Why A Good Cry May Not Be So Good For You

Filed under: Opinions

crying babyCrying is a big part of being a parent -- oh I don't mean to imply that parents cry a lot (although let's face it, nothing will bring you to tears faster than seeing your child hurt or in pain). I mean that as parents, we deal with crying on a daily basis -- our children's, certainly, but also our own.

Because we all know that when the going gets tough, the tough have a good cry, and that makes it all better. Right?

Maybe not.

Conventional wisdom about crying -- that it truly makes you feel better, that it helps sort out your emotions in times of stress -- may be going right out the window. According to an article in the latest issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, crying may not provide emotional catharsis at all. In fact, it may do the opposite: a crying jag may actually leave you feeling more emotionally confused than you started out.

The theory is this: when you cry, people around you typically respond with sympathy and support, and it is that response -- not the crying -- that makes you feel better. When research subjects are asked to think back to their last crying spell and talk about how they felt afterward, there is a tight correlation between how other people reacted and how the crier wound up feeling. In one study, 70 percent of subjects described responses to their crying as positive or supportive; those same subjects said that their good cry made them feel better. The other 30 percent, who reported angry or critical responses to their crying, didn't rate their crying as helpful.

This only makes sense, says James J. Gross, a psychologist at Stanford. "Almost all emotions are, at some level, directed at others, so their response is going to be very important." And it seems that this response, rather than any actual physiological change or reaction in the crier, is what leads us to believe that a good cry is a good thing.

We can see this most clearly in our children, who cry for all kinds of reasons. Judith Kay Nelson, a therapist and teacher who has written about the connection between crying and attachment, told the New York Times that "Crying, for a child, is a way to beckon the caregiver, to maintain proximity and use the caregiver to regulate mood or negative arousal." Children whose cries are responded to in a constructive manner learn that what Nelson calls "sad crying" is a way to rally support. But children whose cries are not answered become stuck in what she calls "protest crying," which, she says, "is all about fixing it, fixing the loss. And in therapy -- as in close relationships -- protest crying is very hard to soothe, because you can't do anything right, you can't undo the loss. On the other hand, sad crying that is an appeal for comfort from a loved one is a path to closeness and healing."

What does this mean for us as parents? Two things, really. One is that while a good cry won't hurt, it probably won't help either, at least not by itself. If you are feeling bad enough to cry about something, what you are probably craving is outside support. The more constructive route, then, would be to seek that help rather than crying alone.

More importantly, though, it means that we need to be conscious of how we treat our children's crying, and we need to think about how and when we respond to crying. In my house we talk a lot about what things are and are not worth crying about. A broken bone, for example, is totally worth the tears, but not getting to sit in a specific spot on the sofa is not. I find it reassuring to know that I'm encouraging "sad crying" rather than "protest crying" -- hopefully, this will teach my kids how and when to bust out the tears.

Of course, the conversation about crying is more complicated than that, for many reasons. I have sons, and while I'm not a big proponent of advocating gendered behavior, I do find myself walking a fine line when it comes to crying. I want my boys to acknowledge their emotions and to be comfortable expressing them, which means saying that it's okay to cry when you're sad or frustrated or angry. But I also know that boys who cry get picked on more than girls who cry, and I don't want that for my kids, which means that I frequently find myself talking with my sons about how to deal with their feelings without crying.

But if what researchers are finding is that crying isn't what makes us feel better -- if the reality is that having people who love and support us is what gets us through hard times -- then I feel a little less uncomfortable dissuading my sons from crying. As long as they are able to reach out and seek support, then they'll be fine.

Are you a crier? What about your children? How do you talk to your kids about crying? And do you feel better after a good cry, or does it take something else to get you through a hard time?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.