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For example, our 3-year-old son would cry when

  • his younger sister was standing when she was supposed to be sitting
  • a door was closed when it was supposed to be open
  • we had not put his socks on before he went to bed
  • his pram was left outside the house, when it was supposed to be inside
  • he noticed his pillow case is changed

We tried to explain to him that he didn't have to cry, but it didn't seem to work. How do we help him not to cry over these things? Is this something that will soon pass as he gets a bit older?

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reasonsmysoniscrying.com <- Hilarious compilation of why children are crying, submitted by parents. Kids cry. Sometimes for no reason at all. It's gonna happen. –  Doc Apr 19 at 7:48
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While I love that website and agree that it's the case that kids sometimes cry for no reason, I think the OP's question is more serious than that - specifically, that kids crying for things not being in order is not crying for no reason. –  Joe Apr 20 at 14:30
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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Yes, it is common for toddlers to cry when things are not in order. Why?

First off, at that age, kids like consistency because it offers a sense of security. Knowing things are always in their place means that other, more important things will also always be in their place - like mommy and daddy will always come home, food will always be on the table, etc. They cry when they think it should be one way and it isn't, because their sense of security is lessened.

Second, because they are constantly learning new things, it is easier on them if things they've already 'learned' are constant. Parenting Magazine has a good article on the subject of repetition, and things being in their place is a form of (long-term) repetition. When things are not constant, it stresses them out, as something they thought they'd learned proved to be false - something still a problem for adults often.

Third, in a related element, things being always the same is how they learn how things 'should' be - whether it is learning that mommy loves them, that "B" says "Buh", or that a table always has four chairs. It's in particular how they learn behavior and social protocols; mommy always does something, so they learn that is what they should do. Hence crying when, for example, sister doesn't sit down when she should - because they think that's the rule and don't understand why it isn't.

Fourth, toddlers haven't learned about gradients yet. Everything is black or white - you should do something or you shouldn't. The concept of "pick your battles" is alien to them. More, though, this means that even very minor things can be 'huge problems', which leads to crying.

Finally, toddlers like to have a sense of control over their environment. They're small, and mostly have to do what they're told, so they like to exert control over what they can. Some of the crying over things being out of place is trying to exert this control.

Our approach with our soon to be three year old son is that every time he has a 'problem' to discuss whether it is a 'big problem' or a 'little problem'. His little brother not doing something he should is a 'little problem', unless he's biting or hurting him, in which case it is a 'big problem'. Spilling his milk or even breaking a cup on accident is a 'little problem'. Running towards the street is a 'big problem'. Etc. Making it clear that things that truly threaten safety are big problems, and most other things are little problems, has helped him learn not to sweat small things - he still has to help clean up the milk, but he's not in trouble and there aren't serious consequences.

Other things, like using the proper bowls or sitting in the right spot, we largely deal with by asking him what he wants. It gives him a sense of control, and also avoids some of the complaints over things being out of place or incorrect, since he can tell us what the right rule is. Some of these rules are undoubtedly patterns that he noticed that we don't - so we let him figure it out and tell us when it doesn't make much real difference.

Otherwise, though, we just talk to him about what's bothering him and try to explain the right way to go about telling us something's out of place. Door should be closed? Okay, go close it. Mommy not doing something right? Ask her politely to do it the other way. Also, accept 'no' - which doesn't go terribly well still, but it's a (long) work in progress.

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You can try the following but I'm not sure how well it works for this kind of situation.

You acknowledge that the child is crying and that to them they have a valid reason for doing so.

You tell them to use words. You tell them that you cannot understand them when they are crying and that to help them you need to hear them. You ask them what the problem is, and why it is a problem.

Is it something that can be fixed? You either show them how to fix it themselves, or you say "thank you for using your words to tell me! Next time what do you think you will say?"; then try to get them to say it; then reply "of course I can, when you ask so nicely". Give them a bit of reassurance and talk about frustration and so on.

If it's something that can't be fixed you still acknowledge the emotion and the want, but you say calmly and firmly that it can't happen and then distract the child. (Indon't find this particularly effective, but it's what's been recommended to me).

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This is indeed what I have tried to do. –  adipro Apr 19 at 13:46
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Toddlers cry for the strangest of reasons. My favorite of many stories I heard is "He cried because he wasn't allowed to lick the dog." So I wouldn't take this too serious for now.

His crying might either be just random, or it might be an indication that you are enforcing rules to strictly (can't tell from your question). If you think that might be the case, you can ease the rules a bit or even allow him to do something very chaotic (jump through the dirt, paint something, throw around food), while you show him that this isn't the end of the world but just fun. Of course don't do this more than a few times, you just want to loosen the belt not remove all the work you've put into getting him to behave. ;)

If his behavior doesn't change within a few month or gets even worse, you might want to check with a doctor. There are some rare illnesses that cause a neurotic behavior. It is difficult to detect and often curable at this age, so better check with a professional.

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I can understand if children cry when they are not allowed to do something, but this is not what I am asking about, as I have indicated from my examples. We do allow the activities you suggested. –  adipro Apr 19 at 6:07
    
What you say and how you express it might be misunderstood by your child. At his age emotions and surroundings define the message much stronger than the words you use. So maybe you told him, but he didn't get it, that's why I suggested to do something chaotic together with him. –  TwoThe Apr 19 at 11:50
    
I understand what you mean, but in the cases I have indicated above, I did not even say anything. He cried after seeing, or realising, that something was not proper. –  adipro Apr 19 at 13:50
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As a young infant, my daughter tried to throw a kind of tantrum over some little thing in a restaurant. There was nothing that could be done to make it better. I calmly picked her up and took her out to sit by ourselves in the car while my wife finished her meal. My daughter was getting old enough to understand simple conversation, so I explained that we couldn't be messing with the quiet that others were wanting while eating. I told her it was okay to cry all she wanted, but it would be done privately. We stayed until 'mom' finished, and we all went home.

That was the last and only time we had to deal with such a situation in public. I didn't have a great time stuck in the car with a crying, frustrated little girl; but I knew it needed doing.

At home, the rule was that crying for no good reason was allowed; but it had to be done in the child's personal room. Not out in the common, shared areas. It's a rule of life to have consideration for others. Tantrums happened from time to time; but they seldom lasted long, and they completely stopped after only a few.

Crying can be most common as a way to determine if desired results can be achieved or not. The more often things go well, the more often it'll be used. We learn to do what works. "When I cry, things go my way."

An unfortunate aspect is that parents must respond to cries of any kind from an infant. However, parents can also learn. Many cries are from true discomfort and the discomfort should be addressed. Diaper trouble? Fix it. Significant hunger/thirst? Feed the infant. Infant startled and run over by the family dog that was playing and running around the front room? Check the infant for harm fairly quickly.

But if there is no real need for extended comforting and attention, do not continually extend the attention time unnecessarily. Infants will fall over, they'll bump their heads and feel some pains. They'll be startled and momentarily scared by any number of things. Well, sorry it happened, kid; but all of life will be that way. Learn to deal with the little things.

Time for bonding and affection should be set aside often. Human contact and interaction is needed, especially between parent and child. Make sure that such times are not neglected.

But believe it or not and like it or not, one of your parental obligations is to teach your offspring to deal with the little stuff on their own. It can be done in small doses for infants so that larger instances are handled by them as children. Later as adults, it'll be automatic and a valuable skill.

It can be one of the hardest things for a parent to do to ignore their infant or toddler when it's crying. But you should learn to tell when it's a true need or when it's only an attempt to manipulate. Always check for anything that must be handled so the infant learns how reliable you are for those times when actually needed, and handle it. But walk away when it's determined that it's just some minor frustration that you're merely expected to fix. If a Fisher-Price toy has a square peg that will not fit through the round hole, you can't fix it; and you need to teach that it's not going to be fixed.

Go back to finish mowing the lawn. Finish vacuuming the floor. Finish doing the laundry or preparing a meal or whatever actually requires your presence. Leave the infant to cry until it learns that it's not effective as a way simply to sooth any little frustration. Teaching a degree of self-reliance and ability to deal with minor obstacles alone is just as much of a responsibility and obligation as all other elements of parenting.

Accept the responsibility, and it'll be a little easier to withstand the crying.

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I think the crying is not so much about things not being just-so, as it is about the toddler not having control over the world. Being able to control things is a new feature of a toddler's life, and, as with all skills just acquired, toddlers (and babies) tend to practice them to degrees that are unusual for us.

My son who just turned three is the same. In fact, there is a whole website dedicated to silly reasons kids cry! It's called reasons my son is crying. There you can find a whole range of unreasonable reasons that make toddlers miserable - but it will make you feel better! :) Some guy started putting up photos of his crying toddler and listing reasons why he's crying (my favorite: "We helped him put on the boots that he loves"), and it became a hit, with parents sending their own pictures and listing the reasons their own toddlers cry.

My husband and I have different approaches to this controlling behavior. My husband thinks the requests of our son are silly, and should be treated as silly, i.e. not indulged. I think the requests are silly, and as such, are often unimportant enough (to me) to be indulged. But since I play along with these silly rules our kid imposes, I can also use them to my advantage. He wants three of everything? [Because he's three years old.] Then he should also take three spoonfuls of the veggies he was planning to ignore. He really really wants me to wear my blue shoes? Then I'll threaten to wear the red ones (the horror!) if he's too distracted to get ready when it's time to go out. You get the idea.

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