Toddler Crying: What Causes It, and How to Deal

A little girl cries
(Image credit: Toddler crying photo via Shutterstock)

A dad who has been chronicling online the myriad reasons for his young son's crying has struck a chord with parents everywhere.

In a Tumblr blog called "Reasons My Son Is Crying," dad Greg Pembroke shares photos of his son Charlie with captions that explain what set off a crying stint, such as "I wouldn't let him eat mud," and "He asked me to put butter on his rice. I put butter on his rice."

While the reasons for a toddler's tears may sometimes seem to be known only to him, experts say there are three basic motivations for the behavior, and that research has suggested some ways of dealing with the crying episodes.

Crying jags are usually triggered when a tot craves attention, wants an activity or tangible item, or would like to escape a demand, said Michael Potegal, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Attention-seeking, as the term suggests, can begin when a child is playing happily, the parent's attention is diverted and the child starts acting up to regain the parent’s attention.

"What you do about that is literally nothing," Potegal said. Instead, he recommended parents engage in "planned ignoring," or turning their backs on the child (as long as he or she is safe). Parents should not respond to the child.

A child's desires can range from wanting new toys or, despite their young age, aspiring to perform activities they won't be allowed to do for many years, such as driving a car.

As with attention-seeking, Potegal said parents should not give in to the demand, nor should they engage at length with the child over the issue.

"Getting into it teaches the kid the way to get your attention is to have a big fuss," he said. "If you ignore that outburst, they're less likely to do it."

On the other hand, a tantrum that is thrown in order to escape a demand — such as to go to bed or put a toy away — requires an immediate response.

This type of crying is aimed at delaying having to do what they were told, even if they don't think that consciously, Potegal said.

Children may not enjoy having crying fits, but at least it delays them from having to do something they do not want to do. "They're not in the war room plotting this out, but that's the way it works," Potegal said.

Therefore, ignoring this type of tantrum is the wrong step to take. Instead, the parent needs to find a way to get the toddler to comply, which may require some advanced planning.

Potegal suggested explaining to the child beforehand (it's futile when a tantrum is already happening) that if he fusses about doing something he has been asked to do, the parent will go through a routine: count to three, put his or her hands on top of the child’s hands and help the child do what was requested.

"[Children] hate it, because it interferes with their autonomy," he said, adding that parents should not be rough in doing this.

Potegal said normally developing toddlers should learn quickly and will not like having their hands controlled.

Ultimately, Potegal said, handling crying and tantrums is about consistency.

"If you can't win, don't fight," he said. "If you fight and lose, you're teaching the kid tantrums pay off."

Potegal compared the situation to a slot machine, which rarely pays out but keeps people playing because of the occasional payout.

"If the kid's tantrum pays off one time out of 10, it's going to keep happening," he said.

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Joe Brownstein
Joe Brownstein is a contributing writer to Live Science, where he covers medicine, biology and technology topics. He has a Master of Science and Medical Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and natural sciences from Johns Hopkins University.