Wacky Toddler Behavior: Sudden Crying

Where is the random, out-of-nowhere crying coming from? Find out what's causing the uncontrollable tears, and how do you make it stop.

boy crying
Photo: Alexandra Grablewski

Your toddler is happily playing with his toy truck when, all of a sudden, he breaks out with a loud, unexpected, and heart-stopping wail. You nearly break your leg sprinting across the room, only to have his tears stop as suddenly as it started. He resumes pushing his truck and making vroom, vroom noises as if nothing happened. Several hours later, the cycle repeats. This time your son is drinking a cup of milk when he lets out a few whimpers before going right back to drinking.

Although these bouts of crying may seem to happen for no reason, there are usually a few common causes. Pain or illness could be one; even if you don't see any signs, a headache or earache could cause random tears. Your child may yelp if there's a sudden increase in pain and then stop when it subsides. Also, because toddlers have limited ways of communicating verbally, crying becomes a way for them to communicate that they want or need something, such as attention, a toy, or a snack, says Nathan Blum, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and acting associate division chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Or your kid could have been reminded of a frightening experience, even if it didn't happen at that moment. Because the line between make-believe and real life is blurry for young children, something (a shark in a book, a loud noise on TV) could trigger your child to remember something terrifying, even days later. Toddlers and preschoolers switch emotions very easily, from happy to upset and back to happy within a short period, says Stan Spinner, M.D., the chief medical officer at Texas Children's Pediatrics in Houston. So if your usually happy child suddenly starts crying for seemingly no reason, here are ways to deal with the stop-and-go tears.

Use Your Detective Skills

It's up to you to find out what sparked the cry-fest because your toddler is too young to express his thoughts and feelings verbally. First, make sure your child isn't sick or injured physically. If all seems well, go through your usual list of questions to determine what could be going on, Dr. Blum says: "Is the child hungry? Does he have a dirty diaper? Is he sleepy? Does he want to be held? Is he bored? Does he want a different activity?"

Ignore the Crying

Another common reason for sudden crying is that your child is seeking attention, Dr. Spinner says. Once you're certain that the tears aren't due to fear, hunger, or discomfort, allowing your kid to cry for brief periods may be beneficial. "The child will learn that crying may not always get her what she wants, and it allows her to soothe herself at appropriate times," Dr. Spinner says. After she calms herself down, show her some attention. Making a big deal about the behavior you prefer (the self-soothing) means she'll be more likely to repeat it.

Keep Him Busy

Boredom can also bring on tears, so keep your child busy with activities and lots of fun time with Mom and Dad. If he's engaged, he won't be so focused on little issues, like the missing wheel on his toy truck. Just be careful not to go overboard with activities and attention. Toddlers are just as likely to crank out the tears when they're overstimulated.

Let Her Call the Shots

Kids this age crave independence. Sometimes they cry out in frustration because they feel bossed around. Even if your kid is enjoying herself dancing with her mommy, she may let out a whimper when she realizes that dancing wasn't originally her idea. Or when she looks down at her purple shoes, she might cry for a few seconds because she remembered wanting to wear her yellow ones. So give your child some age-appropriate choices ("Do you want to play with your blocks or draw a picture?" or "Would you like yogurt or pancakes for breakfast?"). She'll probably be more agreeable (and less whiny) if she feels she has a say in her life.

Start Teaching Self-Expression

Teach your child simple words he can use to describe his feelings, like happy, sad, mad, and tired. Use the words often and in appropriate situations so he can understand how and when to use them. Then next time he starts bawling, get down to his eye level. Say, "What's wrong? Are you sad? Mad? Bored?" Once he has the language to express himself, he might be more inclined to use it rather than immediately turning on the tears.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

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