“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Role of Tears in Cultivating Resiliency

There seems to be a lack of cultural wisdom as to the significance of tears in bringing a child to rest from the things they want but cannot have. While internet searches on tantrums top parenting concerns, the tears that are meant to quell futile pursuits or frustration seem invisible in importance. Yet it is tears that offer relief from the disappointments that are part of life, the upsets that will come, and the hurt that is felt. It is sad tears that signals a child has surrendered to the limits we impose on them such as no more cookies or ice cream, or our inability to fix or find something they want. Life is full of disappointment such as not being first, not winning, not getting what we want, and not being able to hold onto the people you want to stay close to. Tears are the ultimate answer and resolution to the frustration that comes in the face of life’s futilities. As Althea Solter states, “When children cry the hurt has already happened. Crying is not the hurt but the process of being unhurt.”

 All tears are not created equal – there is a difference between mad tears and sad ones. It is sad tears that underlie adaptation and resiliency. Sad tears are the ones cried in response to realizing something cannot be changed. It is where frustration melts into surrender, where whining or attacking energy subsides and there is rest from futile pursuits. It is here resiliency is born in realizing you can survive not getting what you want. Mad tears on the other hand, are fuelled by foul frustration and common in young kids with each one having their own signature move(s) including: kicks, hits, screams, pinches, bites, with sensitive ones prone to attacking oneself. When we focus on a child’s attacks we miss the frustration that is driving it, and with that, an opportunity to melt their frustration into tears of sadness.

By the time a child is 4, physical forms of attack may start to be replaced with words instead – a good sign indeed! It means they have developed the capacity to use words to express their emotions instead of physical means. It’s important to remember they won’t have self-control when they are emotionally charged until the ages of 5 to 7 with ideal development – and more like 7 to 9 for more sensitive kids. When a child is full of foul frustration, it is only their sad tears that will bring rest and emotional balance to their system again.

The Science of Tears

William Frey, a well-known researcher who has studied the chemical composition of tears states sad tears are not benign like the ones we cry when cutting onions. Our sad tears are full of toxic proteins that are being shed by the body for the purpose of bringing the emotional system back into balance (1). Ad Vingerhoet’s book, Why Only Humans Weep, pulls together the science of crying and the complex interactions in the body (2). The nervous system is responsible for allowing tears to flow and the experience of rest with special neurotransmitters governing this interaction. When the futility of something registers in the amygdala in the limbic system, it shifts gears in the nervous system and the parasympathetic system is activated. Tears may fall or disappointment and sadness will be experienced. These states are also accompanied by a release of oxytocin, the attachment chemical that dampens the biological stress chemical of cortisol. When children cry and receive comfort from attachment figures, it is their engagement that increases oxytocin levels and decrease stress related ones. Tears are not a problem but a child’s signal to us that they are having one so they get the support they need.

If a child has lost their capacity to express sadness or does not show upset, disappointment, or talk of being lonely or scared, we should be concerned. The expression of tears or sadness is key to taking stock of a child’s vulnerable emotions and whether they experience them. If you don’t feel sad, then caring may also be inhibited too. This isn’t a mistake in the child but a response to an environment that is too wounding, thus emotional defenses have been erected by the brain (4). A child who has stuck tears will be frustrated – a lot – with attacking behaviour often present. In such cases, when an adult focuses on the attacking behaviour with punishment, it will further exacerbate the frustration and attacking emotional energy. What is needed is to come back to the emotion that is driving the attacking behaviour – to the roots of frustration that is fuelling it.

Adults as the Ultimate Comforters

Our role in helping our children’s tears flow is to accept that they need to come out. Our focus on reason and rationale is lost on them, it is about their hurt feelings and disappointments. It is about the generous invitation they need from us to welcome their tears and all that it means for them. While we might not see a broken toy, losing a game, not getting another cookie as a big deal – it is for them – especially the first time around. What they need from us is room for their tears to fall and their disappointment to be felt in a non-shaming or non-punitive environment. They don’t need our discomfort with their upset to stop what must come out of them. They need adults who can hold onto them through the emotional storms so that mad can turn into sad as they accept the limits and restrictions they are up against. It is in how we offer a hug or soft words, a warm presence, an invitation to be close and room to cry, and patience to wait it out. It is in these tears where transformation and adaptation occur – where they realize they can survive what didn’t work, can’t work, won’t work, or shouldn’t work – and that they are okay despite this. It might be cookies and ice cream today but it paves the way for the big disappointments that will come – a poor grade, a job they don’t get, to loving someone who doesn’t love you back.

Young children weren’t meant to take care of their feelings, they are just starting to learn names for them. We need to stop outsourcing our responsibility for a child’s upset onto their shoulders with statements such as, “control your temper,” “calm down,” “why can’t you figure this out,” “I have told you a hundred times,” “stop being like that,” “cut-it-out,” “you need to think more positively,” or the classic line, “why are you crying – I’ll give you something to cry about.” We need to step in to take care of their frustration and tears, they are the clearest signals to us they need help. Helping a child understand what is behind their tears is the goal but they will not lower their emotional defenses for just anyone.

What we do in the face of our children’s tears, both mad and sad ones, will communicate to them what type of caretaker we are and whether we can be trusted to take care of their heart. Can they trust us with their hurt feelings? Can they trust us to guide them through their foul frustration to their tears? If we can’t hold onto them through these storms then they will not hold onto us. We cannot guide a child towards maturity if they don’t follow us.

What I find truly ironic is that when we make room for our children’s tears we will find that it transforms us too. When we have to stretch emotionally to make room for the emotions our children stir up in us, it grows us up. Our love for them can make us more emotionally mature by forcing us to temper our strong reactions. If you have ever had to hold onto your frustration in the face of your child’s, you will know exactly what I mean. My hope would be that when we are faced with our children’s tears we would be close enough to our own so that we would instinctively know what they needed most from us.

(1) Aletha Solter, “Understanding tears and tantrums,” Young Children 47, no. 4 (1992): 64–68.

(2) William H. Frey and Muriel Langseth, Crying: The Mystery of Tears (Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press, 1985).

(3) Ad Vingerhoets, Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(4) Gordon Neufeld, Making Sense of Kids Course, (Vancouver: Neufeld Institute, 2013).

Copyright 2016 Deborah MacNamara, PhD

Deborah is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and in private practice working with parent of children and teens. She is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). All work is based on the relational and developmental approach of Gordon Neufeld, PhD, please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com for more information or www.neufeldinstitute.org.