Think about the last time you cried…do you remember why?
Apologies in advance if this brings any reader to a place of discomfort. This is not my intention. Rather, I want us to consider the many sources of our own tears as a way to give children the room they need for the same range.
There will be those of us who cried from sorrow, loss, or loneliness. There might have been tears of frustration. Anger brings us to tears as does fear. Sweeping joy brings on happy tears. And what about when you have a jumble of emotions? You feel lost, scared, angry, and sad. Spin the dial! So many different emotions will bring about tears.
Just as with adults, children have many different kinds of emotions they express through tears. Making an assumption that they are sad or mislabeling their tears as springing from sadness discounts the many other emotions they could be feeling. This kind of assumption misdirects our response. Over-labeling or single-noting an emotional response, for instance, “oh, you are sad,” does not provide the child with reference points for the kind of emotional vocabulary one needs to get through the ups and downs of life.
It is my experience in a social setting that most tears are preceded by an inability to effectively communicate wants and needs. But the source is never as simple as “sadness.” What complicates crying is that sometimes these very same children are considered quite articulate. Where does all that language go when they need it? In other cases, the child’s language is still developing. Oh, imagine how frustrating that is!
Going, going, gone. It might be more comfortable to turn the dial to “happy” on one end with “sad” on the other with nothing in between when imagining a child’s emotional range. Do we want to imagine that our children can rage against something? That they feel the injustice of a failed play overture with a peer as a great dose of angry? A loss that is not just sadness, but the inability to connect, to close the loop, to communicate? That their frustration can be such a struggle they must cry and kick and scream? The emotional dial only begins with happy and sad. There are so many other points on the dial. Give children room to have the names their many destinations and please make room for the tears so that there can be a greater understanding of what is possible.
In first-aid and CPR training, we are taught to first “survey the scene” before getting down to the business of rescuing anyone. In a social setting there is definitely a scene, a scene that sparked that crying response. The scene will give you a clue about what preceded the crying. You check for resources. Is there a precious toy no one should ever touch? Check for other people. Where are other people in proximity to the person crying? Is someone scooting away? Are their backs turned? Are their expressions blank? Something is going on. Time to untangle that!
There is no reason to label a child’s crying with an emotion…Yet. Right now, we are only reporting what we see and hear. Narrating, out loud, that someone is crying, what you see and hear in front of you, what the other people are doing, etc. “This is what I see…This is what I hear…” Once the scene has been secured it’s time for the real work to begin…acknowledge the child’s crying without telling him or her to stop and that you will be there to listen. If there other children gathered, encourage them to narrate their own stories. Once the crying settles (again without being shushed) that child should be encouraged to narrate his or her own story as well.
It is only through establishing the thing that preceded the tears, that we can begin to label the emotions that fed them. Sad? Yes, no, maybe. There are so, so, so many other emotional sources as well and all of them necessary. Let’s start building that emotional vocabulary!