Sunday, September 8, 2013

Don't cry!

Will you do some guided imagery with me for a moment? Come on, just play along. Please? Okay, close your eyes and imagine you just had an awful day at work {insert some relevant scenario here}. You go out to your car and it doesn't start! You left some minuscule interior light on and the battery is dead. To top it all off, you left your cell phone God knows where, so you can't call anyone for help. A stranger appears who offers to give you a jump start, so you make it home, albeit an hour late. Now, dinner must be made, while the kids fuss and ask umpteen times for some ridiculous thing.

You may open your eyes now. How are you feeling? Can we all agree that you might just be on the verge of a meltdown, which may or may not involve crying? Now imagine, your spouse/loved one/best friend/family member, or even the helpful stranger from the parking lot walks in the door and finds you in a heap. You begin to feel hopeful that this living nightmare is about to end and that you will get the love and support you need. But, nope. His/her response is to bark, "Don't cry!"in a most unhelpful tone.

Now, you feel better, right? And, you stop crying immediately, cuz ya feel so dang good!

My son started preschool last week. It's a public elementary school in which instruction takes place in two languages. There are over four hundred children in the building. Many of the preschoolers only understand one of the languages being spoken. For some, it is their first time away from their parents and/or caregivers.

During the first week of school, some of the children were having a kid-version of the bad day we imagined above. Many had no idea what was going on, in whose care they were being left and when the hellishness would end. Some were crying. While it didn't surprise me, it did disappoint me, that almost every adult's reaction to the crying was to loudly order each and every child to "STOP CRYING!"

I'm not holier than thou. I have uttered these words. In this situation it was just so strikingly obvious and heart breaking how this is not the reaction a child needs when they are in distress.

I mean, think about it. Leaving out empathy, meeting a child's needs and the like as reasons not to respond in this fashion, what is the success rate of this strategy? I offer that unless the child who is crying is very scared of the adult who issues the order to stop (which is fodder for another post), the success rate hovers close to nadir.

Why do we do it, then? I believe there are a number of reasons. One, is that is is painful and stressful for adults to hear children in distress, so we want it to stop. Now. Two, is that it can become annoying and get in the way of our agenda/time table. And three, we live in a culture where most adults expect instant compliance with their orders, no matter how unfeasible.

The same logic applies to a child who is crying because he is hurt. Can you imagine if you were in pain from an injury and someone said to you, "That didn't hurt. You're alright. You don't need to cry."  Just because we don't think something SHOULD hurt, doesn't mean it doesn't hurt the child, or that she doesn't feel the need for some love and attention. I would seriously dislike anyone who tried to tell me I was alright, when I didn't feel alright, or what did or did not hurt my body or my soul.

Next time you (or I) have the urge to say, "Don't cry!" or "Stop crying!" or "You're alright!" I suggest we think about what might actually be helpful to the child (such as asking if he is alright, a hug, giving information about what is happening, just spending time with and staying close to the child). Although these things may take a bit longer, I think we'll find they have a much higher success rate for making the crying stop. In addition, they will help her feel loved, safe and able to tackle more challenges that lay ahead.

How do you help a crying child?

Photo credit: Binu Kumar

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