what can I do about my preschooler who cries about everything?

Today's question comes from Lisa, who asked me to write about preschoolers who cry about everything:

Some preschoolers are a bit more tender than others. They have a harder time with transitions, take social interactions very personally, and seem to need a lot more attention. They are easily overwhelmed by changes in routine, and once they are overwhelmed, they have a very hard time calming themselves down. Often they will continue spiraling emotionally out of control until they receive the help of a calm and caring adult.

This is where it gets tricky! We adults often find ourselves becoming impatient and exasperated when the crying and whining goes on and on. The more upset our child is, the more strain we feel on our own nervous systems. The more we want them to stop crying, the harder it is to provide the calm and caring presence that could help bring it to an end.

So here's what to do. When your child is crying, and you feel the tension building in yourself, take a deep, slow breath. Calm yourself down first.

Then, get down to your child's level, look at her, and ask her if she wants you to hold her. If she nods, go ahead and bring her into your lap and comfort her.

If she doesn't want to be held, just sit yourself nearby and be with her. While you are holding her or not, speak some guesses as to what might be going on for her. "Oh, you weren't quite ready to leave yet." "You wanted more." "You wanted that toy." This is not an endorsement, it's simply an acknowledgement of her feelings. Kids start to calm down very quickly after they feel understood.

You might be thinking, "Yeah, right, that's sounds nice and everything, but I have things to do!!" Which of course is true, but let's think about that for a second. Which takes longer and costs more of our energy - trying to move on ahead with our schedules while dragging around a crying child, or investing a moment now to have a cooperative and willing helper for the rest of the errand?

Until she has calmed down, her emotional state will prohibit any kind of reasonable conversation. A crying child needs to be comforted before any learning will take place. Current brain research tells us that learning is simply not occurring while a child is in a state of emotional distress. Period.

So job one is to comfort the child. When she feels understood, you'll see her start to relax a bit, and the storm will start to subside. Sometimes, just this release of energy will be enough to allow you to continue with your activity - stimulation just builds up in the nervous system and needs to vent through crying in order to return to manageable levels.

Other times, after your child calms down, you can talk a little bit about what might have triggered the blow up, and troubleshoot ways to avoid it. For example, you may decide your child needs more warning before a transition, or that it works better to run errands after naptime, or that an earlier lunch might head off a blood sugar crash.

In any case, you'll be able to think much more clearly about all this after the crying has stopped, so don't put pressure on yourself to figure it out on the spot. Simply take a deep breath, soothe your child by holding her (or sitting nearby) and see if you can understand where she's coming from. Later, when things are calm, you can make some changes to her routine if necessary.

For more on children who cry at everything, see my post http://www.advice-for-parents.com/2007/11/my-child-cries-at-everything-part-2.html

For information about scheduling a parenting consultation with Karen by phone or email, please visit www.advice-for-parents.com or www.karenalonge.com.


Anonymous said...

You should also check out the picture book The Boy Who Cried Over Everything. This book is a fictional story that helps your child deal with his or her emotions.

Anonymous said...

My daughter is 3 years old and i think she falls into all of the side catergories. She behaves extremely well at her daycare but tehsecond i pick her up she begings to ask for stuff, she wants mcdonalds, she wants candy, she wants to go to her grandmothers house and i tell her either not today or tomorrow or anything, anything that isnt yes she cries.

karen alonge said...

such a tough scenario for a parent to cope with - crying children push all our buttons!

here's an article with some suggestions you may find useful:

Anonymous said...

That link is broken I think you want


Anonymous said...


karen alonge said...

Thank you! Hand in Hand just redesigned their entire website, and I was hoping the old URL's would eventually redirect to the new site since I have posted so many of them! I will correct this one, and I appreciate your help.