In an experiment involving 48 toddlers, 24 girls and 24 boys, between the ages of 36 to 39 months old, researchers were able to determine that very young children can distinguish between someone who is actually distressed and someone who is overreacting.
Various scenarios were set up whereby the children could witness adults in circumstances that genuinely warranted the expression of upset, such as an injury or destruction of their property. In other scenarios, the children witnessed adults making a sad face or whimpering but the cause was unclear. At times they would hear the adult express sadness but not actually be able to see them. In other words, they couldn’t identify and or validate what was actually causing the adult to react as though they were upset.
In the cases where causation was clear the children showed concern and sympathy. In the other cases the child’s face would appear as if he or she were “checking” but they did not respond. In these cases the children did not seem particularly concerned or sympathetic.
At one point in the experiment the researchers gave one helium balloon to the adult and two to the child. The adult then released their balloon, ostensibly by accident, and became demonstrably upset. The child was more likely to give the adult one of his balloons if he had previously witnessed that adult in what appeared to be a situation that would understandably cause upset. The child was eager to make the adult feel better with the belief that the adult’s feelings were genuine.
It is true that no one likes crybaby behavior, and most parents convey this message to their children one way or the other. The danger of course is that a parent should never stifle a child’s true feelings. Phrases such as, “big boys don’t cry” are thankfully passé but there is a fine line between honoring your little ones feelings and repeatedly giving into or focusing on a child’s tears.
Often a parent’s reaction to tears is based on their own discomfort. Tears have many meanings and learning to decipher those meanings, and react accordingly, can help teach your child to be genuine with their expression of emotion.
The study points to how important it is to be authentic and how very early in life relationships are affected by others perception of our genuineness. Anyone with children has heard, at some point that, so and so “is a crybaby.”
That is a truly unfortunate label and one that can leave even small children isolated. As this study points out kids intuitively know to be suspicious of someone who is overreacting to a situation.
Tears from a child should always be met with some type of comfort and never be dismissed, but they don’t always need to be followed up by an action designed to stop the tears. An example of this would be giving a child what they want simply because they are crying for it. Kids learn very early what works to elicit change and a parent never wants to convey the message that tears are a useful tool for getting what they want. This type of behavior, often learned very early in life, can stick with an individual throughout their lifetime and become a tool of manipulation in later relationships.
As tempting as it may be to stop the tears with an action, it is important to simply let a child have their feelings, so they will learn that it is okay to do so but it doesn’t mean that the circumstances will necessarily change. In this way, kids learn not only to tolerate their own emotional responses but the expression of emotion in others.
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