Let the Tears—and the Milk—Flow!

“It’s no use crying over spilt milk.”

This saying expresses an important life lesson: In order to move forward, we should not dwell on the past.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll ask you to play along and look at this statement a bit more literally.

Like me, I’m sure many of you have seen little ones crying because they spilled their milk. In fact, my son recently dropped his cup on the floor and the tears began to flow. I immediately tried to soothe the little guy while wiping up the mess. I explained that it was not a big deal and said, “There’s no need to cry; it’s just spilled milk.”

Max, still crying, responded, “I can’t stop the tears.”

Well, this pulled right at my heart-strings and got me thinking: What message am I sending him about the “ok-ness” of expressing emotions by telling him not to cry?
I realized that when we try to comfort children by telling them not to cry, we inadvertently send the message that crying is not ok, which creates a negative association with the act of crying. This begins the conditioned response of bottling up and stuffing down emotions. Little Max clearly needed to cry, so I told him, “Let it out; cry as much as you need to.”

Spilled milk is no big deal to adults but lots of things run around in children’s little brains: My milk is gone! The loud noise was scary! Mom’s gonna be mad! With all these thoughts popping up, no wonder the tears start welling up. And perhaps the spilled milk triggered an emotional reaction to something totally unrelated, a quarrel at school or just a feeling of sadness. We’ve all had those days. Heck, on a daily basis, I get teary eyed over a commercial on TV or a sad song on the radio. It happens to all of us.

As a society, we look down upon crying; people feel embarrassment, ashamed and try to choke back the tears. Crying in public or on the job? Forget about it! That is considered unprofessional and totally inappropriate.

I recently read an article in Elle.com called “So What If I Can’t Cry?,” which offered a new perspective. Marisa Meltzer wrote about how she had not cried in years and in fact did not cry even when her bull-dog died when she was sixteen.

One of the important parts of her article offered an explanation about the biological motivator behind crying. She refers to William Frey II, a professor of pharmaceutics and a faculty member in neurology, oral biology and neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, whose study of crying led him to this conclusion: “People may feel better after crying because they’re removing chemicals that build up during emotional stress. So it’s the secretion and excretion of tears that are important.”

Wow! This sounds like a pretty positive and natural way to deal with feelings. So why do we fight one of our body’s natural ways of dealing this stress? Clearly, holding back the tears is not a healthy way to deal with emotions.

Another eye-opener from Meltzer’s article came from Ad Vingerhoets, a professor of medical and clinical psychology at Tilburg University, who found that countries that rate highest on levels of happiness feel the least amount of shame with regard to crying and actually cry the most.

This means that our feelings about crying and our frequency OF crying can actually affect our level of happiness. So if you want to experience more joy, let those tears flow!

As caregivers, parents and nurturers, this is useful information. We need to create space for kids to express their emotions in a way that is not only acceptable but effective, so that kids learn how connect, understand and move through their emotions in positive ways. No more hiding or stuffing down feelings, let’s send the message that emotions are OK and give children the tools they need to be emotionally intelligent, resilient human beings.

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Leanna Long

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