One evening when my daughter Ruby was 9 months old, my husband came home, and went over to say hello to her where she had been happily playing on the floor. She burst into tears, and when my husband picked her up she reached out her arms for me.
I was surprised that she’d cried so suddenly. She wasn’t a newborn anymore. It seemed as if she’d been in the world long enough to understand that this was her dad, that she was in a completely safe situation. I was right next to her on the playmat too! And we had just spent a lovely day together full of connection. So why did she suddenly seem to need me so desperately?
All our children experience times in their lives when they feel afraid, where there is something happening beyond their control, that they do not understand, that can shake their sense of safety. It could be birth trauma, a separation due to medical treatment, or it could be something as small as a dog jumping out at them, when they are too young to understand what’s happening.
Patty Wipfler the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting discovered that our children often attach feelings of fear to completely safe situations. When we listen to our children’s big upsets about small things, it can help them release the feelings from times that didn’t feel so safe. Tears contain cortisol, the stress hormone that can build up when our children experience fearful events, so releasing it, helps their bodies to get out of ‘fight or flight’ mode, and restore emotional equilibrium.
In Ruby’s case, i knew that this wasn’t an overwhelming fearful time. She loves her dad, and is usually happy to see him!
So I didn’t pick her up. Instead I moved close to her, and reassured her that she was safe with her dad, that I was there too. He held her as she cried, and we both gave her lots of warm loving attention. After a few minutes she stopped as suddenly as she’d started. She smiled, started ‘talking’ and pointing things out around the room. She was completely at ease being held by her dad.
We had dinner, and Ruby tried two foods she had never tried before, potatoes and cheese! Releasing a little bit of fear helped her to be more adventurous.
If I had simply taken Ruby from my husband’s arms, it would have been a kind of ‘reflex,’ simply to stop her from crying. I would have ‘fixed’ the situation, but I wouldn’t have listened to what she really needed to say.
So next time your child shows fear in what seems like a perfectly safe situation, you can let go of the need to make it all better as quickly as possible. See if there is a need there, or if it simply just a need to cry. Offer closeness, and connection, and just listen. And afterwards, maybe an hour later, or a day later, watch and see where your child is less fearful, whether it’s a clingy baby wanting to get down and explore, or a shy child hugging a friend. Crying is not at all a sign of weakness, it’s how our children build resilience and strength.