How to deal with uncontrollable crying

Amy Aitman
April 17, 2015
How to deal with uncontrollable crying

It's a fact of life: Your kid is going to cry. Though tears at bedtime are normal, uncontrollable crying can quickly overtake family events or public outings. If your little one's meltdowns are becoming an everyday occurrence, there are ways you and your child's other caregivers can help.

Causes of uncontrollable crying

Though there are many reasons your little one might be crying, it's likely because his limits are being tested, explains Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist and author of "You're Not the Boss of Me." "Mostly kids cry because of what I like to call 'lousy local conditions.' Basically, they are overly tired, overly hungry or overstimulated," she says. If your kid is pushed outside of his comfort zone or is asked to handle something that he's not developmentally ready for, a meltdown might be brewing.

Braun says, "As parents, you have to realize that kids don't react to the things the way adults do. The prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain that governs your emotional reactions -- isn't even developed yet. Things are very black and white for kids, they don't know how to measure their reactions to situations."

Dr. Beth Onufrak, a clinical child psychologist and host of the radio show Child Psych Central, agrees that kids who cry uncontrollably are likely feeling overwhelmed. "Managing their emotions all day, even really positive ones, takes an enormous amount of energy for them." Of course, crying is a natural reaction for young children and is a way for them to express themselves, but reasoning with a crying toddler is nearly impossible.

Greg Pembroke, a stay-at-home dad and creator of popular blog Reasons My Son Is Crying knows this battle well. "Sometimes they want to drink from a yellow cup, sometimes a blue cup. And if they don't get what they expect to, they will cry." When meltdowns over small things start to take over your day, a change is in order.

How you can help

Braun explains that kids cry uncontrollably to express their frustration. This can be over anything, such as "when the teddy bear doesn't fit into the truck, or they want another cookie. They don't have the ability to measure or control their outbursts," she says. Try to figure out what makes them start in the first place and see if you an avoid those triggers. "If you as a parent can be reasonable on the expectations and situations you put your kids in, you can avoid a lot of meltdowns. It's not reasonable to take a young child and run four errands in one afternoon," Braun explains.

If you find yourself facing a lot of tears, become your own detective and find out the precursors. Dr. Onufrak encourages parents to create their own behavior tracking form "to keep a record of what the child ate, did that day and what you did about the uncontrollable crying. There's nothing like doing a bit of research -- it can unlock mysteries and reveal patterns that weren't obvious to you." After you identify places or situations that may put too much pressure on your child, you'll know to avoid them if you know he's tired or cranky.

How do you deal with uncontrollable crying once it has begun? Remember to be patient. "When kids are crying, it is a sign that the child is in an unbalanced state. Take the crying as a cue to tune in, rather than thinking it is something to scold or stop," says Dr. Onufrak. Though it's likely inconvenient for you, Braun recommends letting the crying fit run its course before you address it. "You really can't talk to them during a crying meltdown. Their brains have literally shut down. Let them finish emoting, and when they are almost done, you can help them get past it with some redirection, or a big hug." 

After the crying is over, you should talk about the event with your little one, according to Braun. "Revisit it a few hours later, " she says. "Teach them how to be retrospective, what works and what didn't. Ask them about the crying and let them reflect on their behavior." How this conversation goes, of course, depends on the age of your child.

Getting everyone on the same page

One of the most important ingredients in confronting bad behaviors is consistency. Once a discipline plan is in place, approach your child's other caregivers to clue them in on how you'd like them to handle uncontrollable crying. Dr. Onufrak encourages parents to tell caregivers what already works for them. "Explain to the caregiver that we have found this works for our child, and give them time to try these things as well." Your child's caregivers are likely just as tired of the behavior as you are, and will be happy to help fix it. Approach the issue as a team, and you can help your child through this phase in no time. If your child doesn't seem to be outgrowing this -- if it seems like more than a phase -- check in with his doctor to see if something else might be contributing.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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