Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Crying Over Spilled Milk: Manage Crying & Outbursts in Sensitive Children

Who’s to say there is no crying over spilled milk?  The truth is that all sorts of seemingly frivolous reasons can make our children cry.  (There is actually a controversial blog devoted to documenting the “silly” reasons why children cry.)  Moreover, certain children are more sensitive to life’s imperfections and are consequently more prone to crying and experiencing other upsettable feelings frequently.     How do you know what is worth fussing over?  What should you do when children cry?  How should overly sensitive children be managed and nurtured?  Can resilience be taught?

Schreiendes Kind

Worth the tears?

There is no definitive way to decide which types of disappointments are worth crying over and which are not.  If your child is crying, they are upset and conveying that the reason for their tears is “no big deal” will only fuel more tears and anger directed at you.  Spilled milk may seem inconsequential, but it may be the worst part of a child’s entire week.

Adults and children differ in their inventory of experiences.  Most adults have experienced intense scenarios where life/death is at stake or at least a livelihood or significant relationship.  Most children have not had these experiences and so when their lollipop drops on the ground or their favorite stuffed-animal is lost, they register these events as major life stressors.  This is akin to the common notion of a “first world problem” for adults.  (Ex: We may spend our entire day stressing about what to serve at a party to impress our friends, while people around the world starve and go hungry.)  The reason for your child’s tears is worthy in their limited perspective, however ridiculous it may be in your opinion.  

But how should a parent respond to a fussy child, especially one who is more sensitive and finds numerous opportunities each day to cry?

Managing the Tears

  1. Basic Needs:  First and foremost, check to see if your child’s basic physical needs have been met.  Are they hungry?  Thirsty?  Needing to toilet or change their diaper?  Overly tired?  Bored? Deprived of opportunities to freely play?  Do they need physical affection?  If any of these are a possibility, start with meeting your child’s physical needs first.  Sometimes a cuddle, trip to the park or snack will do the trick.
  2. Empathy: When you are mad, the last thing you likely want is for someone to tell you to “get over it”.   Even if the reason for your anger is worth getting over quickly, you probably will be able to move past the annoying driver who cut you off or the rude clerk at the store if someone offers an empathetic statement instead of advice.  For more information on using empathetic statements and therapeutic narration to soothe an upset child click here.  Remember, children desire empathy, just like adults, but differ in their need for empathy and clarity when they are upset.  Children require MORE empathy and clarity than adults because their understanding of the world is so limited.   Feelings of anger, frustration, fear and rage scare children as these intense experiences can feel uncontrollable to their little bodies and minds.  They have a reduced ability to calm themselves and still need practice and lessons in perspective and self-soothing.
  3. Allow the Tantrum:  Tantrums are a normal, natural and necessary part of children learning how to take control of their feelings and bodies.  Tantrums allow children to work through their rage.   Remember, young children are primarily physical beings, meaning that they primarily experience the world through their bodies, while adults are mainly verbal.   Do not shame a child for throwing themselves on the floor and screaming.  Instead, empathize with their feelings and tell them that it is OK to work through their feelings with their body, but if they need to tantrum, they will need do it alone in a safe space (ex. their room).  Explain that screaming and crying upsets the rest of the household and that when they are calm and ready to be around other people they are welcome to return.  Give your child the power to choose and let them have the opportunity to take control of their bodies and feelings.  Try to hide your annoyance and frustration with them (it is hard, I know!).  If you can remain calm, confident and consistent it will transfer feelings of security to the child at a very insecure moment and will reduce the length and frequency of tantrums.
  4. Do Not Negotiate with Terrorists:  Of course the terrorist part is in jest, but really, do not negotiate with a screaming child.  I’ll say it again, do not give-in, negotiate, bargain or appease a screaming child with their demands.  Children need to learn that they can get what they want through words that are calm and polite, yet assertive if need be.   Allow a child to learn to stop crying because they see it as an inefficient route towards getting what they want.  If you reinforce crying and tantrums with appeasement, they will indefinitely continue (and trust me, you don’t want a tantruming teenager).   If you are in public when a crying fit begins, press on solider!  Ignore the stares, looks of disgust and general judgments of others.  It is embarrassing, but it is worse to place your embarrassment over the needs of your child to resolve their feelings in a healthy way.  In other words, no offering candy if they stop crying.  We have all been there Fellow Parent and you are not alone.
  5. Repeat After Me:  Children who are stuck in a crying fit have a hard time with clarity and perspective and it will take years of experience for them to gain both.  Instead of expecting your child to suddenly see life in a clearer view when they are upset (although sometimes that may happen), speak the the truth to your child and offer them an opportunity to recover.  Narrate what you see occurring, “You dropped your lollipop”.  Then state how they responded, “You look angry.”  Finally, feed them the same statements from their perspective so they can repeat them: “I dropped my lollipop”; “I feel angry”; “I wish I could have another lollipop”.  Adults work through statements like these in our head through a complex system called “self-speak”.  Children’s self-speak is still maturing and so they benefit from practicing self-speak audibly.

Frequent Criers Program (i.e. What to do with Sensitive Children)

If you have noticed that your child is more upsettable than others and has remained so throughout his or her lifetime, then chances are you have a child with a sensitive temperament.  (If you worry that your child’s sensitivity is severe, talk to their pediatrician to receive additional counsel and to rule out potential psychological disorders.)  Children with sensitive temperaments tend to feel more deeply, fixate more frequently and cry recurrently.

The explanation for why some children are more sensitive dips into some issues of nurture, but mostly genetic and epigenetic influences, the discussion of which might put you to sleep so let’s make a general assumption that if your child is deemed to be “sensitive” that it is likely due to how their brain is wired to respond to sensory input, information, experiences, etc… For many sensitive children, the lights are brighter, pain is more intense and feeling mad is equivalent to feeling furious.

Emotional sensitivity can be compared to allergies, in that the allergy sufferer has no control over how their body responds to a pathogen.  Exposure to a pathogen irks some people, significantly bothers others and doesn’t seem to phase certain groups at all.  Everybody has a different biological response to pollen, molds and dust, just like everyone will have a different biological response to frustrating circumstances.

Biologically rooted problems can be addressed and alleviated.  If your child is emotionally sensitive, then much like having allergies, you can take certain steps to lighten the burden of the problem  born by your child.  Here are three suggestions for nurturing resilience in sensitive children, in addition to the tips above for handling general outbursts:

  1. Allow Extra Time for Success: Sensitive children typically require more time to recover from upsetting encounters.  When my son was three, I was frustrated with him for crying for a long period over the loss of toy.  I told him that he had a chance to cry and now it was time to move on.  Amidst his sobs he replied, “Momma, it just takes me longer”.  Lesson learned Fellow Parents!  Accept that your child is not like you and allow them extra time and space to work through their feelings.  Sensitive children’s brains are actually wired to require more time to achieve a state of calm.  Their prolonged crying is not their fault.
  2. Focus on the Positive:  The opposite of anger is forgiveness.  The opposite of anxiety is thankfulness.  It is hard to be angry and anxious if you are thankful and forgiving.  To nurture both, you need to overtly discuss both topics with your children throughout the day.  You can model thankfulness by pointing out small, seemingly insignificant things throughout your day that make you thankful.  Encourage your child to join in listing off items.  When your child or others upset you, offer your forgiveness out loud and visibly make an effort to move on afterwards.  When your child is melting down, allow them time to work through their feelings and tell them that you’ll know that they are ready to try again when they can list one or more things that they are thankful for or offer forgiveness to those who offended them.  Help them learn to focus on the positive parts of life instead of dwelling on the negative.
  3. Cast off the Critical: Most sensitive children are overly critical of themselves.  Their high standards mean that you don’t have to go out of your way to drill in a lesson or point out their faults.  Be careful with how you speak to them, because even if they don’t respond to your reprimands they will likely dwell on your words throughout the day.  Instead of casting judgment on what they are doing, ask them questions to help them draw their own conclusions.  Sensitive children tend to be more introspective and even if they don’t answer audibly, they will likely be able to critique themselves without added help from you.  When you do need to censure your child, make it quick, calm and loving.  Phrase your rebuke in a temporary way, avoiding adding negative evaluations to their character and being.  “I don’t like what your doing” as opposed to “I don’t like you”.  Use the phrase “try again” and the idea of “readiness” to ensure that they don’t dwell on their own failures.  

From the parent of a sensitive child to another, I wish you all the best as well as patience and love in abundance!  As much as their sensitivity can frustrate us, it also benefits us in the form of extra cuddles, “I love you’s” and kisses.  Often our greatest strengths can be our greatest weaknesses.  If your child’s sensitivity bothers you, try to find ways in which their heightened sensitivity is a gift as well as a burden.

Son with his mother


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