crying toddler in distress response
Blog Post, Practices

The crying child and how different parenting styles respond

There are as many styles of parenting as there are parents and how we respond to our crying child is subject a range of factors and contexts. I know that talking about how we raise our children and respond to a crying child can be a highly emotive – even moralistic – conversation.

It feels deeply personal because of our relationships with our children, and the high investment (in every sense of the word) so many of us put into childrearing. Why this topic can be emotive is also connected with the ways motherhood sets us up for comparison, judgement, and critique – from both others and ourselves.

In my latest podcast episode – 6. Parenting Paradigms – I give an overview of some of the major styles of parenting and give an overview of the characteristics of each style.

Parenting style examples

If you’re curious about what I refer to when I talk about different parenting styles, here is a little snippet of insight into some styles and their differences:

  • Authoritarian: you value discipline as part of parenting, often involving punishment and reward strategies. You can see a crying child as using crying as a form of manipulation.
  • Attachment: you believe in the close attachment of parents with their children. A crying child is communicating an unmet need that you should meet.
  • Free range: you respect your child as an independent, autonomous, and capable person. You resist structured and planned activities and programs, instead encouraging learning through free play.
  • Aware/Hand in hand: you see your child as a whole and separate person. Your job as a parent is to support their growth through recognizing and working through emotions (both your own and your child’s). You see your crying child as using a normal and healthy mechanism for stress release.
  • Conscious: you believe your children mirror you, highlighting and thrusting you onto a path of transformation. You parent through strategies of both modelling and encouraging inner work on resilience and growth.

Many of the prescriptions of parenting around ‘THIS IS WHAT YOU SHOULD DO AT ALL COSTS’ are culturally constructed, rather than necessarily being based in evidence and research.

We can also say that the way that we mother matters, and the attachment needs and need for connection of babies and children matter, while ALSO critiquing the various cultural and social interpretations of different parenting methods.

How we perceive our crying child

One of the big points of difference in how we parent according to these different styles, is how we understand and respond to our children when they are distressed. This distress is often expressed through crying, or a ‘tantrum’. Different parenting styles reflect different ways of understanding what crying and tantrums actually mean. I think it also depends hugely on the age of a child. People’s perceptions can shift and change according to what age-group we are talking about.

There is the belief that crying is a form of manipulation. Children – from infants onwards – cry in order to coax their parent into giving them something they want (or ‘giving in’ to them).

There is the perception that crying is a form of communication. A child’s tears are a sign to their caregiver that they have some need that is not being met. This idea is most typically prevalent in infants but continues throughout childhood. We may even think about how this perception plays out with us as adults when we see another person crying and scramble to find something we can ‘do’ to make them feel better/stop crying.

There is also the idea building from this, that crying is a form of communication, but not ONLY a form of communication. Crying can sometimes be a way of releasing stress, tension, fears, and as a mechanism of catharsis.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation

I have to say that after reading widely on these different perceptions and understandings, I can understand and relate to where each is coming from. I can see myself and my daughter in every one of these perspectives.

The other day, my innocent child who I felt would never ‘manipulate’ me through her emotions, was perfectly happily sitting in her car-seat when I was outside the car. But as soon as I opened the door she feigned upset and sadness but then burst out laughing. She was crying to ‘manipulatively’ invoke a response in me.

She woke up last night crying and rolling around chewing on her finger. Between the sobs I heard her muttering ‘sore’ – referring to her teething pain. She was crying to communicate a need for comfort and pain relief.

Then there was the other week when she had a ‘tantrum’ (oh she has them all the time of course, but I’m just using this one as an example!) because she wanted to try put her own shirt on instead of me helping her. I said fine here you go, and then she started wailing that she wanted me to put the shirt on for her. Back and forth we went.

Her crying was not about the t-shirt. It was her way of releasing stress and tension. We’d had a big day where I’d been asking her to follow a lot of instructions, spend a fair amount of time in the car, and she’d had little time for free play and making her own choices. So this extra request tipped her over the edge. I sat and listened and empathized and after 5 or so minutes of crying she came in for a cuddle, and then happily let me dress her and on we went.

So these examples are to say: limiting ourselves into identifying with one style of parenting can limit the perspective and scope of understanding we have of our children’s dynamic, changing, and complex behaviour.

How we can respond to crying

Although a contentious parenting topic, I would argue that there is pretty compelling evidence available that would caution us against leaving our children and babies to cry unsupported and alone. If you’re interested in exploring this evidence further I’d encourage you to check out my free eBook here and click on the links included at the end of the ‘sleep’ section.

But the reality is: there will be times where our babies will cry and we have done everything humanly possible to meet (and anticipate) every one of their needs. Nothing we do can help them, and so we feel helpless. But what you can do?

You can be with them. Hold them lovingly as they cry and let them know that you are there for them and it’s going to be okay. Crying in the arms of a loved one is a very different experience to crying alone.

This is supported by research, such as that of Gunnar, who found that when crying infants are held by a caregiver their stress response (the HPA-axis) doesn’t happen, compared to when they are left to cry alone with spiking stress-hormones. More than this: think about your own feeling of distress and crying, and how you feel when supported and listened to by a trusted loved one.

All children cry, regardless of what style of parenting you use.  

For children who are older, not only will they cry, but we as parents will make them cry. This is whether our style is authoritarian, gentle, attachment, or conscious, we will cause our children to cry for a myriad of reasons – including setting boundaries. But it is how we set those boundaries and respond to this distress that is important – not whether our children are crying or not.

We remain empathetic, understanding of their needs and respectful of our own needs and boundaries as parents too.

Reflect on your parenting style

I also think an interesting exercise to do is examine your own internal response to your child’s tears. Question where your beliefs came from? Do they come from your parents and your own childhood? From what you think is the ‘right’ thing to do according to baby books or parenting guides? Is it how you see others in your social circle respond to crying in their children? What emotions bubble to the surface for you?

Most of all: tune in to you, because when you meet your own feelings you are better able to manage and meet your children’s feelings.

Feel the freedom of rejecting the pressure to box yourself into one parenting style. I hope opening up this conversation encourages you to reflect on your own beliefs and practices, and go gently on yourself as you travel down this ever-shifting path of mothering.  

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