For adults, we are sometimes either uncomfortable with a child's crying or feel like crying is an indicator of something that needs to be fixed. In both cases, adults will try to stop a child's crying or even worse, make the child feel bad for crying. Both of these actions, though, do not help a child. So, what does help a child when he or she is crying?
1) Validate the child and their feelings. Use language like "I see that you are crying. If I can help you to feel better with a hug or something else, please let me know what I can do." If you think you know more specifically what is causing the crying, you can address that more specifically. "I see that you are upset because you wanted to run inside. I understand that can be frustrating when you don't get what you would like. But I can't let you run inside because that would not be safe."
2) After you have validated the child's feelings, give the child choices. Ask if the child might like to go to a very comfortable space to have crying time, or the child can cry beside you if that is preferred.
Things NOT to do with a crying child:
1) Tell them they are OK, or it is OK, or they are going to be OK. In their head, no matter how small you think the problem is, they are not OK and to tell them otherwise is condescending.
2) Shush them or tell them to stop crying. It is OK; however, to ask them to be quieter if they are disturbing others, or take them to a place where they are less of a distraction and to tell them why you are doing it.
3) Solve their problem for them. Children need the ability to be able to work through these big emotions in their own time and space. They also need coping mechanisms that are not adult dependent, so that they can learn how to do this in the future (an important executive function that needs development).
4) Allow the crying to sidetrack what truly needs to happen. For instance, if the child is crying because you needed to leave the house at a certain time to arrive somewhere, then you still MUST leave at that time, whether or not the child is crying. You can use words like, "I see that you are upset because we are leaving in a rush. Next time we will work on giving you more time to get ready, but for today we must leave now to arrive on time. Either you can walk to the car, or I will carry you." Then follow through, if the child isn't moving towards the car on their own, you must take them to the car.
5) Lose your temper or become frustrated with them. They need to feel safe in that you can handle their emotions, if not, who can they depend on? Stay very calm and matter-of-fact when dealing with the child.
After the child has stopped crying:
1) Ask the child what solutions they have to fix that problem in the future, what would better meet their needs/desires? If it is possible, work that into your life. If it is not possible, let them know that you appreciate their suggestion but it won't work because of X, Y, Z. Together brainstorm other possibilities and reach a compromise.
2) Evaluate your own responsibility for the situation. Did you let the child become overtired/overstimulated/hungry? Where you inconsiderate of the child's feelings/needs? If so, acknowledge that to the child and APOLOGIZE. This is how the child will learn to do the same, and it lets the child know that adults aren't perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Then, work on yourself to try and not repeat the situation again. Maybe that means giving time warnings before a transition ("We are going to need to leave in 10 minutes, please wrap up what you are doing."), earlier nap/bed times, or having a healthy snack available in the car on busy days.Maybe it means making days less busy if possible, or having some down time between errands.
Our goal needs to shift from not letting a child become upset ever, to guidance in teaching a child how to get through an upset. Building these executive functions are proving to be some of the most valuable tools we can give children.