Little ones cry – lots. (Years of schooling give me these insights.) And with little or no language, they can’t say why, leaving you to speculate. Fortunately, much of the time, it’s the basics – thirst, hunger, fatigue, diaper dumps, clothing chafing (more common with girls).
Unfortunately, fixing the basics doesn’t always fix the distress or lower the decibel level. Then what? As Bliss’s upset rises, so can yours, sometimes to the point of shared tears. “What’s the matter? What should I do now? …How fast can my mother get here?”
A parent who predictably answers a child’s cries, be they physical or emotional, sends the soothing message: I’m here for you. And no doubt, a pattern of neglecting a child’s distress does risk emotional trouble. The key word is pattern, neglect that is consistent, creating an emotional distances that pervades the relationship.
Our grandmothers, when they were young mothers, called the puzzling upset “being fussy.” With little angst, they realized their limits and sometimes gave the child time to self-soothe. They weren’t tormented by doubts about letting nature help them out.
Young mothers today don’t have that peace. They’ve been warned: Crying conveys a need. The longer the cry, the deeper the need. Fail to meet that need, no matter how unclear it is, and the child will feel insecure, ignored even.
An expert on a radio program intones: “A parent must always and immediately respond to a baby or toddler’s crying, or she can stunt the child’s emotional growth. Well into adulthood the child may show blunted empathy for others, as she herself didn’t receive proper empathy when very young.”
Having tuned in to this program, I remember feeling a lot of empathy for the young parents listening, this despite that decades ago my own mother periodically let me cry myself to sleep, supposedly stunting my early capacity for empathy.
About age nine months, our daughter Hannah started to wail nonverbally that her crib was too confining, this at around three every morning. Some “child attachment” advocates would urge, “Go to Hannah. She obviously wants and needs you.” My wife and I sleepily did so – sort of. Taking turns getting Hannah (I negotiated for a turn every sixth night), we carried her to a playpen (gasp!) in the family room, thus muting her rage to a distant rumble. After a few weeks, Hannah was sleeping peacefully through the night. She must have decided she didn’t need us anymore – not at 3:00 A.M., anyway.
All of this is not intended to suggest that I recommend plopping your little one in bed – or as with Hannah, out of bed – whenever she’s distraught and you’re clueless as to why. How long you persevere in letting your little one cry is your call, and parents vary widely in their stamina, as do kids. I am advising, however, against being unnerved by the accusation that you are somehow a cold-hearted, unfeeling mom or dad if you don’t persist in trying to soothe your child until mental or physical exhaustion, whichever arrives first.
It’s worth repeating: To sow the seeds for future personality flaws, neglect almost always has to build upon itself. Typically it must be deliberate and indifferent. So rest easy. You needn’t agonize that had you just endured for seventeen more minutes, your child would have been pacified, secure in his place in the world. Besides, how many “seventeen more minutes” had you already tallied?
Advice Worth Ignoring: How Tuning Out the Experts Can Make You a Better Parent Pages 8-10
Copyright © 2016, Dr. Ray Guarendi