Let’s explore some alternative ways to handle distress in your child.
1. Try to Allow Its Expression
When you let a child communicate distress, you are showing your child that it is okay to experience a full range of emotions. You’re telling your child that what she feels is valid. These messages are essential to your child’s emerging sense of self and self-confidence. Of course, there may be times—especially in public—when the expression of distress presents difficulties. But these moments can be handled by recognizing the distress signal, validating and labeling it with words, fixing the cause of the distress and, if necessary, taking the infant to another location.
If it is hard for you to hear your child express distress—if you hear yourself saying, “That doesn’t really hurt,” or “Big boys don’t cry,” or “Stop making such a fuss” —here are some insights that might make it easier for you to feel comfortable with the expression of distress. Remember, the handling of negative feelings is especially important to the development of tension regulation.
Even the youngest infants feel what they feel for a reason. Don’t try to squash the feeling of distress by denying its validity. For example, experts in child development suggest that you avoid saying, “You’re not really upset” or “You don’t really want to play with that saucer.” The child is upset. She is having fun with the saucer. When you tell her that her feelings aren’t real, you are making it hard for her to get a good sense of herself or her place in the world. Your role is to provide validation for the child’s feelings: “What is it that you’re upset about? Can we figure that out and so something about it?” Or, “Isn’t that saucer pretty. Let’s put it up here so we can all look at it. Or put it on the rug where we can play with it carefully so it won’t break.”
What is often called “Whining and Complaining” is usually the expression of distress. We as parents often use critical terms (whining and complaining) to push away the discomfort that we feel when our children are distressed. True, the degree of a young child’s upset can sometimes seem out of proportion to what’s actually happened. You know your daughter fell-down, but it was a minor spill. However, from the child’s perspective that spill could represent so much more—surprise, humility, confusion, and an intense feeling of vulnerability. If you ignore this reality, focussing only on what you hope is true (your child is just fine), you may engage in interactions that inadvertently bring shame or increased unhappiness and distress to your child.
Virginia Demos framed the problem in terms of sequences of affective expression and response. Say an infant and caregiver are playing happily together. When the play is interrupted, perhaps because the toy is lost or it is time to go home, the child bursts into tears. At this point, the caregiver might respond with something like: “That’s okay, we can use these toys instead” or “we’ll be back here soon to play again.” Her response would most likely decrease the distress and heal the ruptures, with the regaining of positive affect. This type of pattern is positive-negative-positive. However, the caregiver might respond critically and punitively to the infant’s negative affect; “Oh, stop your crying!” or “Will you be quiet? That noise is really obnoxious!” In this case, the infant would be left not only with the original hurt but a second one as well. This would create a positive-negative-negative sequence. Demos suggested the sequence is dangerous because the negative affects start a vicious cycle, with no repair of the ruptures, and the result is chronic rage and despair.
2. Try to acknowledge the child’s feelings.
For example, if your child takes a tumble and is crying, you might react and say: “Oh my, you took a tumble. That didn’t feel good, did it? Let’s make it feel better.” As a result of your acknowledgment of what happened and how it made the child feel, the child is allowed to cry, which is his true emotion, and he is offered reassurance that his emotional response is valid. He is soothed by your empathy with his distress. (Teaching children empathy is a big and important job. They learn much through example.) Try putting into words what happened and what the feelings are. Acknowledging the feelings also helps the child learn tension regulation: After you validate your child’s feelings, it is much easier for him to move past his distress and regain composure. Over time, he will make this kind of interaction a part of his own internal world, moving toward self-soothing and tension regulation.
3. Try to eliminate the cause of distress
There are endless potential causes of distress—hunger, fatigue, loud noises, discomfort, or pain to name a few. As an infant grows and begins to crawl and walk, two of the most common ones are boredom and separation.
Boredom comes from a lack of interesting and enjoyable stimulation. It makes a child feel restless, trapped, unhappy. Some infants and young children can keep themselves interested and intrigued, but most are not self-stimulating until they get older. So, parents who like to help their infants learn—and like to keep the peace—realize early on that it’s best to provide a steady stream of calm but engaging stimulation particularly interaction with other people.
Research by Rene Spitz in the 1940s revealed that infants will actually die if they do not get enough stimulation, even if they have enough food, sustaining shelter, and are clean. His work and work by others over the past five decades has confirmed that if there is not enough appropriate stimulation at certain points in an infant’s life, the brain will not develop fully. Intelligence, language skills, perception, thought, and other abilities may be diminished. However, an infant does not have to experience extreme boredom to be affected negatively by lack of stimulation.
Even in ordinary situations, boredom may make infants withdraw and become disengaged or it may lead to chronic fussiness. In young children, it can trigger restlessness and the tendency to get into everything, as they desperately try to stir up some interesting stimulation. Later on, as they enter adolescence, boredom may result in self-destructive, delinquent, or criminal behavior.
I spend a good amount of time reading and writing in local fast-food restaurants. That’s given me a lot of opportunity to observe what happens when kids get bored. Sometimes, they provide themselves with stimulation by blowing milk through a straw, dropping a fork on the floor, or by giving a glass-shattering yell. Other times they become fussy and squirmy, crying and hitting anyone who tries to restrain them. I remember one day watching a cute toddler sitting with four adults. After her repeated squeals for attention had been completely ignored, she shredded her pancakes, dumped syrup on herself and spilled a cup of coffee—all in a matter of minutes. The adults were horrified and taken completely by surprise. “Why would you do that?” one demanded. Well, if the child could talk, she would have said, “Because you were so rude. When I spoke up and asked for your attention, you completely ignored me! What was I supposed to do?” But since she couldn’t, she was soundly smacked on the arm and hauled off to the bathroom for a thorough washing off and, I imagine, scolding.
Over and over I’ve observed that when boredom/distress reaches such levels, many parents misinterpret the child’s outcry as naughty behavior. The parents’ impulse is to punish the distress instead of providing the child with something that stimulates interest. Then, the conflict and unhappiness escalate, sometimes leading to yelling and hitting by both parent and child—which has negative consequences for the child’s emotional development and the relationship between the two. Even mild-mannered parents, who don’t understand the signals, may misinterpret fussiness. They may dismiss it as, “Oh, she can’t stand it when she isn’t the center of attention.” Or they demean the child by saying, “You are so bad! Why can’t you learn to behave?” These responses also dismiss the child’s legitimate expression of feelings and can undermine self-esteem.
If your child is acting up in public, chances are she is not being a brat, but simply asking for something to occupy her curiosity. That may mean that you have to turn your attention away from adult conversation or your own meal and focus on her, but usually providing something of interest will help the situation.
So, if you and your child have to sit for a long time in the doctor’s waiting room, try playing with toys, reading a book, walking around the room to look at what’s on the wall. At a restaurant, provide favorite toys in the stroller; include your child in the conversation; hold the child if necessary. When shopping. try to include your child in the activities. Attending to a baby’s boredom will help provide proper stimulation so that intelligence, language, thought, and perception can develop normally. In fact, these times can be transformed from periods of potential upset into opportunities for learning.
Separation anxiety, another common trigger for distress, is an inevitable part of life—particularly an infant’s—and it’s difficult to prevent it from happening. Sooner or later, mom and dad have to leave the room, go to work run an errand, or take a shower. A child may also have to deal with more significant separations, caused by a parent having to travel or divorce. But whether the separation is part of everyday activities or extraordinary circumstances, infants can quickly conclude that they are being abandoned, and this may make them feel vulnerable and unprotected. In such circumstances, your emphasis can be on acknowledging the child’s feelings. For example, if your child becomes upset when your wife leaves the house to run errands, you might say, “I think you must be missing Mommy. I love you, sweetie, and Mommy will be back soon. or now, here’s Teddy. Maybe if you hugged him close, you’d feel better. Or would you like to bundle up in Mommy’s old sweater? And here’s a picture of Mommy and you!” Even if the infant cannot talk yet, she understands the tone of voice and general meaning.
In these moments of separation/distress a child may also turn angry—at you who are there and at the person who has left them. It is important not to take this anger personally. The child is simply expressing escalated, sustained distress and is pleading to be soothed and reassured. If you think there is nothing you can do, think again.
Attachment and separation issues are quite complex, and they have been the focus of much research. Infants and children tend to go back and forth between their striving for autonomy ad their longing for closeness and security. They are striving to become independent, but they desperately need the reassurance and protection that comes from being very close to mom and dad. A once sociable child may become clingy and timid; a child who loved her babysitter may now act as if they never met; loved grandparents may become resented substitutes for mom or dad. Their interests swing between novelty and the familiar. Some children may have a harder transition to independence than others, but there is no reason to criticize a child who is struggling with this developmental stage. Remember to talk, explain, substitute, and distract: This is the mantra for handling separation distress.
Frank is the father of fifteen-month-old John. When his wife had to leave two for four days, the baby was understandably upset and confused. “I did what I could to reassure him.” Frank recalls. “I remember when I was changing his diapers, he looked so bewildered. I said, ‘I know this must seem different to you, but we can have fun, too. Mom will be back in a few days. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.’ Maybe it was my imagination, but I swear he smiled at me and I could feel his whole body relax. We also sat a cuddled with Mommy’s bathrobe, which is very soft, smells like Mom, and John loves it. It made him feel connected to her, I think.” This kind of transitional object can be very comforting to kids. Frank did a good job.
It is also helpful if mom or dad can call during their absence and say hello over the phone. A lot of adults think that with kids, out of sight is out of mind. But even if a child is quiet and seemingly adjusting well to the separation, there’s a good chance that inside there is some degree of turmoil and emotional upset. Often parents think they will only upset their child if they get in touch with them during their absence. “She’s okay, why upset her?” But the parents may not realize that the child’s lack of overt expression of distress may mask her inner emotional state. If the child becomes teary when you call, it is not that you are creating a new feeling of unhappiness, you are simply tapping into the child’s unexpressed distress that was there all along. Allowing her to express it and then offering consolation is actually healthy for the child, even if it is traumatic for mom or dad.
Separation distress can also arise over lost objects, with further misunderstandings frequently contributing to the problem. My son and I were recently on the train. Sitting near us was a family with a five-year-old who apparently lost her new fifty-cent, glowing carnival bracelet on the cab ride to the train. She was continuing to be upset over it. The mom was unsympathetic and a bit angry. She kept saying, “I told you that it would get lost if you took it off and played with it in the cab. It’s your fault. Now maybe you will listen to me when I warn you about things like that.” The little girl looked even more distraught, her lower lip quivering as she tried not to cry. My son whispered to me, “That mom doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on, does she?” I turned to him and asked, “Should we chat with them a bit?” He agreed, and after a little discussion with the family about what happened, I said something like, “Your little girl is distressed about losing her bracelet. What a shame. And it really can be annoying for parents to have kids not keep track of something, lose it, and then get all bent out of shape. But it seems like she feels lousy enough already. Maybe just telling her you are sorry she lost it would work better than criticism.” The mom seemed to regroup a bit, and said to the child: “I am sorry you lost your bracelet.” The child dissolved into tears. “She doesn’t usually get upset like this,” her mom said, startled by the outburst. I explained that the crying was okay. It was a natural expression of bottled-up feelings of distress and relief at being understood. We continued to talk, the kids began playing together, and we all ended up having a really great time on the train ride.
Now, a lot is happening in this example, some of it quite complicated. But the main point is that an effort was made to allow the expression of distress, and that the distress and anger in both the child and the mother were recognized, acknowledged, and validated, with a positive result.
The benefits of attending to distress
In the short term, easing your child’s distress avoids all kinds of hassles—for you and for baby. A fussy, inconsolable child is tough to handle. It frays your nerves. And it can make you feel incompetent or guilty. Dodge those bullets and you and your child will have a lot more fun together.
In the long-term, responding appropriately to distress has many profound benefits for your child. It helps develop tension regulation: Soothing your child now puts her on the road to self-soothing later. It also increases your baby’s sense of optimism and buoyancy. Your appropriate response to distress offers reassurance that the world is an okay place. Baby feels, “I’m safe; it’s not that scary. My needs will be recognized and attended to.” This contributes to baby’s emerging sense of competency. You are telling him that his feelings are real and reasonable and that she’s judged the events accurately. Your child learns to trust his perceptions of his internal and external world and to express emotions honestly. All this results in a solid sense of self-esteem. By tending to a child’s boredom or loss or pain, you are saying, “How you feel is important to me, and you are worth the effort it takes to understand and help you feel better.”
Demos EV (2019). The Affect Theory of Silvan Tomkins for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy: Recasting the Essentials. New York: Routledge.
Spitz RA (1945). Hospitalism—An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 1: 53-74.