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What to Say to a Child Crying in Public

The sentiment to get across: "It’s all right to cry, but I hate that you’re feeling bad. I’m going to help you feel better.”

Much of parenting is trying to head off problems. Pack matches for the birthday party. Get the sneakers inside before it starts raining overnight. Bring water to the playground. But even with ultimate diligence, some things can’t be predicted. One such situation? When your kid cries in public. Usually, it starts with little warning, as in 30 seconds prior everyone was laughing. But then, it all shifts and the tears start at the hardware store, a restaurant, or the playground.

You want the crying to stop, but it won’t for a long, long time. At least it feels that way. You fear it’s extra loud, everyone is looking. You just don’t want this right here and now.

Here’s the thing: “It’s not about you. It’s about your child,” says Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Kids sometimes need to sob. They’re sad, frustrated, hurt, sick, scared, but, “It actually doesn’t matter why they’re crying,” adds Dr. Rebecca Schrag Herhsberg, clinical psychologist and parenting coach in New York City. Just know two things: They’re not embarrassed that it’s in public and they’re not happy – only adults cry for joy.

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So what do you say to a child crying in public? What do you do? Well, it’s time to put away your ego and narcissism. As with watching them play sports, your kids are not a reflection of your parenting acumen. All you have to know is that they’re in trouble, and “your first job is to take care of your child,” Beresin says. Keep that in mind and your stress goes down, and you stop caring about what anyone else around you thinks.

The Sentiment: “It’s all right to cry, but I hate that you’re feeling bad. I’m going to help you feel better.”

What to Say to a Child Crying in Public

Make eye contact with your child, give him a hug or rub her back – most kids like some kind physical touch – and in a comforting, non-dismissive voice, say:

“Honey, I’m sorry you’re upset. What’s the matter?”

This simple sentence is supportive, validating and empathetic, all things you want to convey.

The other sentence to say immediately is, “We’re in no rush.”

Why? You don’t try to get them to the car in the name of privacy. They know that there’s behavior only done at home — swearing, gas, no pants — but feelings don’t get that tag.

“Showing emotion should be something we do everywhere and it’s okay to express yourself wherever you are,” Beresin says. Send that message, and they’ll feel accepted. Make them feel rushed, and the message is to stop sharing, and eventually they will.

You could ask, “Can you tell me why you’re crying?” and you might find out that they didn’t kiss mommy goodbye or they remembered something from school. You might be able to address it immediately, but it’s just as likely that they can’t tell you, and you want to let them know that’s all right as well, Beresin says. During all of this, don’t over-talk, Hershberg says. When they’re crying, they’re not processing. Content becomes secondary to tone. “In the beginning, it’s primal,” she says. “You’re soothing your baby with your voice and body.”

What Not to Say to a Child Crying in Public

Many parents in this situation have the inclination to make the crying stop or at least lessen for the moment. That’s short-sighted. It doesn’t encourage openness and sharing. More than that, it rarely works. You need to

“Don’t cry.”
“Calm down.”
“Control yourself.”
“It’s not the big a deal.”
“People are watching.
“Not here.”
“There’s no need to get upset.”
“You’re being dramatic/Here comes the drama.”

Each of these phrases contain some combination of dismissiveness, shaming, and invalidation, which all needed to be avoided.

Humor, however, can effectively change the mood. Sarcasm is demeaning. Your message with any of these is, “This is bugging me. I can’t tolerate it.” The result is a rupture in your relationship; your child doesn’t feel connected. If you’re not sure what to say, here’s your test: What would you like to hear? If you shared something and essentially your emotional shot was rejected, “It feels like crap,” Hershberg says. “Why wouldn’t it feel that way to your kid?”

The Big Picture Follow-Up

When your child seems calmer, you can check back in and ask, “Can you tell me what was bothering you so much before?” The answer will guide your response. Maybe you clear up misinformation; maybe you help mediate a grudge against a sibling, Beresin says. They also might not know, and Hershberg adds that it’s not imperative to find out. It’s also good to go easy on the questions. They can create undo pressure to talk, so instead, say, “Hey, I noticed you got pretty upset,” and leave it at that. Or offer up, “I get mad and sometimes I don’t even know the reason.”

Your sharing encourages the same, further certifying that expressing emotion is the accepted standard. Bigger than that, you’re building resilience. Your children learn that they can ask for help and get it, and they don’t see the world as a hard, uncaring place, a decent way to go through life. And they understand a few things about bad feelings: They happen. They don’t last forever, and they’re not fatal. The knowledge allows them to take risks. They can run for class president, even though losing is a possibility. They can walk into a birthday party without knowing anyone. That confidence isn’t innate. A child gets it from you.

As Hershberg says, parents help children learn that, “Feelings come and go. You can feel lousy and that just is. And you work it out.”