Why Is My Child Crying?

These might be the reasons behind your child's tears.

It’s normal for children to shed tears—and it’s also normal for a parent to be frustrated by a child who cries often. That’s particularly true when you can’t quite figure out why your little one is crying.

Before your child learns how to talk, it can be quite tricky to figure out why your child is crying. Even when kids do begin to verbalize, the reason a kid is crying might not be rational.

If you've ever had a child cry because the microwave ate her lunch, or throw a temper tantrum because you told her she can't eat dog food, you're not alone. Kids come up with some interesting reasons to cry. But, keep in mind that crying can be healthy—at any age. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Research and Personality found that there are many circumstances when crying helps people feel better.

Researchers discovered people feel better after crying if they have emotional support, if crying leads to a resolution or better understanding, or if they’re crying due to a positive event. So, your goal doesn’t always need to be to get your child to stop crying. Shedding a few tears may be good for kids. But, before you can decide how to best respond, it’s important to ask yourself, "Why is my child crying?" to get to the bottom of it.

1
Your Child Is Overtired

There are many reasons kids cry.
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When your child is having a meltdown because you gave him the wrong color bowl or you asked him to put on his shoes, too little sleep could be the true cause of his tears. One of the most frequent reasons kids cry is because they’re overtired—and it can lead to some irrational behavior.

You can’t prevent a child’s tantrum-inducing fatigue 100 percent of the time, but you can minimize it by keeping him on a routine sleep schedule. This includes naps (two a day before age 15 to 18 months, then one a day until about 3 or 4 years old) and an appropriate bedtime.

The time at which a child should go to bed depends on their age and what time she typically wakes up, but a healthy bedtime usually ranges between 7 and 9 PM.

Look for the tell-tale signs of tiredness, such as rubbing eyes, yawning or looking a little glazed over in the eyes. And depending on the time of day, it may be appropriate to put your child down for a nap to help her regain control.

2
Your Child Is Hungry

Even adults get “hangry.” Luckily, a toddler or young child will (probably) tell you when she wants a snack—unless she’s having too much fun playing—but it’s harder to tell when a non-verbal child is hungry.

For the real little ones, hunger might be the crying culprit if she just woke up from a nap or if it’s been three to four hours since she last ate.

If your little one hasn’t eaten in a while and her mood is going downhill fast, try offering her a little bite to eat. Keeping a few healthy snacks on-hand can be a helpful way to curb the tears when you’re away from the house.

3
Your Child is Overstimulated

It seems like wild and crazy play places, like bounce houses or birthday parties, are just where a child wants to be. At some point, however, the hustle and bustle can become too much for kids. And often, they aren’t able to express what is wrong.

So you might see tears when your child is overstimulated. If your little one is crying, seemingly for no reason, and you’re in a location that’s very loud or busy, try giving him a break. Take him outside or to a quieter room and let him sit down for a few minutes to collect his bearings.

For some kids, this might not be enough; they might need to go home early to regroup.

4
Your Child Is Stressed

Stress is a big reason for tears, particularly in slightly older children. But, as a parent who has to pay bills and run a busy household, you might wonder what a child has to be stressed about.

The answer is, a lot of things! Kids who are overscheduled—perhaps going from soccer to piano to play practice to playdates—can get very stressed. They need free time to play creatively, as well as relax.

Kids can also become stressed from what’s going on around them, such as trouble in their parents’ marriage, a move or school change, or even events they overhear on the nightly news. When a child feels the burden of stressful life events, she could become uncharacteristically teary.

Younger children who are stressed out will need your help to change the environment. Reducing the stressful circumstances can help them manage their emotions better.

Older children can benefit from learning skills to manage their stress. From deep breathing exercises and meditation to exercise and leisure activities, healthy stress reduction activities will help your child gain better control over her emotions.

5
Your Child Wants Attention

It seems to come out of nowhere—your child is playing happily, then you turn your back, and she’s sobbing. She knows crying is a great way to get your attention.

Attention—even when it’s negative—reinforces behavior. So saying, “Stop screaming,” or “Why are you crying now?” may encourage your child’s temper tantrums to continue.

Ignore attention seeking behavior whenever possible. Avoid eye contact and don’t make any conversation when your child is looking for your attention. She’ll see that it’s not fun to throw a temper tantrum or scream loudly when she doesn’t have a captive audience.

Show your child she can get your attention by playing nicely, using kind words, and following the rules. Offer frequent praise for these behaviors and she’ll be less likely to try and use tears to capture your attention.

Give your child regular doses of positive attention. Set aside a few minutes every day to get down on the floor with her, play a game, or toss a ball back and forth. Your child will be less likely to cry for attention if you give her a few minutes to be in the spotlight every day. 

6
Your Child Wants Something

Young kids don't understand the difference between wants and needs. So when they want something, they often assert they need it right now.

Whether she insists on playing with a breakable heirloom or she wants you to take her to the park, tears of disappointment and desperation are bound to happen at one time or another.

If you give in after you said no—either because you feel guilty or you think you can’t stand to listen to your child cry—you’ll teach her that she can use tears to manipulate you.

So while it’s important to show empathy, don’t let her tears change your behavior. Say things like, “I understand you are feeling upset right now,” or “I feel sad we can’t go to the park too,” but show her that you’re a parent of your word.

Proactively teach your child socially appropriate ways to deal with her feelings when she isn’t getting something she wants. Coloring a picture, saying, “I’m really sad,” or taking a few deep breath are just a few coping skills that might help her deal with uncomfortable emotions.

7
Your Child Wants to Escape a Demand

When your child really doesn’t want to do something—like put away his toys or get ready for bed—you may see the waterworks. His tears may stem from his genuine sadness. But they may also be a ploy.

If he can get you to engage with him, even if it’s just for a minute, that’s 60 more seconds he can put off doing something he doesn’t want to do.

Validate your child’s feelings by saying, “I know it’s hard to pick up your toys when you want to keep playing.” But, avoid getting into a lengthy discussion or a power struggle.

Offer one warning, if necessary, that outlines what consequences your child can expect if he doesn’t comply. Say something like, “If you don’t pick up the toys right now, then you won’t be able to play with them after lunch.” If your child doesn’t comply, follow through with a consequence.

It’s important to teach your child that even though he feels sad or angry, he can still follow the rules. Each time your child gets upset over a demand, it’s an opportunity to help him learn to take positive action even when he’s feeling bad.

When to Seek Professional Help

If your youngster seems to cry more than normal, talk to your pediatrician. There could be an underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed, like an undiagnosed ear infection that’s causing him pain.

Once you know that everything is OK, you can work on reducing the tears together. When your child begins to cry—as he’s bound to do every now and then—he might just need a little time to calm down.

If he’s old enough to talk about what’s bothering him, try to have a conversation. Talk about how to solve the problem together. Although you’re not going to be able to fix the tears of a child’s who’s just a little tired, he will appreciate that you’re there for comfort.

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