: I was wondering if anyone has experienced what my 23-month-old daughter does each time a playmate or small child cries. She will burst out in hysterical crying fits whenever someone else cries. Even though she herself isn’t hurt, she still gets very upset when she sees someone crying. This pertains mostly to children, babies or playmates, not adults. I don’t know what to do to help her calm down when these episodes occur, because she is not hurt in any sense, but still cries. I call it her “sympathy” cry, for whoever had gotten hurt. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Your daughter sounds like a very sensitive person. There are many possible explanations for her crying in response to someone else’s tears. Toddlers are not fully clear that they are separate from the people around them. They spend lots of time working on autonomy by resisting your ideas and coming up with their own. However, even by 23 months, some of them may not be sure that they are not the same as their friends and family members. Even when they get clearer about being separate people, they often still think everyone has the same feelings. So when someone around them cries, they may think that they are having the same feeling and that they should cry too.
Another reason that a child may cry when she sees someone else crying may be out of fear or concern. Your daughter may feel startled and fearful by the “bigness” of someone else’s crying. She may feel concern that the other person is out of control. The physical noise of another person crying may be uncomfortable for her.
Your daughter may also be experimenting. She may notice that the person crying gets lots of attention and she may be trying to figure out what about crying makes people come and give you attention. This is not necessarily a sign that she isn’t getting enough attention, it just means that she is curious about the social implications of crying.
Lastly, you are also right that your daughter is learning about sympathy and empathy. Learning about feelings: yours and another person’s is an important step towards becoming an empathetic, compassionate person.
Here are some things you can think about to help her grow in her understanding of feelings.
. Describe to her what is happening when someone is crying. This provides a rich opportunity for her to learn about feeling including her own. When a playmate falls and starts to cry, you can get close to your daughter and describe what you see. “Brittany was climbing on the slide and her foot slipped and she fell in the sand. She is crying. It looks like she feels scared and hurt. Her dad is holding her and helping her to see if she needs a Band-Aid. She might cry for a little while until she is done feeling hurt. She is going to be all right. She’ll probably try to climb up that slide again soon.” When you describe what preceded the crying, what the feelings are, what is being done to help and how the feelings might subside, you can help your daughter resolve some of her own questions about feelings.
. Work to stay calm and reassuring. At the same time that children are learning the “facts” about feelings from what we say, they are also learning about our “real feelings about feelings” from how we act. When we are uncomfortable with a feeling, no matter what we say about it, children pick up on our discomfort. Because of our own experiences or lack of experience being comfortable with our feelings, many of us may have to work on ourselves so that we can give children the message that all feelings are normal, and there are healthy ways to express all of them. Staying calm in the face of your daughter’s hysteria will help calm her down eventually. When we get panicked or scared by our children’s feelings, they get the message that their feelings are so powerful that they even scare adults. This can ultimately scare children.
. Allow her to express her feelings fully. Often parents feel it is their responsibility to “make their children feel better.” We spend an enormous amount of energy bouncing crying babies and distracting crying children with the purpose of stopping the crying so that we can convince ourselves that they are feeling better. In fact, the permission to fully express her feeling gives your daughter the confidence that her feelings are normal and that there is nothing wrong with her for having them. And having the opportunity to get all the way through a feeling leaves her without residual feelings to carry over to the next event.
. Help her identify, name and express her feelings. Whether your daughter is having a feeling based on her own experience or is having a “sympathy cry,” you can help her learn about herself and her feelings. Similar to the way you “sportscasted” when her friend was crying, you can reflect back to her what happened to her, how she might be feeling, and ways she could express herself. “Your friend Brittany started crying and now you are crying. I wonder if you are feeling sad, too?” “You really wanted to stay and play at the park. I see you crying. It looks like you are sad, mad and disappointed that you couldn’t play there longer.”
. Support her in managing her sensitivity. Your daughter’s sensitivity is a gift that can serve her well in her relationships throughout her life. Helping her learn to manage it so that she can eventually be fully sensitive and compassionate to other people, without becoming overwhelmed with their feelings, is an important skill she can begin to learn in childhood.