Dear Kid Whisperer,
I’m curious about crying tantrums. We have a strong-willed six-year old girl who cries about everything lately. She cries over us not buying a toy or what she eats for breakfast. I offer her a hug, tell her I am sad that she is sad and tell her that it’s too loud and we can’t hear each other. I am gentle and loving. I tell her that she can come back when she can not hurt our ears. When she’s calm, at some other time, I have asked her if she is sad about other parts of her life. I know that she is healthy and well rested. How do I deal with excessive crying without punishing or shaming? – Andrea, Spokane, Washington
You should deal with this by doing exactly what you are doing. What makes you think you are doing something wrong? You are empathetically setting a limit, putting the problem squarely on her shoulders, and showing her that this is her problem, not yours. It’s pretty much perfect.
I also have a very strong willed six-year-old girl. I have dealt with these past tantrums in exactly the way you are and we haven’t had the crying fits in a long time because, over a period of time, she tried to get what she wanted by crying, and it never got her what she wanted. So, she stopped.
My friend and mentor, Jim Fay once told me “When you do the right thing with a strong-willed kid, it often feels like the wrong thing.” Just because your kid is crying doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. In fact, when you do the right thing with a dramatic and strong willed six-year- old, it should USUALLY end with her crying!
But some might say, “Maybe she is in emotional distress or has an emotional problem.” My answer is that it just doesn’t matter.
First, who says children should never be in emotional distress? Where is that written? When kids are in distress we should empathize, just as you did, and leave the child to solve any problem that it is possible for them to solve. If she is in emotional distress about eating a bagel, I suppose she is going to pull up her big girl pants and deal with it. Doing exactly what you have been doing tells your kid that you love them, and that you know they can solve their own problems.
Secondly, even in the unlikely event that your daughter has a clinical emotional problem, you still don’t want to doubly disable her by, at that moment of the tantrum, showing her that her tantrum about breakfast offerings is your problem. This will still reinforce the negative behavior, making everyone’s life worse. None of this will stop you from talking to her about feelings (as you did) or even talking to a counselor or psychologist (not that it seems necessary in this case).
You can either teach her that being dramatic and throwing a fit doesn’t get her what she wants, or she will eventually try these behaviors on a series of boyfriends. As someone who dated a lot of women whose mothers, I suspect, never taught them this lesson, please stick to your guns! Just keep being sad, lay on the empathy, and keep training her that she can be around people for as long as she can be pleasant. Good work!