Written by Doctor G

A tearful 5 yo boy

I read the entry about the child who cries a lot because she is scared. My 5-year-old also cries a lot, usually once a day. But, most of his tears come when something isn’t going exactly as he would like. For example, his preschool teacher tells me that he might cry when children aren’t listening to his play ideas at preschool. Or, a few days ago, he cried because he thought we wouldn’t be having the pizza for dinner that I had mentioned we might have earlier in the day. His preschool teachers tell me that it helps him to simply walk away from a situation when he feels the tears coming on and play alone for a little while. And, we do that at home sometimes as well. But I worry what will happen when he starts kindergarten in a large urban public school in September, where situations will likely often not go his way and his teacher may not have the energy or ability to help him deal with his sensitivity. Can you offer any help?

Julia, in Pittsburgh, PA

A: Julia, you are already doing exactly what he needs. I am going to encourage you to just do a little more of it.

Your son is further along the path of managing his emotions than most 5 year old guys. When he feels that something is unjust, he gets frustrated. He has already internalized your lessons not to hit when he is angry and he is doing an admirable job of that. He has grasped the truth that kids who cry a lot do not get treated by their peers the way they want to be treated. So he has learned to walk away and give himself a chance to calm down. Wouldn’t it be great if all adults had learned these lessons?

As you worry about his experience next year, I want you to keep two things in mind. First, everything is a stage. He will be moved to tears less often as he gets older. Little babies can only cry when something doesn’t go their way. Adults rarely cry when things don’t go their way. He is on the path from one extreme to the other, and he is not likely to get stuck at this spot. Second, you have months to help him find a few other options to manage his frustration if walking away isn’t a good solution.

I would be careful using the word “sensitive.” It actually sounds to me like he is grappling with his intellectual maturity being a little ahead of his emotional maturity. Kids don’t grow all at once. Just like they may have a height growth spurt at a different time in the year than a weight gain spurt, he may have started to understand how he wants a situation to go but not yet be able to make it turn out that way.  Identifying him as sensitive may make him believe that he isn’t emotionally strong.  It is of course possible to be both (a lot of great guys are) but he may not grasp that at his age.

So give him some more tools. He obviously already has the skill to recognize a situation with his peers that is going badly and change his approach. And he has the motivation to behave differently some of the time. Here are a few suggestions for the times when walking away isn’t a good solution.

He can practice turning to a different activity, like drawing or reading or building something.

He can stop the argument long enough to find three blue (or red, or striped) objects near him. Sometimes the shift in inner focus will be plenty long enough to stop the tears he doesn’t want to shed right then.
He can decide when he will tell you about what is happening to him, knowing that home is a safe place to express any emotion he doesn’t want to express right now.

It is not so healthy for boys when we buy into the idea that they shouldn’t cry. However, you and your son are right when you notice that he will have negative social consequences if the tears fall too easily or too often. So help him feel good about having strong emotions. At the same time, give him tools to choose when he expresses them.

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1 thought on “A tearful 5 yo boy”

  1. Thanks, Dr. Gilboa, for all these wise words! I appreciate the reminder to help my son think about strategies for dealing with his tears rather than tag with him a label like ‘sensitive’. I know there’s lots of complex stuff going on in his head when he cries, and I want him to know that I think those strong emotions are good at the same time that he has to work on how to deal with them. I’ll let you know in a couple months how things are going. Thanks again for your time!

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