Humans are born with an innate need to connect and communicate with others. I remember the relief I felt at the birth of my first child when he opened his little mouth and began to scream to high heaven. To me, that scream was comforting and signified that he was ok as his little lungs filled with fresh oxygen. For him, it was making it very clear that he was scared and cold and very unsure about this new world before him.
Why do kids cry so much? I have learned as a parent—several babies later—that each and every cry that comes from a person carries with it meaning. This can be difficult to remember when you have a baby that won’t stop crying or a school-age child who is especially emotional. But at the heart of crying lies a person in need of connection, understanding, and support.
When we think about crying as a form of communication, we can respond more sensitively and actively seek to understand what is happening for that child at that moment. This is not just true for babies but also for every other human, including toddlers, school-age children, adolescents, and adults.
Here we examine some of the different reasons that a child might cry through different stages of development.
The first three months of a newborn’s life
After bringing a new baby into a family, the first few months are important for bonding and getting to know each other. The parent and child must learn how to communicate with one another and understand a range of cues and signals. For a newborn baby, the best way for them to tell their caregiver that they need something is to cry.
Of course, we know that babies may cry when they are hungry, tired, or need changing, or wake up crying. But there are many other reasons why a little one will exercise their lungs in an effort to tell their adult something. Babies will also cry to convey that they’re uncomfortable or in pain. Perhaps their clothes are too tight or they have been fed too much?
While newborn babies can cry often and with surprising volume, colic can sometimes be the reason for prolonged bouts of crying. If you are concerned that your little one is crying excessively during these early weeks, it’s important to seek medical advice to determine if colic could be the reason.
Infants up to 12 months old
It is not surprising to most that an infant aged between 4 and 12 months old will cry quite a bit. So much is going on for a child of this age. While they won’t yet have the language to talk about what they’re feeling, they certainly are becoming more aware of themselves and the world around them, which can at times be a terrifying place.
One big thing that often emerges for a baby of this age is separation anxiety. They are learning that when their caregiver goes away, they will usually come back again. Through this process, an infant learns the basics of trust. This stage of development can be a very anxious time for both parents and infants. And when you throw in teething as well, it’s no wonder babies of this age (and their parents) cry so much.
Unfortunately for infants who cry a lot, child abuse cases are not uncommon. While excessive crying can elicit sympathy in some parents, it can also trigger intense feelings of anger, extreme hostility, or even physical abuse.
Oh, the toddler years. The terrible twos. The trying threes. It’s no secret that toddlers can be demanding and irrational. Luckily, they are also entirely hilarious and insanely adorable. Toddler cries are usually much louder than baby cries. Most toddler parents know only too well the stress of a toddler tantrum in the middle of the supermarket. Knowing how to deal with a child who cries over everything or a toddler fake crying in public can be a struggle.
Toddlers are built for investigating, exploring, and experimenting. They are walking, talking researchers who have their own ideas and opinions and who can easily feel frustrated by their loving parents’ efforts to keep them safe and appropriately cared for. Toddlers are learning to find boundaries and can be very good at protesting, but they still require nurturing care and a sense of security.
It is a common misconception we hear is that toddlers are “naughty.” In reality, toddlers are simply tiny humans with grand ideas, limited communication skills, and adults who like to get in their way. It’s not easy being a toddler for sure!
Children aged 3-5 are considered preschoolers. At this stage of development, a child learns all kinds of complex skills related to social interactions. Having to wait, share and compromise can be challenging for young children.
Compared to babies, preschoolers are usually better at expressing their emotions verbally. They can often tell you when they are angry or sad, but they may still express these feelings through crying. Often at this age, a child crying can mean, “Are you listening to me?”. They want to know that you hear them and you care. Responding kindly and with understanding will help the child learn how to process what they are feeling and regulate their emotions through difficult times.
Elementary school-age children
“Why is my 11 year old daughter emotional?” you may be asking yourself. For school-age children, there can be huge variants in their ability to regulate their emotions. While crying is still considered normal behavior for this age group, some children can be more sensitive than others and some have a higher degree of empathy than others. Some children might be more inclined to hide their emotions while others will express them freely; each child is certainly different in this regard.
Through these school-age years, children are learning more about the appropriateness of crying. While it’s never good to bottle up emotions, learning to hold back from crying at certain times is an important aspect of learning acceptable social behavior.
It’s an excellent time to support children in developing coping strategies when struggling with their emotions. Putting in the time to actively listen increases the likelihood that your child will continue to share their worries with you as they get older.
The adolescent years
As children grow into teenagers and begin to go through puberty, hormone changes can certainly impact emotional regulation. Teenagers and adolescents are often negotiating more complex problems that can be overwhelming and stressful. Difficulties with friendships can be a huge factor for feelings of upset as teenager relationships are so vital to them. When things go wrong, they don’t always know how to respond.
Some young people will cry when they experience feelings of failure or disappointment, when they feel that their emotions have not been acknowledged or when they feel misunderstood. It’s always important to validate their disappointment. A big part of growing up is learning emotional regulation skills, which help them know how to manage emotions effectively. Each individual will have a different level of emotional intelligence that impacts how they react in difficult situations.
At times a teenager crying can be a helpful release of emotion during the adolescent years. Still, it is crucial to keep a watchful eye for signs of depression or anxiety. Your teen’s crying spells, crying over nothing at all or crying over little things that normally wouldn’t bother them are signs of depression. Seek appropriate interventions if needed.
Crying is a normal behavioral response that is biologically inbuilt from birth. While the reasons for a crying child can differ across ages and stages of development, crying has an important role in our lives. Whether it arises from a desire to communicate needs and wants, or if it serves the purpose of an emotional release, crying is just one of those wonderful things that make us human. Now, please excuse me while I go and chop some onions for dinner.