Neufeld his book "Hold on To Your Kids: why parents need to matter more than peers, is simply excellent, and he has many DVD courses for parents and professionals available on his website

  3. Definitely a great article (I read it a while back.) And now I can feel reassured when I let my kids fight over toys without intervening every time.

  4. I find it very ironic that we live in a society where it's okay to let your little baby CIO so you can get some sleep, and yet when that baby gets older, the parent does everything possible to make sure the kid DOESN'T cry. Oh the irony...

  5. We very rarely even acknowledge when our daughter trips and falls. So she has never made a big deal about it unless she really has been hurt, giving us the cues to respond to her properly. Now that she's two, she's having a lot more tantrums over things that are simply beyond our control, or that we will refuse to cave to. When she's calmed down we talk about how she was mad/sad and don't attach any value to the feeling... it's fine to feel those things, just as it's fine to feel happy or tired.

    I haven't had to deal with a freak-out on the scale of Zari's (yet), but I would have done exactly what you did, because sometimes you really can't do anything and have to let them work through whatever it is they need to.

  6. Laura - I think the people who do CIO are the ones who then spank/smack their kids in an attempt to force them to stop crying. I think the parents who do everything to keep upset from happening in the first place are attached parents who take it to the super far extreme.

    It has always bothered me that parents think kids who are having tantrums are misbehaving. My parents, even with my 9 month old, say she's "acting" whenever she has a little tantrum. It's all an act, she's not really upset, she's not really expressing unhappiness or anger, it's just one great big bluff to get her way - even though I have never let her have her way after a tantrum, so how does that even make any sense? Kids don't know how to express their emotions fully yet. They do whatever feels natural at whatever developmental stage they're at currently. It's not like adults suddenly develop appropriate coping mechanisms, they usually just develop quieter ones.

  7. Great post! I think it goes even beyond "happiness" though. Right down to always rescuing our kids. I had a heated discussion in an AP group about "logical consequences" just being another word for, if I want to my child to experience the logical consequence of forgetting their mitts, then I'm really punishing them because it would have just been easy for me to bring mitts. Sure....but who brings MY mitts when I forget?
    People forget we're raising adults. Do we want adults that need to be told everything's alright when they break a nail?

  8. I agree! When I was a teacher, there were many students that would not work to find answers that were not right in front of them. They would immediately ask for help and not even try.

    As a volleyball coach, I continually find year after year volleyball players who don't know how to work hard or to deal with frustration or difficult situations. They depend on mom and dad to fix situations for them instead of dealing with it themselves. Then when they are playing in a match and things get rough, mom and dad can't help. However after the match is over, they are full of excuses to take the blame off their child.

    One way of helping my players learn how to handle situations themselves is to not "fix" things for them, but to ask questions to help them find the answer to the problem. Also, do design drills to allow them to practice working through difficult situations.

    I don't do the cry it out with my 3 1/2 month old - I think that is way to young to start this learning process, but when I feel he is old enough I will begin letting him experience difficulties that are age appropriate.

  9. Ha! Funny - recently, I was talking with a friend about my babysitting experiences as a child, and how my little cousin did a lot of "crying it out." He was probably around 2, maybe 3, at this time. Every time his mother would leave, he would just be inconsolable. The first few times I worked so hard to try to comfort him and calm him down, but no dice. He didn't want my comfort, he wanted Mom! So eventually, when he noticed Mom was gone and he started to cry, I would just tell him, "I'll be in the living room when you want to come play!" Then I'd leave him alone, and 30 to 45 minutes later he'd have stopped crying and he would come out of his room and we would play.

    Anyway, I felt bad about this at the time. Not that there was anything else I could do, but it still made me feel guilty. Now I feel sort of validated!

  10. From a grandma who believes this too...but you went in a basement and perhaps the child had a reaction to a mold or something that caused discomfort. She may not be able to tell you her sinuses hurt...Or just the opposite...maybe she liked it there....Not too fast to let cry mom's. And then those tantrums....let um cry for sure!

  11. I don't think we should have to have a child psychologist tell us this because it's good common sense! I can't imagine how I'd feel if every time I opened my mouth to cry someone stuck a boob in my mouth, or started hushing me. People need to feel their feelings! Especially kids!

    I also can't stand it when people ignore terrible behaviour, conversely. There are many ways to handle behaviour which is unacceptable besides hitting, yelling to belittling. Children are neither adults nor dolts... and they shouldn't be treated like either.

    Good post.

  12. While I agree we need to let our children experience life I'n order to have the coping skills to handle it, if you go back and read the original article she is referring to (quite lengthy) you can see that while it is thought provoking we need to remember that the psychologist writing the article is a psychoanalyst, where they must always blame the parent. If you read some of the comments to the original article they are really good- especially the one from another psychologist. I would rather have a child that is feeling adrift or mildly depressed than one with their life in ruins from much more serious problems. Sometimes things happen and the parents aren't always to blame- and I'm not they helicopter parent either- just offering a counterpoint. The woman used as an example I'n this article had a great life and the shrink is looking for someone to blame for her feeling lost. Maybe she just needs to find some excitement in her life. Maybe there is no reason at all for her feeling and she just needs a few extra coping skills. If she can have a great job and a great family I'm sure she can get through a little slump I'n life.

  13. How many times have you seen the kid fall/get hurt at playgroup and be relatively chill - but their mom makes the "OH MY GOODNESS" face, they see it and burst into tears.

    I've had moms say "your daughter just fell" with that pregnant pause like aren't you going to go check on her. And I just say Yeah, I know - she can recover just fine on her own.

  14. I think it's easy for any parent to get caught up in thinking that one has done too much or too little for his/her child. But the plain fact is that we can only do our best x

  15. I learned this lesson when my now 11-year-old was about 5 and just having a meltdown. I had him, a 4 yo and a 2 yo (and was pregnant with my 4th) and I couldn't get him to settle so we finally left where ever it was we were. In the car - with much exasperation - I asked him "Does it make you feel better to scream and cry like that?" and he said YES! So I let him be.

  16. I actually remember a time when I was watching my cousin's children, and her two-year-old (who was very articulate, might I add) was having a tantrum because his parents had left while he was napping.

    I decided to let him cry, but then it had been a really long time and I finally went to him and asked, "Do you still want to be crying?" He then said, "No." I replied, "Well, then you can stop crying now and go play with your sister." And that's what he did. There are times when they don't know that they don't have to cry anymore :)

  17. Oh, that makes me feel better because that is my usual approach to tantrums-- either that or a break down. I once heard that almost all tantrums only last 3 minutes and that if you ignore them then kids just stop on their own. I've timed a couple of my kids and they never make it past 2 minutes-- unless something is really wrong or they are tired.

  18. happiness is the goal... but it's by way of CHOICE. To choose happiness regardless of our circumsance is truly the goal of life. And that's what we need to teach our children... not DO everything for them that they may be happy. That will certainly fail in the long-run!

  19. I love what Tori said about happiness being a choice and teaching kids that. I try my best to avoid tantrums, but with a nearly two year old, sometimes they are inevitable. I too have had moments when I've just let my daughter cry. When the hugs and counting to three doesn't work, and she escalates every time I try to talk to her calmly, I say, "Nora, I'm sorry you are sad/mad/frustrated/whatever. Mama wants to talk to you about it, but you aren't ready to listen. When you are ready to calm down let me know and then we can talk about it/do something fun/whatever." And I just walk away or resume what I was doing. It's for both of our sanity, because there are times that no matter how hard I try, I'm not going to be able to get through. Usually this is when she's overtired or hungry, but it's not always avoidable.

  20. LOL! Good to know I was doing the right thing all those times I left my kid sitting in the shopping cart, screaming, while I was at the other end of the isle pretending to intently read the ingredients on some obscure item and trying not to notice the screaming!
    I always figured I was just choosing my battle as there is NO way to console or quiet an irate child. Turns out I just have natural talent for parenting! Thanks Rixa!

  21. I really enjoyed too the book Gottlieb references called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. I may need to revisit it b/c it's been a few years. I like this concept, along with the whole free-range kids concept.

  22. i am right there with you.
    to me, the most optimal thing you can do in these circumstances is exactly what you need....1.) make sure your child knows you are right there to attend to their needs if they want you 2) let them FEEL and BE.

    when they calm down, they will come back to you renewed and perhaps with a learning of their own coping tools.

    i've had to sit in front of stores for 20+ mins with my kids as they tantrumed. it is what it is and i don't mind the stares.

    good for you, mama.

  23. I have 3 kids and work in a 'hippie' daycare. I definitely believe that kids need to be allowed to feel sad and mad etc. and have a good cry. At the daycare and at my house we have a 'safe place' to cry. or throw a huge fit.

  24. Y'know, the stares might have been less because the people were concerned about your daughter's happiness, and more because they didn't want to listen to a screaming 3 year old. Just a thought. At home, yes, I let my toddler get over his tantrums himself and don't over soothe. But in public I think it's my responsibility to keep him from driving other people nuts. YMMV.

  25. It was at a park, not in a restaurant or some other place where someone couldn't move away, or where one would reasonably expect it to be quiet. And what does YMMV mean?

  26. I just now saw your comment on my birth story post! My midwife told me you sewed that scale sling and I think that is when I started reading your blog.

    These are great points! I've been working on making it a habit to validate my children's feelings, and frequently this helps. But sometimes (uh, every day!) my kids need to vent just like an adult, but adults have many ways to do this. They can write in a journal, make a phone call, have a beer, or go for a long run. Kids don't have all that, and the things they do have can be hard for them to think of in the moment. My nearly-two-year-old is in a phase in which she tantrums over something which absolutely cannot be helped. She can't decide between two choices, gets overwhelmed, and melts down. And I KNOW there is no stopping it because I've tried. It's part of growing up, and it's messy and loud. I just wish everyone understood this, because despite my best efforts it's going to happen in public occasionally and a tantrum is not a fire that needs to be put out. The belief that it is makes my job as a mama really difficult. We do what we can to keep this from happening in restaurants and places, but we shouldn't have to be hermits or parent in a way that goes against our beliefs when we're out. I think people should show a bit more understanding and grace for these little ones who are going to grow up to be their nurses, doctors, police officers, lawmakers, caregivers...

  27. This is a really great post, and I agree wholeheartedly. But this comment:
    Cassandra said...

    "Laura - I think the people who do CIO are the ones who then spank/smack their kids in an attempt to force them to stop crying. I think the parents who do everything to keep upset from happening in the first place are attached parents who take it to the super far extreme."

    -strikes a cord in me. I think CIO is a terribly misunderstood method of parenting and this kind of ridiculous assumption-making about the parents who use CIO is mean-spirited. I can tell you right now, parents who use CIO absolutely DO NOT smack their kids around. That's the same thing as saying attachment parents all must be co-dependent and are using that parenting method to validate deeper psychological issues. This kind of comment just reminds me of that particular scene in "Away We Go". Bashing other parents for just doing the very best that they can really just isolates young parents from one another, which is the last thing we should be doing.

    As for tantrums, I let my kids have them, I just contain the behavior. For instance, if it happens in the middle of a restaurant or grocery store, instead of subjecting everyone else to my child's meltdown, I just let my waitress or the manager know that I'll be back to my table or grocery cart soon and we go out to the car, where they can just scream and freak out. After they're calm, we go back.

  28. Very interesting post.. I felt unnurtured and neglected as a child but I am a pretty damn strong adult. Still I don't think I could knowingly inflict that "blessing" on my own children :) At least I won't feel guilty when they get neglected due to everyday busy-ness.


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