In this episode: Janet responds to an email from the parent of a 2-year-old who says that when another child cries, her daughter joins in and becomes inconsolable, often continuing even after the other child has recovered. She’s wondering if this is “normal” and is anxious for some advice. She says they have some kids’ events coming up, “and I am dreading them.”
Transcript of “Concerns About a Sensitive Child in Social Situations”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a parent who says her two-year-old often reacts to other children crying by crying herself. This parent is concerned that her daughter is maybe too sensitive to handle social situations with other children. She’s anxious to find a solution because they’ll be attending a lot of holiday events in the next several weeks.
Here’s the email that I received.
I’ve been following you for a while now, but my girl just turned two, so it’s just getting interesting. She’s a smart girl, but we live rurally and can go a week without seeing anyone apart from her immediate family.
Often when we’re out and another child cries, she will also become inconsolable. I was wondering if you have advice on how to help her through this. Is it normal? I try to comfort her and I usually try to explain to her why the other kid is crying, and to show her they are fine. She will often cry longer than them.
I’m writing now because we have some kids Christmas events coming up and I’m dreading them. Any tips would be appreciated.
Okay, so this sounds like a wonderfully sensitive girl. Sensitivity is a positive thing. It’s a strength. What this girl is actually showing is what we all want for our children, empathy. She is understanding another child’s pain. She’s connecting with it. She’s joining this other child in the feelings. That doesn’t mean that she, herself, is feeling what that child is feeling, but the child’s cries touch off something in her and she has this cathartic reaction, venting her own feelings.
The early years are a very emotional time for all children. Venting is always a positive, positive thing, whether it comes out in a tantrum, or even a whine, as hard as those are to hear, or a scream, as hard as those are to hear. All feelings being expressed are positive because what they are is releasing what is already inside the child. We don’t really know why children cry a lot of the times or why they have the feelings they do. But we can always trust that there is a reason and that releasing those feelings is the most positive, healthy thing they could do in that moment. This isn’t a problem to fix. It’s interesting in this case. You know, interesting that she goes on longer than these other children, but it’s positive. We may never completely figure it out.
So, yes, it’s normal for this child in this situation. Every child wouldn’t respond that way. When I read this, it reminded me of my own daughter, my second daughter, who I guess would consider herself an introvert, although she socializes well, and people like her, and she’s quite successful in what she’s doing. She’s a senior in college right now. When she was a very young infant, I had kind of kept her home and kept things peaceful, even though her sister was four, so it wasn’t that peaceful. But as much as possible, I gave her a peaceful, predictable life.
But then I kind of wanted to take her to a RIE class, like the classes that I teach. I wanted to take her to one of the other teachers who I very much respected, a long-time teacher who I knew as an associate, but I didn’t know her as a teacher, I’d never been in her class. So, I wanted to bring my daughter to this situation. I guess she was maybe four or five months. There we were, in a room. It was in a yoga studio. There were maybe six other babies in the group. They were all on their backs and the mothers and fathers were all sitting right next to them. My daughter rolled over onto her tummy. That, I guess, startled the infant next to her. That infant started crying. When that happened, my daughter started crying and she couldn’t stop. She was crying even louder than that other child.
I picked her up when it seemed that she was needing that, and I held her, and I listened, and I tried to understand what was going on, and I trusted that these were feelings that she had for some reason. I think I even took her outside at one point. Not to try to fix her, but just to give her some air, and to give myself some air, and to have a little more peace for that class, so that they didn’t have to hear this overwhelming crying, although crying is very much allowed in these RIE infant classes and is encouraged as it would be at home or anywhere. But I was trying to be thoughtful towards the other parents there.
I finally said to the teacher after several minutes, I said, “I think we’re going to go because she just seems to be having difficulty and she’s not comfortable.” So, we went and we got in the car. Eventually, she calmed down and she stopped crying. I actually didn’t take her back to the class because we had to travel a long distance and it was just a lot of effort. I didn’t really need to be in a class. It was just something that I kind of wanted to do. But I didn’t decide not to go just because my daughter had cried. I had decided that maybe she’s sensitive. Maybe she’s better off at home.
Now, having said all that, to this parent I would say in terms of advice on how the help her through this, yeah, so as with any child, I would prepare her ahead of time for what to expect in a situation. Just telling her the facts as you know them, not trying to build it up or warn her or anything, but really just sharing what you know. “This is where we’re going. I think there are going to be a couple of children there.” If she knows any of the children, then describe them and remind her of who they are. Let her know about the adults that are going to be there, what the activities are as far as you know. Just keeping her informed so that she can come into the situation with less possibilities of being thrown off or surprised.
Besides that, I would really trust her feelings and I would be careful about … This mother says she tries to comfort her and try to explain to her why the other kid is crying and just show her they are fine. Those kinds of things can come off to our children… I know they’re very, very well intentioned and loving. They can come off to our children that we aren’t comfortable with their feelings. Therefore, it makes them even less comfortable with themselves, and their feelings, and their ability to handle these situations. It can help to bring our focus in to what we know for sure when we’re acknowledging the feelings. All we know is that this child started crying and that made her start crying. That’s what I would stick with in terms of any kind of verbal response to your daughter. She cried and that made you feel like crying. You feel like crying, too. I wouldn’t use words about being scared, or frightened, or sad, or upset herself. I would just stick with what we know for sure.
I would approach this with trust. Yes, to her question, is it normal. Absolutely. Very normal. I wouldn’t try to do anything. I would just accept. Whatever reaction she has, I would speak to her strength in the situation. That is more empowering for a child than saying, “Oh, yes. I know. She’s upset, but look at her. She’s fine. She’s going to be okay.” Those kind of, quote, comforting ways of handling it, and responding, and kind of trying to convince her in a way that she should feel better because this other child’s fine now. See? There’s nothing wrong there. Of course, this mother doesn’t mean to say this, but what it can say to a child is don’t feel what you’re feeling basically. Children receive that message. Doing a lot less work around this as a parent, works a lot better. Really trusting, letting her release, seeing it as positive, seeing it as empathy, seeing it as something getting touched off in her that’s so cathartic and healthy to express. That kind of perception will bring about the most positive response.
Again, I would perceive this as strong. You connected with her. It’s a positive thing. There are children who, you know, they are more sensitive with other children and they get surprised, they get touched off. It’s all okay. It’s all part of the journey for them. It’s nothing to try to calm down, or comfort, or fix, or concern ourselves with. It’s just a process and all the feelings that our child has around it are positive.
So, if we’re going to places in ourselves, like, oh my gosh, did that scare her, or I got to make this better, and she’s traumatized, all those kinds of things will cause us to respond in a more anxious, uncomfortable way when what we want is to give our child confidence in themselves by believing in them. Believing in their ability to handle the other children at the Christmas events with us there to back them up if someone’s going to hurt them or something like that. If they need someone to run to, we’re there. But we have to believe that our children have the goods to navigate this, to navigate their journey with our help.
Socialization takes a long time. It’s really life-long learning that we all do. The best way to empower our children to learn is to trust them, to trust where they are. I’m sure she will get accustomed to other children in time. It gets easier and that doesn’t mean I would push to expose her to other children, but just trust that when it happens, it’s the right time and she can handle it.
I hope that helps.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.