Accepting a child’s emotions is not something that comes easily to most people. As humans we are conditioned to be comfortable with emotions such as joy, excitement and serenity. Feelings like anger, frustration, sadness and disappointment are more difficult to deal with and as such we do what we can to turn these emotions back towards the happiness end of the emotional spectrum.
When my children were born, I was overwhelmed with love. I was full of emotion which could turn on a dime. One minute, huge feelings of gratitude and happiness, the next, anxiety and apprehension about what I was doing and what lay ahead and then feelings of frustration and helplessness as I failed time and again to stop my baby from crying. Often, these emotions were all-consuming and it took what felt like superhuman effort to ride through the waves and keep the house running. I turned to those around me to offer the support and understanding I needed to get through. I was lucky that my support network were empathetic, and never dismissed my feelings or made me feel inadequate.
Now that I am in a position where I can look back on this stage with more clarity and with a greater understanding of Magda Gerber’s RIE parenting, it seems strange to me that although I experienced each of these emotions very explicitly at the time, somehow, it never occurred to me that my babies might also feel strong emotions just as genuinely and equally need the same level of support and understanding.
When my babies cried, my instincts told me to make it stop. I wanted to soothe them and keep them safe, feeling loved and happy. I wanted everyone to think I was a great mum with content babies. But I now know that keeping them safe and feeling loved is not necessarily synonymous with keeping them happy and being a great Mum does not mean my babies are always content.
I have learned that in the early years, crying is the way babies begin to communicate their needs to us. It would be much easier if they just came right out and told us they were hungry or tired but life is not always meant to be easy and by having to really listen to our infants we can become more connected, understand them and to get to know them more deeply. If our first reaction to every cry we hear is to make it stop either by distraction or feeding, we are missing valuable opportunities to listen to what our babies are telling us and thereby miss valuable chances for connection and creating a trusting bond between us.
So how can we learn a baby’s cry language? Well, there are a few systems such as Dunstan’s Baby Language which encourages us to listen for sounds embedded within the cry which indicates the need the baby is communicating. This system actually worked really well for us. We used it well before we were introduced to Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophies and immediately became much more confident in responding appropriately to our babies’ needs.
I remember one particular problem we were having with our first-born when she was about 4 months old. She would take 30 minute cap naps throughout the day which we soon realised was the time of one of her sleep cycles. She would wake after half an hour and we would retrieve her from her cot thinking she was done sleeping. Often she would be grizzly after this time and our first instincts were to feed her.
After learning about the Dunstan’s method I started listening to my baby’s grizzles instead of just trying to feed her after these cat naps. I quickly realised that she was not asking me to feed her but was telling me she was still tired. I therefore, decided to try placing her back in her cot where she promptly fell back asleep and slept for another 2 hours. It seemed she had been telling us this all along and the days of cat naps disappeared as we gave our daughter the opportunity to resettle after waking during her first sleep cycle. She subsequently slept for 2- 3 hours each nap.
Although the Dunstan method helped us significantly, I have spoken to many people who just could not make out the sounds in their babies cries that would give them the clues they were looking for. So what were they to do? Well as it turns out, the sounds we had been listening to so carefully in our infant’s cries petered out by about 9 months and well before she could communicate with words. We soon had to learn her language through patience, understanding and empathy.
Since discovering RIE parenting, I have learned that a crying child is not to be feared or prevented at all costs. It is healthy for babies to release their feelings in loving, supportive arms. If a baby cries, talk to them: “Are you hungry?”, “You are very upset. I’m here for you and I am going to help you if I can.” “It’s been a while since your last nap, it seems you are tired. Let’s take you to your room so you can have some sleep.” A baby may not understand the meaning of the words initially but they will detect the love and comfort in your tone and voice. If there seems to be no reason for the crying then perhaps they just need a good cry – don’t we all sometimes? Let them cry. Be there to comfort but don’t try to stifle it out with distraction or other artificial means like pacifiers. Let it run its course.
Now that my children are older their emotions can be more easily defined. In any given day my children might express hurt, anger, jealousy, disappointment or frustration and I welcome these feelings with the open arms they need. I allow my children to cry. I don’t mean in a cold-hearted, cruel way, But rather in a way that shows them I am listening and available to them to meet their needs when they are ready to open up to me. There are even times when I recognise an emotion in them that needs to be released and invite them to do so. “Wow! It sounds like you are REALLY angry and feel like shouting. It’s normal to feel this way when you’re angry. Let’s go to your room together and let some yells out”
When we show our children we are not afraid of their emotions, and they realise their emotions don’t rattle us or make us uncomfortable, we open the lines of communication that will see them able to come to us in the future where they might have bottled up and kept to themselves. I shudder at the thought that my children might be afraid to come to me to talk when they are older and I write about this in more detail here. I need them to know that my love for them is deeper than any action, inaction or feeling they do or don’t have. The foundations for this trusting relationship starts at infancy and grows over time.
Before I learned of the RIE philosophies, I was very uncomfortable (as most new mothers are) with hearing my babies cry. I remember clearly trying to soothe them by poking a pacifier in their mouths only to have them spit it back out. I would carefully force it back in only to have it repeatedly pushed back out by their little tongues. Ashamedly, I even remember holding the pacifier in, pleading with my babies to accept it and suck away peacefully even though they were clearly trying to tell me they didn’t want it. They were communicating with me during those early days through their cries and I was not listening. I was telling them to stop!
I try not to dwell on this now though as I realise our children really are the most forgiving creatures on the planet. They have given me so many more opportunities to gain their trust through open expression of emotions and communication. When my children are in the throws of a tantrum over the most seemingly innocuous event, I stop to listen to them. I don’t hurry to make it stop and I certainly would never threaten or punish to be done with it.
I know it’s not the event that is making them upset. My job is to look past the immediate cause and think about the bigger picture. Are they telling me they are tired, hungry, needing connection, or has there been a significant change in their lives, a new school, house, brother, sister or has Dad been away for a work trip. It could be anything. I know that once I have worked it out or acknowledged the hard time they are having, they will be able to move on, knowing they have been heard and understood.
Changing my perceptions of my children’s emotions has made me a much calmer parent. I recognise the underdeveloped part of the brain which my children possess and realise that any ‘unreasonable’ expression of emotion on their part is normal and healthy for their growth and emotional well-being. This is particularly so if I am there to listen and support them through it, which, thanks to RIE, I am!
You may also enjoy reading:
Acknowledging Feelings ~ Narelle Smith (Hands, Hearts and Minds)
5 Steps to Nurture Emotional Intelligence in Your Child ~ Dr Laura Markham (Aha Parenting)
I have a Daughter With Extreme Emotions ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, confident Kids)
The Emotional Life of the Toddler ~ Alicia F. Lieberman (Affiliate Link)
This post contains affiliate links
Nicely written. I like RIE parenting method, but the thing that confuses me the most is putting my baby to sleep. It is actually a cry it out method RIE suggests? My baby loved to suck on a breast and it wasn’t a matter of feeding even now ehen he’s 18 months old. The question is should a RIE parent offer a breast only to feed a baby?
Thank you, Alma. RIE does not advocate for letting a baby cry it out without support given by parents. I agree it is a shady area in that there are no real hard and fast rules except to listen to your baby, allow them space to express feelings openly and trust them to work through big feelings. So with sleeping, RIE recommends putting a baby down awake in their own cot/ bassinet and then supporting them to fall asleep on their own. So they may cry and object to being on their own, this is particularly common when they are tired or overtired. A parent might then move close to the baby and with a light soothing touch say ‘I hear you crying. It is hard to fall asleep on your own. I am listening to you and will help you if you need. I will wait by the door whilst you try again.’ Then the parent might leave for a short time, listening to the cry levels, if they escalate or seem distressed, they would go back to the baby and say, ‘You sound very upset. I will pick you up and give you a cuddle for a minute. Are you ready to be picked up?’ Pause and then pick them up. After a short while, they could be laid down again with some more acknowledging and empathetic words before repeating until the baby is able to fall asleep by themselves. It is about listening to your baby and knowing when to give them the physical comfort and when to trust that they can work it out for themselves.
As for breastfeeding, RIE would advocate for feeding for feeding and not for comfort. Magda believed that using a breast to stifle the cries of an infant was not allowing them the freedom of expression they have the right to. Often, stopping the crying this way is more about satisfying our need for peace than for the baby’s need.
Does that clear those points up for you?
Thank you. It mostly does, but perhaps I am affraid to apply that, I would worry that the baby was still hungry :). I have got only one child, it would be easier for me to listen as a second time mom, I’m pretty sure. Last night I said my baby that he has to sleep on his own, he cried for a while and then fell asleep. Sometimes it works but sometimes it gets really hard. Yes, it is much easier to calm that cry using a breast than finding a silent place to take a rest, especially when you’re postpartum.
I love this post! I took the RIE foundations course last June and I think a lot about how children have the right to all emotions. I really liked when you said “my job is to look past the immediate cause and think about the bigger picture.” It’s perfect! I work at a child care center and am really into having little phrases that help me to think about how I’m going to respond, respectfully, in a situation that could be really tricky. Thank you!
Thank you, Becky! I would love to have you working in my children’s child care centre! You sound wonderfully loving and respectful. Fancy moving to Australia? 😉
Haha thank you! That would be a big adventure! How did you learn about RIE?
I’d love some help. I’ve been following this site for a few months now. I have a 2 year old daughter, and when she gets upset I will ask her if she’s hungry, tired, mad, sad, etc. It seems that whenever I ask her questions about her feelings, it riles her up even more every time and she does not calm down until I stop talking, sometimes not even then. It’s like she doesn’t know why she is upset but she is VERY upset (thrashing, screaming, crying). I think she’s been having a hard time with transitions. A few days ago I asked if she wanted to sit with me on the rocking chair during one of these episodes and she said yes and calmed down very quickly cuddling with me on that chair. This morning she threw a fit over having to go to daycare and yelled out “sit in the rocking chair”.
First of all, is it normal for toddlers at this age to suddenly start having more emotional reactions to transitions? Second, I feel very uncomfortable not saying anything when she is screaming but it really doesn’t seem to help to follow the above advice. Anyone else in this situation? Am I distracting her by sitting in the rocking chair or is it just that all she really needs is some extra snuggling?
I’m confused, everyone else seems to be having so much success simply talking about feelings with their toddlers but it is not working for us.
Hi CJ, thank you for reaching out! Firstly, it is very normal for toddlers to start having more emotional reactions to transitions and in fact anything in life in general as they start developing cognition but still lack the emotional regulatory control of grown adults.
Secondly, it is also very normal for toddlers to escalate their emotions when you try to help. My youngest daughter does this to me often and in fact I am working on a post about how I am coping with this seeming rejection. Some children take more time to process their feelings but despite how angry they appear, still appreciate the knowledge that you remain unwavering in your support and love for them.
So the next time your daughter becomes upset in this way you might acknowledge the feelings just once initially. If she escalates simply say, “Wow! You are REALLY upset at the moment. (Pause) I will give you some space but stay right here for when you need me.” Then just stay close. I sometimes get about with my business eg I might grab some washing to fold and move into the same room as her and wait for her to calm before offering a hug. She may say no to a hug and that is ok. Give her more time and let her know she can have one whenever she feels like it. Tell her you know how hard it can be sometimes and that you love her no matter what but only do this once she has ridden that initial cortisol wave and is starting to come out the other side. For some children this can take an hour or more.
Your example with the rocking chair sounds to me that she is seeking connection time with you. It is definitely not distracting to offer to sit there with her whilst she expresses her feelings. It would only be distracting if you attempted to stop her expressing the emotion by sitting in the chair. You can even let her know that it is fine for her to cry/scream whilst there, showing her that these feelings (that are super scary for her) don’t ruffle you and don’t affect your ability to parent or show love. When she felt herself spiralling into another meltdown and sought the same rocking chair on her way to care, she probably remembers the connection and good feelings she felt sitting there with you and wanted to do it again. If the timing wasn’t right you could say something like. “You really want to snuggle with me in the rocking chair. I liked that too. Lets make a special time to do that again when we get home from daycare. We have to get into the car now.” She will probably express her displeasure at this and that is ok, acknowledge but hold the limit and then remember to sit there as promised when you get home.
It really sounds like she is just seeking connection and comfort as she traverses through the highs and lows of toddlerhood. Try not to take it personally, she is not rejecting you and talking through feelings is definitely not the cure all, it starts the connection process but there is so much more we can do as parents to create those strong connective bonds with our kids.
You are always very thoughtful and reflective in what you share, and although I think differently about babies crying I appreciate reading your take on it, thank you
Working with young children sometimes separating from their carers for the first time, I always seek to acknowledge their feelings than try and distract them. A thoughtful post Kate.
Crying and being able to express feelings is an incredibly powerful and important stage for toddlers thru to teenagers. I have been reading on emotional bullying in adults recently and it’s when these emotions are denied as children and/or teens that problems arise (mostly in men). So let your boys cry and express their fears – it’s part of being a whole person.
This is such an important message! So often we try and smooth everything out for our kids, or push them to quickly get over any set backs or hurts… that just can’t be healthy for anyone!
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