A Toddler’s Need To Cry (One Parent’s Lesson)

This short story perfectly illustrates the value of waiting before reacting when a child is upset, allowing the child her feelings as we seek to understand rather than “quick-fixing”. As adults, we need room to express our feelings so that we can release them and move on. Children are no different. This observant mom’s experience also reflects the natural tendency we all have to project about the feelings and needs of infants and toddlers. Enjoy…and let’s discuss!

Hi Janet,

I have recently been introduced to your blog, and from there have checked out Magda Gerber’s Your Self-Confident Baby from our library. I am discovering that while I don’t agree with everything Magda says, for the most part this is how I have been raising my children. It has been helpful to me in some areas where I was needing direction, and confirmation in areas where we do things ‘different’ than other parents we know. I think out of all the parenting books I’ve read in the last four years, this is one of the only ones that I would buy and recommend to others.

I just wanted to share an interesting example from our playgroup yesterday…

I was in the baby room with our eight month old, and our two and a half year old came in. She sat down with a toy and started playing quietly with it. After a few moments a toddler about a year younger (but not much smaller) came over and took the toy. Verity (our toddler) burst into tears. I said something along the lines of, “Did she take the toy? She wanted to play with it, too,” and continued to sit and watch to see what she would do.

As she continued to cry, three or four other mothers in the area began bringing her toys to distract her. I didn’t say anything, curious to see what her reaction would be. She continued crying, even when after a few minutes the other toddler got tired of the toy and a ‘helpful’ mother gave it back to Verity. As I watched it all, I became aware that her cry was not just for the toy, but that she was also probably tired. I asked her, “Are you sad?” “Yes,” she responded. So I told her she could go rest on the couch if she wanted until she felt better. She did, and less than a minute later, she was off doing something else.

It was interesting to see how much we assume with children, looking at their situations with our eyes instead of through theirs.

Anyway, I just wanted to share my little story with someone who I knew would appreciate it.


(And I do – JL)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Holly,

    I also have an 8 month old and a two and a half year old. I have noticed this similar reaction from family and friends when my toddler takes toys away from my son. They rush in to distract him with something else or try and engage him in a song. I allow this to happen because they are forming their own unique relationship with my children. It bothered me at first for two reasons,
    1) They managed their OWN anxiety with a babies crying or upset by distraction or offering a quick fix and felt it was someones ie the grownups job to stop any ‘negative’ emotion.
    2)Didn’t take into account that the babies feelings of upset are a healthy process, and are an opportunity for us to ‘hold the space for the emotion’ and then move on.

    I tend to stand back and let it happen as you did. This is because I know that my husband and I do our best to support the development of healthy emotional intelligence through mindful approach. Sounds like you are doing the same. As Janet keeps reminding us, the parents are the ones who have the most influence on our children, and we cant change the environment for them. It would be working backwards to run ahead and clear the path of any bumps and obstacles for them right?

    I hope it’s okay to post a link to another sight Janet, I found this very helpful.


    1. Teresa, thanks so much for these wonderful insights and for sharing the link. I very much appreciated Dr. Laura’s thoughts and the Atlantic article as well. Reading both of those yesterday made this post seem even more timely.

  2. Brooke march says:

    Hi Janet,
    This week we had dinner at a friends place and our son suddenly had a huge meltdown over not being able to open and close the outside door. He is 13 months old. A big rock was placed in front of it to prop it open. I sat across the room from him and watched him and talked to him as he continued to cry. I was sweating and my heart was pounding as it always does, but i stuck with it. My husband jumped up and said “don’t you wanna go to him, or something?” I said no I really wanted to watch and talk and see what would happen. The other couple sat there staring at me. It was after all our first dinner/playdate. So the upset went on for a good 5 mins. My son walked over to me when he needed some comfort to sit on my lap, then went back to the door for another meltdown. Then about 2 minutes later he had figured out how to pull his toy over the rock and how to step over it himself to get in and of room. I felt like I had this hug ah, ha moment, knowing that it was the right thing to do on a core level. I didn’t have to solve anything for my son. I didn’t have to move the rock, pick him up, or find him something else to do. I simply had to “be” with him and his feelings and trust. It lead to a great conversation over dinner and was wonderful for all of us to witness. Thanks so much for all that you do. I learned this from your website.

    1. Brooke, I’m floored by this story! Thank you for making my day! Hugs to you…

  3. This is a great post – thank you as always, Janet. I have one question, though. I have tried to consistently practice this philosophy – sitting with my daughter when she is sad/frustrated/angry, articulating her feelings, allowing her a safe “out” (a “crying chair” where she can go, with me if she wants, if she feels too overwhelmed by her feelings).

    Unluckily, as my daughter hits 2.5 yrs old, she is realizing that she can use crying/whining to manipulate as well as to express emotion. Where/how do you recommend drawing a line in the situations where it’s VERY clear that the kid is being overly dramatic (crying to get attention or just to hear themselves cry)?

    1. MLR, I’m new to RIE, so I don’t know how this fits, but I’ve found that just telling my kids that I don’t care for the noise that they are making, but then having a place where they can still ‘complain’ works for us. Another thing I’ve done to deal with whining was to tell them that it is hard for me to understand them when they talk to me that way (which it is, when they’re first learning to talk!), and then when they’re talking better, so I can understand them, I tell them that I don’t like the sound they are making, and if they want to tell me something, please talk normally.

      I’m really interested in what Janet has to say about this issue too!

      1. Interesting question and I like Holly’s suggestions. Toddlers are so clever! I would definitely allow her to “hear herself cry” as much as she wants to, and I love the crying chair, but I don’t think you need to be a part of that. Tell her that the crying chair is hers to use as much as she needs to (or she can cry anywhere else as much as she needs to), but that you won’t always be joining her. And in those cases you’ll be available for hugs or discussion when she’s done crying. Then you can decide when you think she really needs to sort through something with you and when to just let her be dramatic, while you try to stay calm, accepting and unbothered even if she is right in your face and carry on with whatever you are doing. Because you are not reacting with displeasure or annoyance, the behavior will lose it’s power and become less intriguing for your daughter.

  4. Hmm, I like those suggestions and will try them – thank you!

    Also, I just wanted to add my perspective with a couple of more days behind me: I am beginning to think that a lot of the whining/crying-for-the-sake-of-it is tied into the current potty-training regression that we’re dealing with… and with the general explosion of her awareness of me v. others, of real v. pretend, and of rule-making….

    So I’m just going to try to take deep breaths & let her learn her own limits. Easier said than done. 😉

  5. I have this posted on my fridge now Janet. It will be a daily reminder to myself to remain calm.

    “while you try to stay calm, accepting and unbothered even if she is right in your face and carry on with whatever you are doing. Because you are not reacting with displeasure or annoyance, the behavior will lose it’s power and become less intriguing for your daughter.”

    Thank you!

  6. Thank you for this blog and everyone’s comments – it is such a support when really what we are doing is very different from many other parents and that our culture is all about distracting us from our feelings. It is more often than not hard to sit in my own discomfort when my 3 year old is protesting or grieving, but I’ll remember these stories and it helps.

  7. Thanks so much for the comments about crying to manipulate vs to express emotions. Before our second child was born, we tried to support our 2 year old by allowing the crying whenever she wanted, along the lines suggested here. But with a baby sister around she seems to be using crying more to manipulate especially when it’s time to breastfeed baby. I spend time with big sis before and after feeding baby so I really don’t think it’s an issue of not enough attention (might it be too much?! As in giving too much attention to her crying at feeding times?) I really can’t let her cry when baby is feeding because it distracts baby and prevents her from nursing to sleep, I’d be most grateful to hear your advice/comments.

  8. Hi Janet,

    I hope you would reply because I really do not know the possible solution to this and need your guidance badly. I have an almost 3 year boy who is very intense and aware. He is a very sensitive guy. The thing is that he never ever cries. Even though I totally agree with the RIE philosophy and i know how much crying would help him in releasing his stress. I have always encouraged him to be expressive and tell me his feelingss but he just doesn’t feel like to cry. He acts out a
    Lot. I have to admit that when he was around 2, once he had a BIG meltdown and it lasted longer than I could tolerate. At that time I told him to stop. I showed him that I am not comfortable with his feelings. Since then he has not ever had a meltdown and I know that is not something I should be proud about. I have tried to a lot of repair work but it seems like he can’t trust me anymore. Please tell me what needs to be done because I really want him to feel safe with me, express all his feelings and get all the stress out of his body. I’d be forever grateful for any advice

  9. May I please add that it’s not only important for toddlers, but all children.
    I have always permitted (and encouraged) my children to release their emotions and overwhelming feelings without much reassurance I was getting it right, and then I read this article tonight.
    Allow me to explain with what I witnessed today.
    Today at my 2 youngest children’s sports day (ages 10 and 9) both boys raced in the 100m sprint final in their respective age group, and didn’t achieve the results they were hoping for. Both were (to me) visibility disappointed, and in the comfort of my space, could express that and we processed it together. My younger one went on to race the 200m sprint final and finished the race last, and to my surprise he accepted this result better than the first race. We parted ways, he happily returned to his classmates and I went to check in with his brother. I spotted him (the 10 year old brother) sitting quietly by himself and as soon as I was in his presence he broke down emotionally but I had no idea why. It turns out he was watching his younger brother’s 200m race and saw that he came last. Having just experienced his own disappointing result he was overwhelmed by sadness for his brother coming last and when he saw me it all became to much for him. All I could do was embrace him while he was given acceptance to release that emotion. His sadness was complete empathy and I could not have been prouder for not only having the empathy in the first place but for also knowing it was completely ok to express that emotion.

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