The tears of an older child can be tougher to decode than the wails you studied so intently in the baby phase. Here’s an inside look at the top triggers and some surprising soothing strategies.

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The other morning, 10 minutes before we had to walk out the door to preschool, my then 5-year-old freaked out about her leggings. Too loose! Too black! Too … pants-y! The big tears that rolled down her cheeks were heartbreaking—but also frustrating because, c’mon, they’re just pants, and we had to go! My husband and I took turns trying to soothe and distract her, but ultimately we just carried her out the door, still wailing.

Whether it makes sense to you or not, a child’s crying is always sending a message, says Diana Divecha, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Your kid is not just a crybaby. “The content of the message changes depending on where they are developmentally and what’s going on,” Dr. Divecha says. “But no matter what the trigger is, tears let you know that your child needs a bit of help to regulate their emotions and be able to move on.” These are the hidden messages your kid’s sobs could be telling you and how you can help.

“I’m Exhausted.”

When a kid (or an adult, for that matter) is overtired, their body releases extra adrenaline and cortisol to try to keep them alert—the same hormones released in response to stress. These hormones can make us more vulnerable to crankiness and tears, explains Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of What to Do When You Worry Too Much. The reasoning centers of a kid’s brain are still developing, making it doubly hard for them to control their impulses and emotions when they’re drained.

How To Help: Once you’ve figured out that the tears are from tiredness, don’t try to negotiate or convince your child that they’re sleepy. “Just get them into bed as fast as you can,” says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist and author of What’s My Child Thinking? “Tired kids have no bandwidth to deal with any kind of frustration, and this is not the time to try to talk things through with them.” If this happens a lot, rethink how your family prioritizes sleep. “Perhaps you need to limit screen use at night or build in more wind-down time,” suggests Dr. Huebner.

“I’m Overwhelmed.”

Research suggests that between 10 and 35 percent of people are more sensitive to sounds, lights, and commotion than others. As children, they can become overwhelmed and burst into tears in loud or chaotic situations, like birthday parties. “This isn’t a sensory disorder,” explains Jadzia Jagiellowicz, Ph.D., a psychology researcher who treats and studies highly sensitive people. “It’s just a natural difference in biology and personality.” (To find out if your child may be highly sensitive, answer a few questions at hsperson.com/test.)

How To Help: Remind yourself that crying can be beneficial for kids, notes Dr. Huebner. “We often think it’s our job to make our child’s crying stop, but that’s a misconception,” she says. Your child is sharing their big feelings with you, so instead of trying to quell their tears, help them identify what’s happening by saying something like, “That was hard. You’re really upset. I’m right here. I can help you.”

“Something Hurts.”

Babies’ cries of pain tend to be louder and more intense with fewer breaths, while fussy cries are lower-pitched and more irregular, says Ariana Anderson, Ph.D., a professor and statistician at UCLA who studies acoustic patterns in infant crying. By 3 or 4 years old, kids can also cry in anticipation of pain, explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “Now they’re able to look into the future and imagine that something, like removing a splinter or getting a shot, will hurt.”

How To Help: A soothing physical touch or hug will get oxytocin—a powerful natural pain reliever—flowing. An ice pack can also offer a calming effect and stop any swelling if a bump or a fall caused the tears.

If your kid is scared of future pain, like a shot, “first empathize by saying, ‘Shots are scary for you, and you’re afraid it’s going to hurt’ or ‘Shots aren’t fun. Nobody likes getting shots,’ ” says Dr. Huebner. Then move to problem solving. “If you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, you could distract them by saying, ‘Pretend my fingers are birthday candles,’ while wiggling them in front of your child. Then say, ‘Make your best wish and blow them out!’ ” If you’re still at home, start with empathy, then describe what’s going to happen step-by-step. Plan a brief and fun activity to do afterward like a trip to the park or a treat of hot cocoa with marshmallows—not as a reward for being good but as a way to give them something to look forward to so they won’t obsess over the shot.

child with face in couch
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

“I Need Food, Now!”

Just like adults, some children get hangry when they haven’t eaten in a while and their blood sugar drops. (Keep in mind that kids generally need to eat every three to four hours during the day—that’s three meals and two snacks, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.) Without proper fuel, the thinking, learning, and emotional regulation processes of their brain slow down.

How To Help: If you know you have an especially hunger-sensitive kid, plan for and pack snacks whenever you go out. You should even keep a couple of melt-proof “emergency” protein bars or fruit leathers in your car. “Young kids aren’t capable of putting their hunger on hold and waiting to eat in the same way that adults can, so they’re much more likely to whine and melt down when their reserves are low,” explains Dr. Huebner. If you know that your child is always starving when you’re making dinner, offer an “appetizer” of baby carrots, salad, or apple slices. And avoid asking your hungry kid what they want to eat. Just give them something you know they’ll accept. Remember, they can’t reason right now, and offering choices is likely to result in frustration.

“I Feel Guilty.”

Starting around the age of 3, kids start to feel empathy for others and may cry when they’ve hurt someone or done something wrong. This reaction is both a sign of true remorse and a not-quite-conscious effort to avoid getting in trouble, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Fear may be another reason for those big, guilty tears, especially in toddlers, adds Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “Your child might think, ‘If I do something bad, will you not love me anymore?’ ”

How To Help: Teach your remorseful kid how to make amends so that they can move past the upsetting situation. For example, if they knocked down their sister’s LEGO castle, ask them, “What can you do to help her feel better?” Perhaps they’ll suggest helping her rebuild it in addition to saying they’re sorry—or you can encourage them to come to that conclusion.

“I’m Scared.”

Being afraid is a healthy and normal emotion that helps us humans survive. Infants and toddlers often cry when something overwhelms their senses. “Things that happen suddenly or unexpectedly are scary because a child has trouble making sense of them,” Dr. Huebner says. That’s why a darting cat or dog or a loudly flushing toilet can spark tears in little ones. By around age 3, your child’s imagination blossoms and they may start to fear things that never bothered them before, like animals or the dark.

How To Help: Empathize, even if their fear seems totally unreasonable (say, a doting stranger is looking at them or the blow dryer is too loud). “In terms of brain function, feeling heard really helps kids calm down,” notes Dr. Huebner. “Think about it: If you’re upset and someone minimizes it or immediately tries to ‘fix’ it, that often makes you feel worse.” Start by saying something like, “That seems so scary for you.” Then encourage your child by saying you know they’re strong enough to face this, even though they’re scared.

child sitting with parent
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

“I’m Mad!!”

Oh, the hot tears of a frustrated kid. When your toddler or preschooler stamps their feet, yells, or slams a door, remember that kids this age have little emotional control, says Dr. Klein. Their rage tears may flow because something feels unfair, someone blocked their plans, or they didn’t get what they wanted. “The areas of your child’s brain that will help them be more flexible are still developing. Yelling is an impulsive reaction, not a choice.” Even 8- or 9-year-olds don’t have as much emotional control as adults do.

How To Help: Tell your little one, “You’re really mad. You wanted to wear your sandals even though it’s cold outside.” Or for an older child, “Man, you seem really frustrated. I know how badly you wanted to go.” Empathy will help you wipe away their tears—no matter what caused them to fall.

5 Ways To Keep Your Cool During A Tantrum

The best thing you can do when your child is freaking out is to stay calm—your own stress can make the situation worse. Whatever you do, don’t call them a crybaby, even in your mind. “It tells your kid that their emotions don’t matter and could make it difficult for them to manage their feelings later in life,” says Dr. Ariana Anderson, of UCLA. Try one of these strategies to turn down the temp.

Remind yourself: “They’re just a little kid.”

“Your child needs you to be a rational person in high-emotion moments because they can’t be,” says Dr. Tovah Klein, of Barnard, who used this mantra when her kids were toddlers.

Pause. That’s it, just pause.

Take a 30-second break when you’re getting upset, says Dr. Diana Divecha, of Yale. “In that moment between getting triggered and choosing a response, think of your best parenting self and how you might channel that now.”

Picture yourself swaying in a storm.

A kid’s tantrum can feel crazy in the moment, but it will pass. “Visualize a storm blowing through. You’re just sitting on the sidelines, calm and nonjudgmental, but waiting,” says Dr. Divecha. In other words, don’t let the wind toss you around.

Breathe in for four seconds and out for six.

This technique is called paced breathing. It triggers your relaxation response to help you calm down. “You don’t have to hide it from your child,” says Dr. Divecha. “You’re showing them, in a safe way, that you also have big emotions and demonstrating what they can do when they feel the same way.”

Put your hand over your heart.

Any kind of touch, even your own, releases the soothing hormone oxytocin, explains clinical psychologist Dr. Dawn Huebner.

Quiet Their Tears: A Cheat Sheet

Listen First, Then Fix

Don’t rush this part. Hear your child’s side of the story and wait until you see their face or posture soften—a sign that they’re ready to hear your advice or explanation. “Adults tend to skip over the emotions quickly in order to find a solution, but kids aren’t able to listen until they feel fully heard,” says clinical child psychologist Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore.

Make Some Room

Some kids like to be held, but others need their space. “It’s a way for your child to learn how to calm themselves down,” says Dr. Ariana Anderson. Without making your kid feel they’re being banished for crying, ask if they want a cozy “nest” on the couch with books and a blanket, or if they’d prefer some peace and quiet alone in their bedroom.

Grab an Ice Pack

Splashing cold water or putting something chilled on your child’s forehead, eyes, or cheeks can help them snap out of an especially intense emotional spiral. The cold feeling triggers the “dive response” that automatically slows down breathing, calms the body, and, in turn, brings down their emotional temperature. Just be sure to ask your child first before doing this.

Get Wild

For kids who cry often, tears may represent letting go of tension and built-up energy. “Laughter is equally effective, so build roughhousing, dancing, or chasing each other around the house into your daily routine,” says Dr. Dawn Huebner. “It’s like releasing a pressure valve.”

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's January 2021 issue as “The Whys of Cries.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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