Occasionally, something I read from a parent or professional sparks such an intense visceral reaction that I need to drop everything I’m working on and respond. This recent note from Emily got my attention:
Hi. I own a childcare and have a little 2.5-year old girl who “fake cries” nearly all day. Really, out of the 9 hours that she is with me, 5-8 are spent crying. Yet she has never shed a tear, and she is instantly ecstatic when she gets her way about something (pure joy). She cries about transitions, she cries about mama, she cries when we finish lunch (she knows nap time is coming). I’ve made a spot for her in the corner (we call it the crying corner) where she can take her blanket and play with toys until she feels like joining the group. She NEVER lets go of her blanket, freaks out over having to take off her shoes indoors, and wants to wear her jacket all day. It’s all day.
She doesn’t nap, but cries through the nap period. I have to move her out of the nap room so the other kids can rest. I tried asking her if she would like to rest in the main room with me, and she happily said yes. It went wonderfully the first day (she sat on the floor with her blanket, head bobbing from exhaustion, but did not sleep). The next day, the crying started again.
The family seem to be the nicest people on the planet. Very kind, very friendly. But they talk to her in a whine (baby talk). She has “num-nums” for meals and drinks from a “baba”. They don’t even call her by her name (Lila), but “Lie-Lie” in a sing-songy whine. The child only speaks baby talk in a whine, as well, because that’s how they talk to her.
I have a children’s therapist who visits daycare, and she says that the child is basically tantruming all day and that her behavior is learned — that when she pretends to cry, she gets what she wants. Her mother confirms that she does get what she wants with this behavior when she does it at home.
I can’t make this child happy. She wants to stay home with her mom (she’s very verbal and tells us this). The therapist says this fake crying is learned manipulation. She advised me to ignore it and lavishly praise the positive behaviors, but they are SO infrequent!
I hate to see this little girl spend her day like this. We are on Week 5 of daycare. I have LOTS of kids who arrived on the first day scared, crying real tears, and took some time to come out of their shell. They all adjust within 6 weeks and are now happy little kids who still attend my care. Nothing I’ve done to try to help this little girl has had any impact. Her mother dropped her off this morning at 8:30 and told me she’d been fake crying since she woke up at 6:30, apologized, and left.
I am wondering if the child should be seen for a psychiatric or neurological evaluation. I’m at a total loss and feeling like I’m failing this little one. Any recommendations would be appreciated.
I can certainly understand how challenging this situation must be for you and your center, and I appreciate your obvious compassion for Lila. Please excuse my bluntness, but your therapist’s assessment makes me furious. Lila is not manipulating you or her parents with fake emotions. She is doing what children always do — trying her very, very best to function in your environment. A toddler has neither the instinct nor the skillset to intentionally game a system. Rather, she will do all she can with what she knows to adapt to it.
Our perceptions of children and their behavior are a crucial starting point for any accurate assessment. What we see will always decide how we respond, and this is where your therapist gets it all wrong. She then exacerbates her erroneous conclusion that this toddler is a manipulator by advising you to manipulate the child right back! She suggests attempting to manage her behavior with over-the-top praise (that even the youngest infant would know is inauthentic) and using selective inattention. While that approach might work with puppies or lab rats, Lila is a fully aware, impressionable human being. She needs and deserves to be treated as such. She needs to build human-to-human relationships with her caregivers that – like all healthy relationships — are formed through honesty, empathy, and trust.
Okay, rant over. Now here are some specifics I suggest for helping Lila:
Lila sounds like she has an extreme sleep deficit, so it’s no wonder she can’t function or even relax enough to take a nap. Overtiredness will do that. It might be that her parents are having a hard time setting limits with her at bedtime. They might be struggling to provide a secure, predictable environment for sleep. They are very likely challenged (as most of us are) to be able to accept any and all of Lila’s uncomfortable feelings and allow them to be fully expressed. Doing so is crucial for Lila to be able to sleep, eat, play, and generally function well. As her caregiver, there’s only so much you can do to provide her with a healthy nap environment, and it sounds like you’re doing it. So, I would focus on accepting her feelings…
Normalizing the flow of feelings
I don’t believe it is our place or the slightest bit helpful to decide whether or not another person’s feelings are real. Our best response always is to accept and acknowledge the feelings however they show up – just accept, and not try to “handle” those feelings. As I’ve shared in many of my posts and podcasts, acceptance is not an active verb. It does not mean dropping everything to comfort a child (unless they are obviously hurt). It doesn’t mean we need to crouch down and speak in a soothing voice until that child feels better. While it’s nice to do that sometimes when we are available, dropping everything may demonstrate a hyper-concern, spotlighting a child’s feelings as if expressions of emotions are an unnatural event rather than a normal, cyclical flow of moods and feelings.
I would also stop asking her to move to a special place to express her feelings. It will help you and her family to normalize them if you can confidently carry on with her in whatever mood she’s in. “Sounds like you don’t feel like going outside with us right now. I hear that! I’m going to give you a helping hand because we want you with us.” If she resists: “It seems this is very hard for you. You don’t want to come outside.” While you acknowledge those feelings, kindly move her along with confident momentum.
Even with your patience and valiant efforts, it is true that you can’t, as you say, make Lila happy. None of us have that power with another person. Our best chance of fostering happiness is to make it our goal to fully accept and trust every feeling that presents itself. Acceptance is the best relationship-builder, and your relationship with Lila will provide a sense of comfort and ease Lila’s stress.
As I said, I couldn’t disagree more with the therapist’s perception of Lila as manipulative, but I do agree that much of her behavior is the result of conditioning. Everything we do as parents teaches children something about us, themselves, and relationships in general…
Unlearning helplessness and finding strength
From your description of the interactions between Lila and her parents, it seems they may be infantilizing her. My guess is that she has been habitually responded to as needy, helpless, and someone to pity, rather than as a strong toddler sharing strong opinions. Again, our perceptions matter a great deal. They not only inform our responses to behavior, but also tend to become self-defining for children. So when we perceive a toddler as weak, needy, helpless, she can begin to believe those things about herself. It sounds like Lila has taken on that identity.
So, instead of addressing the “poor baby,” I would see and speak to the strong toddler within her: “I hear you saying ‘no’, you don’t want your mom to go. You don’t want her to do that… sounds like you strongly disagree with that decision. That’s so hard when we don’t get what we want, isn’t it?” I wouldn’t say all those things at once, but that’s the direction and spirit. And I would say it in a manner that encourages her to express herself forcefully rather than sadly and helplessly. See the strong girl in her. Invite her into the room. Every toddler has one, and this needs to be recognized.
Stop perceiving this as “fake crying” and, instead, see a healthy girl with a healthy toddler will. Nurturing this perception of her will set her free.
Lila seems in very good hands. You’re not failing her! I think you’ll see a change soon, but if you continue to have concerns you might consider seeking further evaluations. Thank you for reaching out to me.
And in this podcast I demonstrate acknowledging children’s feelings in a manner that speaks to their strength: