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crying in childhood

Children may cry for many reasons ranging from serious health problems to being hungry.

What is the information for this topic? 
Humans have developed many different ways to communicate with each other. Some of these include facial expressions, hand gestures, body posturing, and the use of sound. Many species, including fish, reptiles, insects, birds, and mammals, use these same techniques. Humans, however, use sound to communicate much more than other species do. The use of language is the principle factor that separates man from the rest of the animal world.

Why do children cry?

Crying is one way that humans express their emotions. It is one of the most effective ways a child who cannot speak communicates with others. Infants and young children cry for many reasons. As children mature into adults, crying occurs less often, and the reasons for crying become more specific.

It is often not clear why children are crying. It is a caregiver's job to figure out why a child is crying and to relieve the underlying distress, if possible. Here are a few broad reasons why children who are past infancy cry:

The first reason is physical illness.

Children cry when they are in pain from an injury or illness. Injuries are usually obvious. But the source of pain may not be so apparent in a child who cannot talk, or one who is younger than 2 or 3 years old. Ear infections are a common cause of pain in young children. These occur more often in the winter months and if a child has a nose or throat infection. Frequent crying at night that disrupts a child's sleep is a common sign of ear infection. A caregiver should call the child's doctor if the child is crying and has at least one of these symptoms:
  • a temperature above 38 degrees Celsius
  • sore throat
  • stiff neck
  • drowsiness
  • severe headache
  • vomiting

The second reason for frequent crying is toddlerhood.

Toddlerhood, the time when children are between the ages of 12 and 36 months old, can be very frustrating for many young children. Toddlers have a strong need to assert their independence. This is the way they learn the rules of the family and society. This need to be independent, along with being stubborn and having a shortage of other options, lead toddlers into conflict with their parents. This can result in the toddler being frustrated at not having his or her way. This frustration is expressed through crying and temper tantrums. Slowly, the toddler learns the family rules, becomes more independent, and develops his or her use of language. As his or her needs and feelings come to be expressed verbally, the young child uses crying less often to communicate.

Although it can be difficult, caregivers should be patient with toddlers. Adults should expect to have to repeat and reinforce the rules for toddlers many times. It helps to keep rules simple so that the toddler can easily understand them. Spending time with a toddler doing what he or she wants to do gives the child some control. If a toddler is crying out of frustration, he or she should be soothed. Toddlers should not necessarily get their way if what they want is not appropriate. Crying that does not respond to soothing can be handled by putting the toddler in a brief time out. The rules should then be restated when the child has quieted himself or herself and is allowed to return to activities.

The third reason is attention-getting.

Children sometimes use crying as a way to get an adult's attention. A child learns this if an adult attends to him or her every time he or she cries. After infancy, or the first year of life, children can learn to comfort and quiet themselves when they go to bed and when they are not ill.

At bedtime, it helps to put children in their own cots while they are still awake. This prevents them from thinking that they cannot go to sleep without an adult being with them. Sometimes children wake in the night for a nappy change or feeding. These should be done gently but quickly, with just enough light to accomplish the task. Talking and touching should be kept to a minimum.

Nighttime is not the time for an adult to be an entertainer. That should be saved for daytime. Brief periods of crying will not harm a child. Young children should get enough affection, approval, and attention during the daytime to meet their needs for feeling loved and accepted. They do not need reassurance of this in the middle of the night.

Adults can learn not to respond to daytime crying that is directed at getting their attention. The adult should not respond in anger or with punishment to the crying. This type of negative attention accomplishes the child's goal. Rather, the adult can say, "Crying is not a good way to get my attention. If you want me to spend time with you, please ask me in your normal voice." If the child does not quickly respond, the adult should then ignore the child and do something else.

When the child has quieted himself or herself, the adult should say something like, "I'm proud that you were able to quiet yourself. It is much more fun to be with you when you are not crying. Now, what is it you wanted to do with me?"

It is very helpful for the adult to acknowledge when the child seeks attention without crying. The adult might say to the child something like, "I'd love to do that, and I love it when you ask without crying."

The fourth reason for crying is irritability.

Children cry more if they are irritable. However irritability, like crying, is merely a symptom of a problem. There are many reasons why a child may be irritable. He or she may be sleep deprived if he or she has trouble sleeping. Persistent mouth breathing and difficulty breathing through the nose when the child does not have a cold may indicate breathing problems while sleeping.

Many children have television sets, phones and personal computers in their bedrooms. Children can become sleep deprived and irritable because they are up late entertaining themselves or talking to their friends. This is especially true of school-aged children.

School-aged children, especially those in middle school and high school, can be involved in so many activities that they can be irritable from lack of adequate sleep. A child can also be irritable if he or she is having problems at school, trouble with friends, or if there is a lot of stress and tension in the home. Some children who live with a chronically irritable parent can learn irritability as a way of life.

Sometimes a child is irritable in most settings. Sometimes he or she is involved with "the wrong crowd," is abusing drugs or alcohol, is sexually promiscuous, or is involved in antisocial behaviour. In these cases, the parent should not hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional.

The fifth reason is adolescence.

In many ways, young adolescence is like a return of toddlerhood. As with the toddler, the young adolescent is struggling to become independent from his or her parents. This is often expressed at home by the young teen being irritable, short tempered and by crying after only minor provocation. The situation is made worse by the physical and hormonal changes the child is experiencing. An adolescent is trying to figure out who he or she is, how the world works, and who is boss. The struggle for independence, along with the physical and hormonal changes, can make a child very emotional. Parents can be reassured if they hear that their child is happy and well mannered at school, in activities, and at the homes of friends. These are places where the adolescent is with peers and is there by choice.

The sixth reason for crying is depression.

Children often do not exhibit the classic adult symptoms of depression. These include sadness, difficulty sleeping, appetite change, or loss of motivation. Children who are depressed will be irritable, angry, or fearful. They may cry or act out a lot. Younger children usually become depressed in response to significant, adverse changes in their social environment.

Older adolescents may begin to show more classic signs of depression. This is most common in children who have family members, especially within the immediate family, who suffer from depression. Parents with children showing these symptoms should talk to the doctor. They can also seek a referral to a mental health counsellor who works with children and adolescents.

Almost all children who are healthy and live in nurturing environments are happy and content most of the time. Chronic crying and irritability are not normal for a healthy child. A child who cries or is irritable most of the time should be seen by a doctor. If the cause seems to be clearly related to issues in the child's social environment, attempts should be made to get to the root of these issues and correct them.

Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 14/12/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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