When It’s Okay To Let Your Toddler Cry

Ekingwrites

No cry parenting is a myth.

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Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: “No cry” parenting is a myth, it’s impossible, it can’t be done.

Take a beat, let it sink in, and stop trying to achieve the impossible.

Feel better?

Good.

Now I’m going to tell you when it’s actually okay to let them cry and not try to make them stop.

Because making them stop often means pandering to bad behavior and giving a pay-off when there shouldn’t be one, even if the payoff is just your attention.

How do I know this?

Because I’ve had a home daycare for almost 10-years and I’ve learned a thing or two. I can reverse engineer behaviors back to parental interactions and I can tell how a child or even an adult became who they are.

If you disagree suit yourself, but if you want an insider's insights, keep reading.

Children cry for many reasons, some valid, some not, I’m going to let you in on when they’re crying doesn’t need an emergency response or in some cases a response at all.

Toddlers are at a stage in life where they want all of your attention and they don’t care whether it’s good or bad attention they’re getting.

This is also the phase where their personality gets embedded, and you’re the one inputting the data so if you want a patient, reasonable child who thrives on good attention, this is the phase where you can actively create that.

Back to my previous point: Toddlers will cry.

They can’t help themselves.

When something makes them mad they cry, when they want something they cry, when they think they’re not getting what they should they cry. When things change…when they want to be picked up…when they want your attention…when they’re frustrated…you get the idea.

You could live your life trying not to piss them off, but that would be futile and impossible.

So I’m going to give you an insider’s guide to why your kid is crying.

What you're going to learn here is that crying itself isn't always about what you think and you may be surprised why.

Many parents miss these lessons because when you're in the heat of the moment, it’s difficult to detach and discover what is really going on.

I get it, your child’s cry affects you in a crazy way. It’s like nails-on-chalkboard torture but the problem is, you undermine your own parenting when it gets under your skin.

If you can learn to step back and not take every cry personally what you discover is that generally speaking when kids are playing up, they’re playing you.

Of course, sometimes your child will fall down and cry.

This is a straightforward cry. The “I’m hurt” cry.

You might need to rush in with a hug and kiss or you need to hang back and let them work through it.

I’m not really talking about this kind of crying.

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Because in reality, after about the age of one-and-a-half, a lot of the crying a kid does is out of self-interest intended solely to manipulate those around them. Generally speaking, if it gets results, they’re going to do it.

I’ve run a home daycare for the past eight years, I should know.

I've seen just about everything.

And one thing I’ve learned is that, more often than not, your kid is crying to get your goat and be a jerk.

I can’t tell you the number of times a child has come into my home screaming like it’s the end of the world, leaving mom in tears or dad shrugging his shoulders only to turn the waterworks off the minute the door shuts.

I’ve had parents so traumatized by this that I’ve had to take videos and send them to show it was all an act. I’ve had parents still sitting in their cars crying long after their child has pulled themselves together and toddled off to play.

(This isn't to be confused with a situation where there is real trauma, if your kid is just being a jerk, they'll be themselves the rest of the time. If something is really wrong, there will be signs, there will be big personality changes and acting out, and as always, if you suspect actual abuse, don't put your child in harm's way - just don't)

So here are some examples of when they’re going to cry and it’s okay to let them because they need to learn a life lesson or they’re just doing it to be manipulative.

When your toddler wants you to give them their bottle, a toy, your breakfast, or anything they selfishly want at the moment and you make them wait or flat out say no. They will go through a phase where they will probably freak out and that’s okay.

Toddlers are in a phase between infancy and big kid status where they scream because they’re impatient and selfish.

This is the natural transition between instinct and socialization.

The infant screams for everything because they have no other recourse and we instinctively react every time because when an infant cries we must spring into action, it’s what needs to happen.

If we didn’t babies wouldn’t survive.

But once they’re out of that newborn baby phase, they don’t need us to spring into action every time.

Yes, they want us to, but they don’t need us to.

Toddlers have all of the impatience of newborns but without the pressing needs so making them wait is how we teach them that the world does not revolve around them.

They'll scream like it’s the end of the world if they think it'll get them what they want but if you say no and mean it, over time they realize that this tactic doesn’t work and learn to find another way.

If you feed it and give in to it, this becomes their go-to behavior for everything they want and it will become a habit. At the age of two, it’s easy to awkwardly laugh this off as “terrible two’s” when they’re screaming for something when they’re 10, not so much.

Pro Tip: My motto is “he who screams the loudest, waits for the longest.” It’s how I actively teach patience and believe me, patience is a learned skill.

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When your kid wants something you know they shouldn’t have and you take it away, they'll be pissed off, and that’s okay.

This is pretty self-evident but it bears noting.

When your toddler wants to play with a steak knife, a drill, a vase…you have to take it away because the alternative is an injury or worse. So take it away, let them get mad and cry, walk away, and they’ll get over it.

Don’t pander, redirect, distract, or make a big deal of it. When they shouldn’t have something, they shouldn’t have it, and that is your call — period.

Trying to “make up for”, making the right decision by giving them something so they won’t be upset dilutes the message and makes you apologize for doing your job.

It sets a dangerous precedent that says no matter what you say, even when you're right you owe them something in order to have them listen. There's no respect in this equation because you've become a doormat and if you think that’s bad when they’re two, imagine what you'll have to give them as teenagers.

Pro-tip: What they're like when they are two is what they will be like when they are thirteen only worse so nip this behavior in the bud now because by the time they're four it will be who they are.

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When they’re acting up in public and you want them to stop they’ll sense your discomfort and amp it up if it gets results.

You don’t have to give into them. You can let them cry and practice good parenting even to the glares of others and that’s okay.

Yes, there are going to be times when you scoop up your screaming toddler and flee the scene.

Everybody’s been there and those who haven’t just haven’t had kids yet. But there are times in public, where you just have to stand back, let your kid be a screaming jerk and have the chips fall where they may.

Kids act up in public because it works.

They’re banking on the fact that you will be so embarrassed that you will do anything to get them to stop.

A two-year-old will have figured out if you are a public caver.

So if you want this behavior to stop or if you want to nip it in the bud before it becomes a problem, just let them go at it.

When my daughter went through this phase, I used to just stand back and let her go and say to her, “you know, everyone is looking at you.” Then I’d look away and ignore her. I starved the crap out of that behavior and it was a phase that passed fast.

Toddlers are acutely aware of the people around them they and if they see people looking at them, they'll get embarrassed.

Toddlers have a sense of shame and that's a good thing when used properly, it keeps us in check.

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When they don’t want to leave the park/want a toy every time you go the store/don’t want to do something they need to do they will get mad and cry, no probs, it’s fine.

Say no and mean it or say you are doing this,” and mean it.

Don’t say no and then give them what they want or give in. Don’t say “you don’t get a toy” as you're handing it to them to shut them up.

That sends the message that even though you say no, you really mean just scream a lot and you will get what you want.

I saw a dad once at swimming lessons say to his son who was climbing out of the pool in the middle of the lesson, “get back in there, we’re not quitters”.

Immediately after he said that the kid started screaming so he grabbed the kid and left.

This kid knew his dad had no follow-through or integrity. He knew regardless of what the dad said, if he screamed, he'd go home.

I’m betting that kid got a toy every time he went to a store, or his parents just couldn’t take him anywhere, because if he wanted something he’d just scream.

I had a swimming lesson screamer myself.

Every week I handed my daughter over to the instructor, said don’t let her get out,” and sat in agony listening to the nails-on-chalkboard sound of my kid being an ass for the entire lesson.

She wasn’t in danger, she wasn’t hurt, she just didn’t want to be there. So, I put on my big girl pants and sat there sweating because I knew she needed to learn to swim.

We eventually took her to a woman who is known in our area as the swim Nazi because she takes a hard-line, no-b*llsh@t approach to teaching, and guess what?

It worked.

This lady didn't give a flying fig that she was screaming and just got on with it.

The other interesting thing was that my daughter screamed way more when I was there. Lots of kids are way worse for their mothers.

In the middle of one particularly bad outburst, the swim Nazi looked right up at me (keep in mind this was a group lesson so lots of other parents there) pointed, and yelled, "She never does this for you husband!!!"

I yelled back, "I know!!!" and went and shamefully hid in a dark corner.

What I didn't do was let my kid get out of those lessons because I was embarrassed and eventually, she settled down and learned to swim.

Sometimes you just have to suck it up and make them do what's best.

Toddlers do whatever it takes to try to get what they want or get out of what they don’t want to do and they prey on the person who they think will give in.

Don’t be that parent because it will never end.

If you don’t like your two-year-old screaming at you until you give in every time imagine how you’re going to feel when your sixteen-year-old does it because they will.

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Sometimes when they do antisocial things to get your attention it’s okay to let them experience the consequences and that will probably make them cry.

True story:

My husband remembers this like it was yesterday.

When he was about 2 or so he used to bang his head on the wall. It always got his mother’s attention. It was a great way to get noticed.

One day as he was doing this, and his mother was freaking out, his grandmother came up and said to his mom, “just let him do it.”

His mother stood back (probably out of fear of her mother-in-law more than anything else) and waited and my husband can actually remember the exact moment he realized two things.

  • One: his mom wasn’t buying what he was selling
  • Two: it hurts to bang your head on the wall.

At that moment he stopped and never did it again. It was such a powerful moment in his life that he remembers it to this day.

This is very common.

If a child sees that they can do something to really wind you up, they will.

All children crave attention and they go through a period where they don’t care if it’s good attention or bad attention, any attention will do.

However, toddlers can become vindictive if bad behavior gets a payoff and they'll keep escalating if that’s what’s working.

Parents can get so unnerved they don’t see it for what it is, which is the child using their behavior as a weapon.

How you react to this attention-seeking behavior can unwittingly reinforce it.

Here are some common things I've dealt with over the years:

  • I’ve had multiple kids with sensitive gag reflexes who make themselves throw up at will to try to get the upper hand in a situation if they throw up on themselves on purpose, I don’t rush to clean them. If they do it to themselves they wait in time out while I clean up their mess, they don’t get my undivided attention cleaning them up right away, this way they don’t associate my attention with the act.
  • I’ve had kids pee on the floor just to see what I’ll do this kid sits in time out in their gross pee pants while I clean the floor and then gets a time out, again, they don’t learn to associate my attention with the act.
  • Some kids don’t listen and constantly push the boundaries to see if I’ll give in these kids get the opposite of what they want. If they are doing something destructive to get my attention they go into a long time out and I ignore them. If they have a toy and they aren’t listening, the toy gets taken away and they get time out. I let them sit and stew before I go and talk to them about it.
  • Some children learn to scream for everything. If they scream at me for something they get nothing unless they ask properly. I had a kid once who shrieked for what he wanted, it made his mother come running, with this child, every time he screamed at me, I turned and purposefully walked away from him. I taught him that his screaming did the opposite to me than it did to his mom.
  • If a kid is running in the house, I make them go back to where they started and start over and walk. We do this as many times as needed until they do it properly. When the child walks properly I praise them and give them lots of positive reinforcement.

(Taking the time to reinforce good behavior and deter the bad is time well spent, if you do this in toddlerhood when they’re internalizing their life lessons, they become patient, thoughtful, measured adults.)

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Kids need to feel a consequence as an incentive to stop destructive/counter-productive/antisocial behavior - begging, pleading, bribing, and trying to reason with them just doesn't work.

It sends the wrong message and puts the child in a position of authority they don't have the self-control or maturity to handle.

It's the consequence that teaches that self-control and assists in developing maturity, but it's a hard lesson because it goes against their self-centered infant instincts. Letting go of those instincts and replacing them with the behavior required to function healthily in society is difficult and scary for them.

But it's something they must do to live a happy, emotionally fulfilled life.

Unfortunately, consequences are unpleasant and will usually make them cry.

But when they cry you know the message has been received.

Because toddlers are at a stage in life where they don't any actual life experience, by letting them feel the consequences of their actions, you're actually letting them build up a little reserve of experiences to draw from.

When an experience is unpleasant enough to get a reaction, you know they'll remember it for next time.

You're helping them input information into their database.

Being upset shows you that they understand the lesson. They’re not scarred for life, they’re just learning that consequences don’t feel good.

That's what you want and you want them to learn it from someone who loves them and wants the best for them.

  • I’m NOT talking about hitting them or screaming at them either, these things aren’t effective and they’re not consequences. Screaming at or hitting a kid only serves to amp up the behavior because it elevates attention and tells them that they’ve really got you. It also causes them to act out because you're damaging them and they don't know how to process it. This can cause a toxic cycle to start where they crave bad attention and become damaged so they act worse and worse to get your attention. Remember, a toddler only wants to know you’re paying attention it doesn’t matter how that attention manifests.
  • If you're wondering if you're doing it right, just look at your child's behavior, if it's improving even just a little and they seem happier for it, then you're doing something right, if it's getting worse and they're becoming out of control, you're doing something wrong
  • Consequences should always be related to the action and be reasonable, so if you have a hard time understanding what constructive discipline is, make it your mission to find out what it is and how to use it.

Pro tip: If you let them feel the grossness/pain/stupidity of their actions without buying into it they will stop

DISCLAIMER: Everything is within reason, before people get too upset, I’m not telling anyone to let their kid stick a finger in a light socket or let them run into traffic. I’m assuming we’re all adults here and can make mature judgments about what is reasonable.

When you’re dealing with these behaviors you want to realize that by letting them get mad and freak out, and not giving in, you’re giving them the experience necessary to learn how to make better choices.

The only way to know if you’re making a bad choice is to have a degree of discomfort involved.

In making better choices they learn to become better people.

Think about these things when you decide how you’re going to parent:

  • How many spoiled, demanding, adults do you know who have healthy, close relationships? Who are genuinely liked and respected?
  • Whatever behavior you reinforce in toddlerhood, will be internalized and become who they are.
  • People may give you dirty looks for actually doing your job and parenting, but pandering to any of these tantrums is way worse in the long run.
  • Letting them sit in pee or vomit for a few minutes is way more kind than having become aggressive, vindictively manipulative people.
  • Making them socially aware of the impact of their behavior and following through on discipline helps them become people who are able to control their impulses.
  • Having them realize that they’re not the center of the universe is way better in the long run than the short-term gratification of stopping some unpleasant crying.
  • Getting dirty looks for good parenting is something you should consider a compliment, having the courage to do the right thing for your child even when it’s unpleasant should be considered a badge of honor.
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The parenting paradox here is that when you let them cry in certain situations your child will push past the behavior faster and even though it might feel hard in the beginning, things will get easier over time.

So when you see these situations arise, try to step back and detach just a little.

Does it mean you don’t love your child?

Of course not, it simply means that you love them enough to make sure they learn the hard lessons in child-sized doses, doled out by someone who cares.

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Musician, writer, toddler wrangler. Author of "How To Be Wise AF" guided journal available on Amazon as well as "The Automatic Parent" due out in Feb. 2022.

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