Why does my child cry for no reason?

close up of baby crying

Children cry a lot. At all ages. Definitely more when they are younger, but the tears don’t stop for years.

There are many reasons why kids cry, and sometimes, it might seem to a parent or caregiver that there is no reason at all. This is especially true of infants, who take up screaming around a certain time of day (sundowning), even though they are well fed, have a dry diaper, have had all their naps, and life should be all good.

I’m not a doctor, but as a parent of three children, I think that it is safe to say that when children cry, there is always a reason.

toddler playing with toys in a playroom

But if it seems like there isn’t one, it is because us, as adults, can’t see or understand the reason.

And the child, depending upon the age, cannot express the reason, or may not even understand it herself.

What I see from my experience as a parent is that we adults often miss the inputs that result in the crying.

I also know from experience that emotions can bubble up and out long after the inciting event, sometimes even days or weeks.

For example, weeks after our family dog died, my son began to cry a lot. At first, he couldn’t explain why it was happening, but over time he mentioned something about the loss of our dog, and I knew then what was causing the tears.

Children take a long time to learn how to process emotions, so their processing of happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, confusions can turn into crying, completely unrelated to the time or event that caused the feeling. Yes, that even includes happiness and excitement.

With babies, adults forget that they are very sensitive creatures. We see that they need food, diapers, and sleep. We see that they jump at loud noises, and know when they are with their parents/or not.

We don’t always realize how stimulating the environment is. Sometimes, babies will start to cry for no reason, when in fact, they are crying because they are so so tired, as their little brains and bodies have been working overtime to take in the sights, sounds, and inputs of the surroundings.

The same is actually true for older babies, toddlers, and children (and adults). We can all get over stimulated, and this often results in tears for a child that don’t seem to be related to anything at all!

So what do I do if my baby is crying for no reason?

With a baby, there is almost always a reason. We just might not know what it is.

In general, it is best to remain calm, and do all the normal things that we’d do to soothe the baby, after we do all the usual investigating to see if we can pin point the source of the crying.

man sitting on the ground reading a book to a small child on his lap

If the crying jag is longer than usual, or one that seems alarming (like the baby’s cry is high pitched, and combined with indicators of pain), you might want to call to nurse for some guidance.

What do I do if my child (older than an infant) is crying for no reason?

Again, as an experienced parent (who is still learning every day of course), I would first get it out of my head that there is “no reason.”

Of course there is a reason. And if I make the assumption that there is “no reason” then I am making a judgment call, an assumption, a determination, without even really knowing what’s going on.

Your child is crying for a reason. You might not know right that minute what the reason is, and you may never know.

This is going to happen a lot.

What I would do (and what I regularly do) if my child is crying and I can’t pin point the reason, is I make the assumption that there IS a reason.

If there is a reason for the crying, how do you respond? For me, I generally respond in a kind way, because that is the way I want my children to respond to others when they see someone experiencing big feelings. (Empathy, compassion)

Does this mean I give up on limits I previously set? Nope.

Does this mean that I let them get away with things? Nope.

I stand firm on the rules, regardless of crying.

I try to help them feel better, without giving them the okay to act disrespectfully or contrary to our house rules.

I am kind to them in their tears, and I try hard not to play down their emotions (You are okay, there’s no need to cry, why are you crying, you are fine, stop it).

A child’s tears are not convenient. They happen many times when we least want them to occur, such as in a restaurant, in church, at the dinner table, when we want them to be quiet.

small boy looking straight forward

This is generally because the child is aware of the extra stress of the event, even if it is one that is common place and happens all the time.

Kids have little to no ability to regulate their emotions.

The only way we can teach them to regulate their feelings is to let them have them, and provide them with tools to get through them.

Part of teaching kids to regulate their emotions is to change our mindset about tears, from an annoying event, to an opportunity to teach them about something, be it emotional regulation or compassion.

Sometimes we cause the tears.

We set our expectations for children really high. We want them to be quiet and calm in the grocery store. We want them to sit quietly in the high chair at a fancy restaurant. We want them to see a wall of toys at the local Target store and not ask for it or complain when they can’t have it.

These are unrealistic expectations for children.

We as parents set our kids up to fail all the time by putting them in situations they are not prepared for, do not have the skills to handle, and force them to act in a way that is contrary to their very nature.

Children want to run, jump, climb, talk, and scream.

Of course they are going to struggle when we don’t let them do those things.

I distinctly remember a video that was going around on Facebook, where a father dragged his toddler daughter out of a local Walmart and sat her on the hood of the car until she was ready to “act right” in the Walmart. Lots of people were commenting on the father’s impressive parenting skills….and I was like…..seriously? The dude was making his video, talking about her bad behavior, while she sat sniffling on the car. There were so many reasons why the child was struggling in the store, such as being:

  • a toddler
  • hungry
  • tired
  • overstimulated
  • under supervised (distracted parents shopping)
  • under prepared (parents didn’t tell her where they were going or that they wouldn’t be buying her toys at the store, or that she should behave a certain way)

I cringed while watching the video. As if lecturing a toddler while they were in a state of arousal (tears means the rational learning brain is probably turned off) was going to have any long term effect.

It made me sad for the little girl, who desperately needed help from her father to calm down, to get control, and to manage her strong feelings. But what she was getting was an aggressive, authoritarian lecture, with the goal of producing better behavior through guilt and shame.

mother reading a book to a child lying on the floor

What this parent should have done was realize that his daughter wasn’t prepared the handle the Walmart, and removed her from the store to have her meltdown, and be done with it. Or just waited to hit the Walmart at a time when he didn’t have to take his active, high energy daughter to the store with him.

Does this mean that I am cool with disrespect? Nope.

Does this mean I am cool with bad behavior? Nope.

I am just a proponent of having realistic expectations of a child based upon her age. And I take responsibility for crying/meltdowns that occur when I put burdens on my child that exceed her age.

There’s always a reason.

Children’s brains don’t work quite like ours do. We might not understand why they are crying, or their reasoning might make absolutely no sense to us whatsoever.

Just remember that as parents, we are the models for what we want them to be when they are big.

If we want them to be empathetic, compassionate, and kind, we have to model that.

If we treat them as if their feelings don’t matter, or that they shouldn’t be crying, then we are not modeling empathy or compassion. And we shouldn’t be surprised if our kids don’t act in a compassionate way when other kids cry or fall down.

If your child is crying and you don’t think there is a reason for it, just take it as a chance to show them love.

Again, this doesn’t mean giving in, or passively letting them run all over you.

It just means responding in a kind way, rather than in a dismissive way, or with the assumption that the child is doing something wrong by crying.

You can never love your children too much.

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