Cheers for Tears! Child Life Specialist Shares Why It's OK to Cry
Child Life Specialist Ashley Pagenkopf encourages caregivers and parents to be more open to tears, which can be physically and emotionally helpful amid difficult and stressful experiences.
Child Life Specialist Series: In the coming months, we will dive deeper into children’s expression of emotions, the validation of children’s emotions and experiences (including tears), and what it looks like to advocate for our children in all settings.
By Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist at Cook Children's
Recently I was helping one of my daughters prepare for surgery. We were up before dawn to do what is called a chlorohexidine bath the morning of her surgery. This is just a bath that helps to prevent infections and cleanse the skin of bacteria before surgery. We were standing in the bathroom, and I could slowly see her face changing. She burst into tears and uttered the only thing she was feeling – “I am so scared.” To which I burst into tears at almost 40 years old and replied, “I know you are, and I am too.” We both just sobbed as we finished the “bath.” Honestly, this was the first time in months of knowing about surgery that she had expressed fear or shed a tear. They were needed and necessary tears.
As a child life specialist, I am very comfortable with tears. The hospital is a combination of a new environment, painful procedures, and difficult experiences so tears are something that naturally flow. However, there is a stigma around tears and much of the world is not comfortable with or even accepting of them.
We hear a lot of things about tears and children crying from parents, caregivers and medical staff. At the first sight of tears, an adult may say: “Don’t cry. Be brave,” “You’re a big kid. Don’t cry,” or “Crying isn’t helping anything.” As we explore emotional safety within the healthcare setting and elsewhere, we need to first establish that crying is OK. Not only is crying OK, but it is also actually beneficial and a needed part of the human experience for kids and adults.
Let’s explore some of the truths about crying that may help us as parents, caregivers and staff as we respond to kids and their tears.
Crying is coping.
Coping is how we handle difficult or stressful situations. Often crying is viewed as a sign of weakness or a negative way to cope with emotions. However, while there are many negative coping behaviors (anger, addiction, impulsivity, hysterical crying), crying itself is not a negative coping skill. It is a way of self-soothing and often helps our bodies relax. It can actually help kids find their bravery in the midst of challenging moments. Following crying, kids can move past that initial overwhelming feeling of “I can’t do this!”
While excessive crying (multiple times a day) can be a sign of depression and hysterical crying can create more stress, it is important to acknowledge that crying during a difficult or stressful experience is an appropriate coping mechanism and should be welcomed. Distraction, guided imagery, counting and many other things can be used to cope. However, tears can be trusted as a positive coping skill also, and accepting tears amid difficult experiences promotes an emotionally safe environment.
Crying does actually help.
Often as a parent, our first thought when we see our kids cry is “Stop crying. That is not helping anything” as we are thinking of what they actually could do to help themselves. The truth is, though, that crying does actually help. Research tells us that crying releases oxytocin and endorphins.
Oxytocin is a hormone that once released can immediately help lessen stress and anxiety. Its release can also help us to regulate our emotions more effectively. Also, when endorphins are released, they can help naturally lessen pain. Both of these effects of crying can help greatly during stressful or difficult experiences within healthcare, home or school. Research has also shown that when we over-restrict our emotions and hold in tears, it can contribute to poor emotional regulation in the short and long term. It is clear to see that crying can definitely help someone and often does.
Crying is not just something babies do.
I’m sure you’ve heard an adult say in response to tears, “Don’t be a baby.” While in the early months of life, crying is a baby’s only means of communication, crying is not only meant for babies. Crying is a natural part of the human experience even into adulthood, and is developmentally appropriate at all ages. When we respond empathetically to tears, it can help our relationships with others. Between a parent and a child, a positive attachment can be established by responding compassionately to your child’s tears.
Research has shown that a parent’s response to a child’s tears affects how the child can regulate their own emotions. Over time, if the response from the parent is consistently negative, the child will ultimately have poor emotional regulation. If we as parents can respond and validate our child’s tears, we have a better chance of also helping them establish good coping and emotional regulation over their lifetime. Some things that you could say are: “It’s OK to cry. Let’s also take some deep breaths,” “I know this is super hard and overwhelming. I’m sorry you have to do this. I am here with you,” or “This is super hard, but you can do hard things.”
It is also OK for you to cry. Something I witness often is a parent telling a child not to cry while also crying or attempting to hold back tears themselves. Sometimes parents or caregivers will leave a situation because they are crying. While a parent or caregiver crying can be unsettling to a child, it is OK for you to cry. I will say that this is only helpful if you can regulate your own emotions and communicate with your child what you are feeling. If your crying becomes hysterical or overshadows the person experiencing difficulty, it is not helpful or compassionate. True empathy and tears can validate someone else and make space for them to feel emotionally safe with their own emotions.
So, as we strive for an emotionally safe environment for our kids, let’s remember that crying is OK. We are encouraging positive and appropriate coping skills when we allow children to cry. Tears can be physically and emotionally helpful amid difficult and stressful experiences. Babies, kids and adults all experience emotions that lead to tears. As I think about the times in my life that have been stressful and challenging, tears have accompanied all of those times even now as an almost 40-year-old woman. We shouldn’t fear tears. Crying is a natural and helpful part of the human experience that allows us to grow in compassion and empathy and cope with this crazy life. Cheers to tears!