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Thursday, 14 September 2000

Understanding Your Two-Year-Olds Tears

Written by  Ruth Mason

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As any parent who has lived through the terrible two's knows, crying is a big part of a two-year-old's life. One day, I kept a log of my two-year-old's crying behavior.

In the course of a typical day, he cries because:

8:05 a.m. - A rubber band with which he had been playing snaps against his hand.

9:25 a.m. - He bangs his bare foot into a kitchen chair.

11:50 a.m. - I have to take him away from a sink-full of bubbles and plastic dishes where he has been busily playing.

3:30 p.m - His older brother takes away a toy car that he threw at him.

4:14 p.m - He takes a straw out of big brother's soda can. In retaliation, big brother knocks over his soda can, spilling out all the contents.

5:40 p.m - Mom leaves the house to drive a friend home.

My son cried six times in the course of a normal day. That's a lot less than when he was three-months-old and a lot more than his brother, who is seven, cries.


Jodi Hill, a psychologist, mother of two and founding partner of Parenting Resource Associates in Lexington Massachusetts, believes parents will better cope with all the crying that life with two-year-olds entails if they understand what makes them resort to tears.

"Crying is a normal part of two-year-old development," she says. "Most of what makes a two-year-old cry is the loss of an image. Some people describe the same phenomenon by saying, "They're not getting their way," but that's not as helpful to parents or to their children. It has an edge and doesn't allow parents to empathize as much with their child."

Say your two-year-old comes into the kitchen and wants another cookie and you feel she's had enough. She's got a picture in her mind of herself eating that cookie. When she doesn't get the cookie, she has to part with that image. It's a different way of looking at things that enables parents to understand what their child is going through.

Hill contends it's hard for parents to remember that children live very much in the moment and don't have the same ability to understand things that adults have. "A two-year-old won't be able to reason about the cookies," she says. "She had one cookie, it tasted good, so she wants more.

The reality is, you can't have as many cookies as you want. But it's one thing to say: "You can't have another cookie; it'll make you sick;" or to say, " You really want another cookie. You can't have one because too many cookies make you sick. I know it makes you sad."

If the child persists, Hill suggests distracting or re-routing him. If the crying turns into a full- blown tantrum, she suggests sending the child to his room to recover.

Of course, two-year-olds, like children of any age, also cry when they are hurt, tired, hungry, afraid or sick. But Hill's explanation covers most of the other reason that two year-olds cry.


In the day reported above, my two-year-old cried twice because he was physically hurt, once because he had to stop doing something enjoyable (he lost the image of himself playing for as long as he wanted to at the sink,) twice because his brother did things to upset him (in one incident, he lost the image of himself with his toy car, in the other, that of a full can of soda to enjoy) and once when his mother left home (he lost the image of his Mom being close by.)

Hill says she spends most of her professional life getting parents to empathize more with their children. Viewing their tears in an understanding way allows parents to remain firm in the limits they set while leaving room for empathizing with what their child is going through.

Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000

Last modified on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 19:50
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Ruth Mason

Ruth Mason

Since the birth of her first child, writing about children has been Ruth's hobby, passion and profession. An award-winning journalist, she has published in Parents Magazine, Family Circle, Woman's Day and many other national and local publications. She has worked as a child-care worker, newspaper reporter, 60's activist and farmer. Ruth is married plus three, and is a certified parent educator and infant massage instructor. during the year 1999-2000 she was the director of the WholeFamily Parent Center.

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