When a child cries it is not only heart wrenching but can be agonising to the very sensitive eardrum, especially if you have no idea why your toddler is crying and you can’t get her to stop.
The sound of toddlers’ crying can be compared to the noisiness of aircraft carriers and even high decibel sound systems at car shows. Pilots use earplugs to block out the noises of the aircraft carriers, swimmers use earplugs to keep water out of their ears and to shut out the excitement of the crowds and neighbours use earplugs to block out the noises of the wild party next door. But parents, well… moms and dads sometimes reach for ear plugs or wish they had some lying around when their toddler starts wailing away for no apparent reason. Toddlers don’t sob their little hearts out just because they feel like it or to annoy you. They cry for specific reasons, which you may not always be aware of or don’t always understand. Throw out those earplugs, get comfortable and read all about the whys of cries and how to dry those toddler tears.
Babies’ crying versus toddlers’ crying
Ann Richardson co-author of Baby Sense and Sleep Sense and the author of Toddler Sense, says babies and toddlers cry for very much the same reasons. “They cry when they are hungry, tired, when they are feeling cold and wet or when they are feeling lonely, frightened or anxious.”
Educational psychologist, Melanie Hartgill says babies generally cry because they are babies. “Many babies cry at least once a day as they have no other way to express themselves. They cry when they are hungry, thirsty, sick or irritated,” she adds. “A toddler generally cries for the same and many other reasons such as fear, anxiety, hunger, need for comfort, tiredness, frustration, and a demonstration of independence or a need for attention,” says Hartgill.
Why so sad little one?
Richardson says the most common reason why toddlers cry, apart from their primitive needs such as food and physical and emotional comfort, is tiredness. “The younger a child, the less resistance they have to manage periods of time being awake before their nervous system “collapses”. A toddler’s awake time is longer than a baby’s, but the importance of a day time nap and early bed time routine is still very important.”
“Toddlers also cry when they are frustrated,” says Richardson. “They get upset when they are unable to communicate their needs verbally, if they can’t manage to complete a physical task, such as getting their shoes on properly or when they can’t have an object of desire, such as a toy or sweet.”
Hartgill adds that toddlers find it difficult to make sense of the world and can find it very overwhelming. “They experience a wide variety of emotions without the ability to express how they are feeling which is why we see a lot of frustration and anger related tears in toddlers.” She adds that toddlers attempt throwing tantrums to determine the response they will get. “If the response gives them what they wanted, they have learned a new way of communicating, which is why they repeat their behaviour.”
Educator Melodie de Jager says a toddler’s speech is not entirely developed at that young age and crying is their way of talking. “Mothers have to be quite sharp to decode their toddlers’ cries. When your child cries it will tell you more about what is wrong than words will. Children have different cries for their different emotions. A sad cry sounds very different from a frustrated cry.” She adds that parents have to learn to listen to their toddlers’ cries in order to find out what he is trying to tell you. “In order to do that you have to temporarily place yourself in your child’s shoes.”
De Jager further explains that toddlers cry because they are not able to identify their emotions yet and they also don’t have the words to tell you what is wrong. “Toddlers have a need for someone to speak on their behalf and crying is an emotional outlet for them.”
Drying those toddler tears
Richardson says the trick to drying your toddler’s tears is to hopefully avoid them in the first place. She says parents have to get to know their child and find out what excites them and what frightens them. “Incorporate routines into your child’s day and offer him choices, such as what sweetie he can have or what colour shirt he wants to wear. “It is also important to instil healthy boundaries around sleep, behaviour, possessions, food and potty training and to be consistent when implementing these boundaries.”
Hartgill says it is important to remember that each child is different so there is no single solution to drying a toddler’s tears. “You have to consider your child’s temperament when trying to comfort him, but in general, you should ensure that your toddler always has something to occupy himself with. Although this is not the same as constantly entertaining your child, it helps to make sure that his environment is stimulating so that he has an opportunity to learn and explore.”
“If your child starts crying or throwing a tantrum, try to distract him and get him interested in something else to break the tears,” says Hartgill. “You should, however, not reward your toddlers’ tantrums as it will only worsen matters, but give him positive attention when he is not crying.
“Deal with the obvious causes of your toddlers’ tears, such as tiredness, hunger or over-stimulation and always stay calm as toddlers need that security and familiarity to feel safe and loved,” Hartgill explains.
De Jager says you have to talk for your child when he cries and verbalise the words they don’t yet have to tell you what is wrong. “. If you can see your child is angry or sad help him to identify his feelings and say,” You feel sad because… or you get angry when…” Your toddler will most likely complete the sentence and feel much better afterwards as he was able to identify his emotions.” Movies or television programs such as Barney can be of help when teaching children about emotions. If Barney is sad or angry, for example, you can say,” Look Barney is now sad or angry.” This will help children to identify their own emotions and express themselves better when they are upset, sad or frustrated.
Foil those tears
Toddler crying can be prevented, as their pouts are often predictable. Here are three ways to avoid those heartbreaking sobs:
- Pinpoint the reasons for your toddlers’ crying. If your child always cries while you are in the car driving, take his favourite toy along to keep him distracted for the duration of the trip. If he tears up when you deny him access to your handbag or jewellery, move it out of his sight and out of his reach.
- Routines are very important. Toddlers usually thrive when they are on a regular schedule, so it is very important to establish routines for your child. Children feel safe and in control when they know what is going to happen next in their day. Your toddler will be less likely to react emotional if he knows what to expect.
- Avoid over stimulation. If you know your toddler is overtired it is best to avoid outings and rather let him take a nap.
Written by Sister Ann Richardson, qualified nurse and midwife and co-author of Baby Sense; Sleep Sense and author of the international best seller Toddler Sense