THE TEACHER'S STORY

Jamie suddenly burst into tears during snack time. I have been wondering why the 3 /4-year-old cries so easily. This time, when I asked what was upsetting him, the answer was quick and direct: "Bella and Louis [the children on either side of him] got more juice than me." Despite my assurance that he could have as much juice as he wanted, he continued to sniffle and look upset.

It concerns me that Jamie weeps at the drop of a hat and doesn't recover easily. Earlier today, he cried when someone else got to the fireman's outfit before he could. Eventually, he had a turn with the red suit, but that barely seemed to console him. Jamie cries if he can't be the first in line, or if his mom isn't the first one to return at the end of the day. Of course, like most children his age, any little unpleasant physical event - a scraped elbow or knee-brings on his tears. But Jamie's quickness to cry seems unusual for a child who is as verbal as he is. Jamie's very well-spoken and at ease expressing thoughts and feelings.

I think other children are frequently put off by Jamie's behavior, and I don't want it to discourage his potential friendships. I have tried to tell him this gently, but so far, it hasn't helped. Is this a truly sad child for reasons I don't understand - or does he just have a habit that is tough to change?

THE PARENT'S STORY

Jamie has always been a very sensitive child. We weren't used to that when he came along, since his older brother is just the opposite. It's even hard to tell when he's upset. Not Jamie, though. In fact, it seems that he's almost always upset. We do everything possible to keep him happy, because I hate to see him sad or crying. He cries if I say he can't have candy an hour before dinner, or if I encourage him to put toys away when it's time for a meal or for a trip to the store. He almost always cries if a visiting cousin or friend wants to share one of his toys. I try to have two of everything, but that doesn't work either, because Jamie is inclined to think the other child got the "better one." This is no way to make friends, and we hoped that starting preschool would improve things. But so far, that hasn't happened. In fact, he cries if I arrive one minute later than another parent at the end of the day. When Jamie is not crying, he is a bright, verbal child. What can I do to make those good times last longer and the crying episodes briefer? If school isn't doing the trick, what will?

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

Jamie's inclination to cry often, even over frustrations that seem insignificant to adults, is neither unusual nor alarming for a child his age, as long as there are no other signs of inner struggle, such as sleeping, eating, or toileting issues, and Jamie does have happy times with family and friends. Parental and teacher guidance, combined with a naturally developing tolerance for frustration, will eventually work to ease the problem.

What the Teacher Can Do

It is still early in the school year, so there is lots of time to encourage better self-control for Jamie. The teacher is on the right track when she points out, in the gentlest of ways, that friends don't like to play with others who cry a lot. Encouraging Jamie to explain his feelings, and praising him when he does, is also helpful. Keep in mind, however, that even a child who is verbally precocious can easily become upset and lose control of his emotions. This behavior is unrelated to preschoolers' language development. But the teacher certainly can help by pointing out how well Jamie expresses himself in words. Then, doing so will become its own reward. Jamie's immaturity may simply wane as the weeks go by and his frustration to tolerance grows.

What the Parents Can Do

The parents should get together with the teacher to develop a plan for encouraging Jamie to "use his words." Without blaming themselves, it might help the parents to consider whether they unwittingly reward their son's inclination to cry by rushing to console him and grant his tearful requests. While I am not in any way suggesting that Jamie's parents should become indifferent to his feelings, they might try to resist any inclination to respond to the crying itself. Instead, they are advised to consider each of their son's requests on its own merits, and set the same limits they would be inclined to set whether there were tears or not. In time, this bright little boy will realize that there is nothing to be gained by frequent tearfulness at home or at school.

Why Some Young Children Cry Easily

We need to remember that crying is the first method of communication from child to parent. While it isn't easy for new parents to interpret their baby's cries, most learn to distinguish the "I am hungry-feed me" cry from the "My tummy hurts" or the "I am just fussy and bored" cry. In any case, all crying boils down to this: "There is something that I want, and you can give it to me, so do it-and fast!" And even when good language has been acquired, most small children cry when they are frustrated. In fact, every negative emotion is readily expressed through tears. Above all, crying is a way of getting attention. For children who feel that talking doesn't get comparable results, the inclination to cry may last longer. Crying also lasts longer as a communication method among children who are not as quick as others to develop self-control. But most experts are not concerned about frequent crying among children younger than ages 5 or 6. Even a number of kindergartners and first graders are inclined to cry first and explain later.

What Can We Adults Do to Lessen the Crying?

  • Spend a lot of time observing the circumstances under which a particular child is likely to cry. Are there certain times of the day - during transitions, for example - that are most likely to evoke tears? Does the child stop crying when he gets what he wants, or does he remain inconsolable? Will he explain if you ask him what is wrong, or does that just provoke more insistent crying?
  •  Ask yourself some questions before concluding that the crying is simply a way of demanding attention. For example, has starting school and separating from family evoked sadness in the child? From what Jamie's parent tells us, crying easily is nothing new for him. If it were, we might have wondered whether there have been any significant changes in his life-a new sibling or a divorce, for example. We can consider whether the crying often occurs in situations that involve social rejection-"No, you can't play with us." In that case, helping the child to do better at ingratiating himself, and helping his classmates to be more polite and welcoming, might change the inclination to cry.
  • Provide lots of positive attention and responsiveness to the child when he is not crying. Ignore the crying unless there is a sound basis for it, such as an injury or real fear. Of course, if there is a real basis for the crying, intervene. But the overall plan will involve providing lots of appropriate attention - a tuned-in ear for the child's feelings and needs.