7 Reasons Your Child May Be Crying

It’s normal for children to cry, and it’s also normal for a parent to be frustrated by a child who sheds tears often. Particularly when you can’t figure out why your little one is crying.

Before your child learns how to talk, it can be tricky to determine the cause of your child's tears. Even when kids do start to verbalize, the reasons kids cry are not always rational—by adult standards anyway.

reasons your child may be crying
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

If you've ever had a child cry because the microwave "ate" their lunch, or had a tantrum get started after telling your child they can't eat dog food, you are not alone. Kids come up with some interesting reasons to cry. 

While it can sometimes be confounding, crying can also be healthy at any age. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Research and Personality found that there are many circumstances in which 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 because of a positive event.

Your goal doesn’t always need to be to get your child to stop crying. Shedding a few tears can be good for kids (and grown-ups!). Before you decide what to do, ask, "Why is my child crying?" Identifying the source will help you provide the best response to the situation.

Here are a few of the most common reasons parents will find their child in tears, as well as some suggestions of how you can respond to each cause.

1

Your Child Is Overtired

When your child is having a meltdown because you gave them the wrong color bowl or you asked them to put on their shoes, too little sleep could be the true cause of their tears.

One of the most frequent reasons kids cry is because they’re overtired. Being unrested can lead to tantrums and other outbursts of seemingly irrational behavior.

You can’t prevent a child’s tantrum-inducing fatigue 100% of the time, but you can minimize it by keeping them on a routine sleep schedule.

Start by setting (and sticking to) an age-appropriate bedtime, then factor in daytime naps. You'll want to plan on two naps a day until your child is 15 to 18 months, then one nap a day until your child is about 3 or 4 years old.

An appropriate bedtime will depend on your child's age and what time they typically wake up in the morning. Most kids do well going to bed between 7 and 9 p.m.

Throughout the day, and especially if you notice them starting to get teary-eyed, look for the tell-tale signs of tiredness, such as rubbing their eyes, yawning, or looking a little glazed over in the eyes.

Depending on the time of day, if your child is on the brink of a tantrum but looks sleepy, it might be appropriate to put them down for a nap to help them regain control.

2

Your Child Is Hungry

Even adults get “hangry.” A toddler or young child will (probably) tell you when they want a snack—unless they are having too much fun playing. If a child is distracted and not communicating with you, it's much harder to tell that they're hungry.

Hunger might be the crying culprit if your little one just woke up from a nap, or if it’s been three to four hours since they last ate. If your child hasn’t eaten in a while and their mood is going downhill fast, try offering them a bite to eat. Keeping a few healthy snacks on-hand can quickly curb the tears when you’re away from the house.

3

Your Child Is Overstimulated

Exciting 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 some kids. It's not uncommon for a child to be unable to express what is wrong in these situations.

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 loud or busy, try giving them a break. Take them outside or to a quieter room and let them sit down for a few minutes to get their bearings.

For some kids, a break might not be enough. If your child is upset and not consoled or calmed, it might be best to take them home early.

4

Your Child Is Stressed

Stress is a big reason for tears, particularly in older children. As a parent who has to pay the 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 become quite stressed. All kids need free time to play creatively, as well as to 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. A child might become uncharacteristically teary child if they're feeling the burden of stressful life events—even those that do not directly involve them.

Younger children who are stressed will need an adult's help in changing the environment. By helping them reduce stressful circumstances, you're also giving them a chance to learn to manage their emotions.

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

5

Your Child Wants Attention

Sometimes it seems like the tears come out of nowhere. One minute your child is playing happily, you turn your back for a second, and they're sobbing.

Your child knows that crying is a great way to get your attention. Attention—even when it’s negative—reinforces a child's behavior. If you respond by saying “Stop screaming,” or “Why are you crying now?” it can actually encourage your child’s tantrums to continue.

Ignore attention-seeking behavior whenever possible. Avoid making eye contact and don’t start a conversation when your child is looking for your attention. Eventually, they'll see that it’s not fun to throw a tantrum or scream loudly when they do not have a captive audience.

Show your child that they can get your attention by playing nicely, using kind words, and following the rules. Offer frequent praise for these behaviors and your child will 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 them, play a game, or toss a ball back and forth. Your child will be less likely to cry for attention if you give them 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. When they want something, they often assert they need it—and right now. Whether they insist on playing with a breakable heirloom or want you to take them to the park, tears of disappointment and desperation are bound to happen.

If you give in after you said no—either because you feel guilty or you think you can’t stand to listen to more crying—you're teaching your child that they can use tears to manipulate you.

While it’s important to show empathy, don’t let your child's 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 reinforce that you’re a parent of your word.

Proactively teach your child socially appropriate ways to deal with their feelings when they aren't getting something what they want. Coloring a picture, saying, “I’m really sad,” or taking a few deep breaths are a few coping skills that might help them 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 their toys or get ready for bed—you may see the waterworks. These tears may stem from a child's genuine sadness, but they could also be a ploy. If your child gets you to engage with them, even if it’s just for a minute, they can put off doing something they don'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.” At the same time, avoid getting into a lengthy discussion or a power struggle.

Offer one warning, if necessary, that outlines what consequences your child can expect if they do not comply. Try saying 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 they feel sad or angry, they can still follow the rules. Each time your child gets upset over a demand you've made, it’s an opportunity to help them learn to take positive action even when they are feeling bad.

When to Seek Professional Help

If your child seems to cry more than you think is normal or cannot be consoled, talk to your pediatrician. In some cases, an underlying medical issue, like an undiagnosed ear infection that’s causing pain, can be the cause of a child's constant tears.

Once you know that everything is physically fine, you can work on reducing your child's crying together. Sometimes, the answer might be simple. When your child begins to cry—as they are bound to do every now and then—they may just need a little time to calm down.

If they are old enough to talk about what’s bothering them, take the time to have a conversation. Talk about how to solve the problem together. Even if you can't magically fix the cause, your child will appreciate that you’re there for comfort.

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Article Sources
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  1. Bylsma L, Croon M, Vingerhoets A, et al. When and for whom does crying improve mood? A daily diary study of 1004 crying episodes. Journal of Research in Personality. August 2011; 45 (4): 385-392. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2011.04.007

  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Ear Infections in Children. Updated May 12, 2017.

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