When my daughter Molly was 3, she cried quite a bit. But nothing prepared me for what I call "the waffle incident." One morning at preschool drop-off, she was still happily chewing a toaster waffle she'd brought from home. When she put her half-eaten breakfast down on a table, the girl next to her gobbled it up. Molly threw back her head and wailed as if a dozen adorable puppies had died.
I realized then that some children, like my Molly, are naturally on the sensitive end of the spectrum: prone to waterworks when the world doesn't conform exactly to their expectations. However, there's a bright side. "Highly sensitive children tend to be more compassionate, gentle, and creative," says Linda Dunlap, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York. They just need a little guidance from you to help manage their emotions.
It's the rare preschooler who can fully understand his feelings and express them in words, so tears are bound to make an appearance at some point. But if your kid seems to cry more than usual, even over seemingly minor issues, he may just be genetically wired to be extra sensitive. Studies at Harvard University found that the 10 percent or so of babies who were the most upset by new noises and unfamiliar people at 16 weeks old retained their finely tuned emotional smoke alarm as they got older. Adds Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: "Some children haven't yet developed that inner brake. When they get upset about something, all their emotions come right to the surface and they get a flash flood of tears."
Such kids' ability to feel emotions a little more deeply -- while sometimes frustrating to parents -- is also something to cherish. "Sensitive children may be overwhelmed by their own feelings, but they're also very tuned in to how other people feel, and this makes them very empathetic friends," says Dr. Dunlap.
The Right Reaction
If you're at a birthday party where all the kids are happily eating cupcakes while your child is weeping because she got a blue one instead of pink, your first instinct may be to quickly make a switch for her. "However, if you jump in right away, she'll lose confidence in her ability to solve her own problems," says Dr. Dunlap.
Avoid the urge to tell her to stop crying -- which will probably just trigger more tears, says Dr. Borba. Hypersensitive preschoolers are very good at reading their parents' emotions. If you get tense, it tells your child that whatever is upsetting her really is something to get worked up about -- and this models the very behavior you're trying to change. One way to help your child get control of her emotions is by playfully telling her, "Freeze!" "Freezing helps a child stop and collect herself," says Dr. Borba. Then suggest that she take a deep breath and blow it out through her mouth the way a dragon would.
Distracting your child by guiding him to another activity is also a powerful tool. "When my daughter was in preschool, it felt like she cried all the time," says Melissa Morgenlander, of Brooklyn, New York. "One of her teachers suggested that when she felt tears coming, she should count to ten out loud. It's simple, but it worked -- by the time she got to eight or nine, she would always start to smile." The counting method is a gold standard, agrees Dr. Dunlap. "At age 3 or 4, counting still takes focus and concentration, so whatever was upsetting your child may feel like old news by the time he gets to ten."
Next, coax your child to tell you exactly what made him unhappy, so you can help him find a remedy. If he says, "I'm sad Joey doesn't want to play with me," ask him, "What can you do to make yourself feel better?" If he's stumped for ideas, remind him of things that make him feel good, like inviting another child over to play or looking at a favorite picture book. With a little practice, he'll soon start coming up with his own solutions, without any prompting from an adult.
Even kids who aren't typically teary can go through emotional periods, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry series of parenting books. "If there's been a recent change such as a move or a new baby, your child may become more sensitive," she explains. Look over her daily routine: Insufficient sleep or poor eating habits can also be enough to make a preschooler feel irritable. Checking in with your pediatrician can't hurt: Anything from an undetected chronic ear infection to a slight speech delay could make a kid quick to cry.
Although you might not be able to rewire your child's sensitive personality, she'll eventually gain the maturity to monitor her emotions and become more resilient. Believe it or not, peer pressure can be a force for good. "By age 6 or 7, she will probably have fewer bouts of crying, especially when she sees that other children prefer to play with her when she's not in tears," says Dr. Dunlap. My own little sniffler is still a sensitive girl at age 10, but she rarely sheds inappropriate tears in public any more. Instead, her deeply felt emotions come out in the way she plays the violin or the kindness she shows when she meets kids with special needs. She'll even happily share a waffle if you ask.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Parents magazine.