Nobody wants a crybaby

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 22, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

I have a 7-year-old who cries all the time when things don't go his way.

He cries if his friends won't do what he wants. If he is having a hard time with his video game. If he doesn't want to do his homework or is having a tough time doing it. If I don't allow him to do something specific such as watch TV or a certain program on TV or play on the computer. If it is time to stop what he is currently doing get ready to leave the house or get ready for supper (This is usually after a 10 minute warning).

Even though I understand that he is frustrated and this is how he expresses it, it is becoming a problem in the frequency and duration, especially with his friends. They are starting to make fun of him and not want to play with him. I have tried to work with him and get him to use alternative ways of expressing his frustration, but that usually just brings on more tears. I am not sure what else to do.

 From: MB, Lynn, MA


Hi MB,

The first thing to do is try to figure out why this is happening.It could be for a number of reasons, or even for a combination of them. Here are some questions to consider:

Are there changes in his life?
If this crying behavior is new, I wonder whether something is different in his life that could be triggering anxiety: Stress at home? New teacher? New baby? Dying grandparent? What about changes in his eating or sleeping patterns? Those are dead-giveaways of stress in a child. Or has this behavior always been part of his pattern, but it's worse now? Or you're simply noticing it more?

Could this be due to typical cognitive change? At about this age, the typical brain is undergoing a lot of change. New cognitive skills are coming on line. One that can cause frustration is the ability to notice differences: “He has brown hair and mine is black.” That’s not necessarily ascribing a value to the difference – that’s still to come – but this is the beginning of that question, “Am I OK?” Perhaps your son looks at the child at the desk next to him and notices, “He’s reading chapter books. I’m not.” Or at play: “He runs fast. I don’t.”

You can help him by pointing to differences in a matter-of-fact way that models acceptance: “You’re a person who likes chocolate ice cream, aren’t you? I like vanilla.” Period. No lecture.

What about changes or inconsistencies in your parenting? Are you someone who sets clear boundaries, or do you waffle? (“You can’t have this cookie before dinner.” Five minutes later: “Fine, one cookie isn’t such a big deal.”) Do you set up consequences (“In five minutes, it’s time to turn off the video.”), and not follow through? Always? Sometimes? Rarely? A pattern of inconsistency can confuse and frustrate a child. He doesn't know what to expect.

In each of these cases, the best way for you to respond to his is to: be calm, matter-of-fact and firm. (“Tell me in words what you don’t like.” “When you stop crying, I can listen to what you want to tell me.”) If he is frustrated and upset and you are, too, that only adds to his anxiety. His crying should not be a way for him to get cuddle time with you. That only becomes reinforcement to cry. If you think that’s what’s going on, find other ways to give him your attention.

I hope one of these suggestions resonates,  MB, but if this problem continues or worsens, I urge you to seek professional guidance. I'm also linking here to a column I wrote about the mind of a 7-year-old that may be helpful.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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3 comments so far...
  1. MB, my oldest son is "spirited" (I jest that it's a euphamism for difficult, but really it's a different way to look at annoying character traits). He is very sensitive and has volatile mood swings - even at age 12, he gets very upset over the smallest things. While he doesn't cry in front of his friends (anymore) he is still prone to sulking and tantrum-like behavior. The book "Raising Your Spirited Child" was enormously helpful to me in understanding how he feels. No child WANTS to be an overly emotional wreck, especially at the cost of a good social life. As I'm sure you know, if your son could control his reactions, he would. The book has some specific suggestions to work with your child on ways to better self-manage those strong feelings.

    Another thought is that my son occassionally sees a nutritionist whose background is in alternative medicine (naturopathy, chiropractic etc.). Insurance doesn't cover this treatment so we only check in with her a few times a year but when he is taking his supplements regularly, he is a different kid. Some kids just have very stressed out systems and it affects how they react. Good nutrition and exercise can help tremendously, but some kids need more. My son is much more relaxed and easy going when he takes a whole-food multivitamin, fish oil, and some whole food supplements that support his adrenals (which can be depleted in kids who constantly feel stressed for whatever reason). It's as if without supplements, he is very raw and wears his nerves on the outside but with optimal nutrition, those raw edges get smoothed out and he develops a good layer of protective skin over those raw nerves. Other friends with kids who tend to fall apart easily have found that dietary changes (no red dye or certain additives, reducing or removing dairy or gluten, etc.) have made huge differences in their children's behavior. Working with a naturopath can be expensive (a typical consult appointment may run $100 or more), but for us it has been well worth the investment and after a few visits to figure out what some of the issues were, we've been able to whittle it down to a few visits a year and watch his nutrition and re-fill the supplements on our own. It's frustrating that insurance won't cover supplements when if I felt like putting him on a stimulant for his AD/HD or an anti depressant or mood stabilizer, those would be covered in a second.

    Posted by Jen March 22, 10 12:16 PM
  1. My son had some problems with transitions, new situations, surprises, etc because he would make up his mind about how things should be and then be very upset if he had to change. He wouldn't cry but would sulk or get mad and have tantrums. He is 14 now and is a lot better, but one very important thing was to talk to him about this trait -- "You have an idea in your mind of what will happen, and get upset when something different happens." As he got older, he could identify those moments for himself and now, for example, he makes a point of asking about our plans in advance so he can make his own plans around them. It didn't always seem to help at the time but now I really see the benefit. He still has that personality trait but understands it and can work with it so he doesn't get in situations that upset him.

    Posted by Enna March 22, 10 02:55 PM
  1. Could this be a case of the child crying because he doesn't have the right words to express his feelings, similar to a toddler learning to speak and instead of using non-verbal expressions is told to "use your words"? I think Barbara's answers are great, I just wanted to add that one because I think, even in adults, this can happen.

    Posted by poppy609 March 24, 10 10:31 AM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. MB, my oldest son is "spirited" (I jest that it's a euphamism for difficult, but really it's a different way to look at annoying character traits). He is very sensitive and has volatile mood swings - even at age 12, he gets very upset over the smallest things. While he doesn't cry in front of his friends (anymore) he is still prone to sulking and tantrum-like behavior. The book "Raising Your Spirited Child" was enormously helpful to me in understanding how he feels. No child WANTS to be an overly emotional wreck, especially at the cost of a good social life. As I'm sure you know, if your son could control his reactions, he would. The book has some specific suggestions to work with your child on ways to better self-manage those strong feelings.

    Another thought is that my son occassionally sees a nutritionist whose background is in alternative medicine (naturopathy, chiropractic etc.). Insurance doesn't cover this treatment so we only check in with her a few times a year but when he is taking his supplements regularly, he is a different kid. Some kids just have very stressed out systems and it affects how they react. Good nutrition and exercise can help tremendously, but some kids need more. My son is much more relaxed and easy going when he takes a whole-food multivitamin, fish oil, and some whole food supplements that support his adrenals (which can be depleted in kids who constantly feel stressed for whatever reason). It's as if without supplements, he is very raw and wears his nerves on the outside but with optimal nutrition, those raw edges get smoothed out and he develops a good layer of protective skin over those raw nerves. Other friends with kids who tend to fall apart easily have found that dietary changes (no red dye or certain additives, reducing or removing dairy or gluten, etc.) have made huge differences in their children's behavior. Working with a naturopath can be expensive (a typical consult appointment may run $100 or more), but for us it has been well worth the investment and after a few visits to figure out what some of the issues were, we've been able to whittle it down to a few visits a year and watch his nutrition and re-fill the supplements on our own. It's frustrating that insurance won't cover supplements when if I felt like putting him on a stimulant for his AD/HD or an anti depressant or mood stabilizer, those would be covered in a second.

    Posted by Jen March 22, 10 12:16 PM
  1. My son had some problems with transitions, new situations, surprises, etc because he would make up his mind about how things should be and then be very upset if he had to change. He wouldn't cry but would sulk or get mad and have tantrums. He is 14 now and is a lot better, but one very important thing was to talk to him about this trait -- "You have an idea in your mind of what will happen, and get upset when something different happens." As he got older, he could identify those moments for himself and now, for example, he makes a point of asking about our plans in advance so he can make his own plans around them. It didn't always seem to help at the time but now I really see the benefit. He still has that personality trait but understands it and can work with it so he doesn't get in situations that upset him.

    Posted by Enna March 22, 10 02:55 PM
  1. Could this be a case of the child crying because he doesn't have the right words to express his feelings, similar to a toddler learning to speak and instead of using non-verbal expressions is told to "use your words"? I think Barbara's answers are great, I just wanted to add that one because I think, even in adults, this can happen.

    Posted by poppy609 March 24, 10 10:31 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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