Crying: emotional response or behavioral tool? You decide


As parents, we are told to ignore a lot. There are certain things that are no-brainers, but then there are situations that present more difficult choices for parents to make. This is especially true when it seems there is an emotional component to the child’s behavior.

Crying is one of those behaviors.

Trying to figure out when crying is an emotional response vs. a behavioral tool (something your kid uses to get something or to avoid something) can be difficult. We all know our children learn their behaviors can be functional in many ways. It can get them access to things they need, it can get them escape from things they don’t want and it can also communicate a need for nurturing and attention.

This is all very healthy.

But, there are times when you do not want your child to use crying (or other behaviors that will not serve them well in the future) as a do-all tool. Kids crying at the drop of a hat when things don’t go their way. Immediately crying when another kid takes their new Hot Wheels car or doesn’t take turns correctly. We know what these people are like when they grow up and you don’t want your kid to be one.

Try to be aware of the times when your kid is possibly crying as a behavior tool rather than an emotional response to something. Are you teaching them that crying is a functional tool to get something they want? Are you teaching them crying is a way to get out of something they don’t want to do?

Here is a trick: do they stop crying immediately when you do something?

That is a sign the crying was most likely being used as a tool. When was the last time you were able to stop your true emotional crying at the drop of a hat?

True emotional crying takes some recovery time, does it not?

Teach them more functional ways to communicate and respond to when things don’t go their way.

Be compassionate, but be careful. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is make sure the crying (as a behavioral tool) does not work for them.

“Doing nothing” is often better than “doing something”

“I pull out my ammunition-my superior size, my position of authority-and yell or intimidate or I threaten or punish.  And I win.  I stand there, victorious, in the middle of the debris of a shattered relationship while my children are outwardly submissive and inwardly rebellious, suppressing feelings that will come out later in uglier ways” (Steven Covey,“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”).


Wow…read that again.  How often do you find yourself in this position?  

When we punish

I have mentioned this before: sometimes when we punish, we feel that it “worked” because it stopped the behavior in its tracks, affected the kid in some way (maybe he got upset, maybe she cried), and maybe resulted in an apology (“I’m sorry I kicked the dog, mommy,” “I’m sorry I slammed the door, daddy”).  Sometimes we feel bad, sometimes we actually apologize to our kids (as we should) when we react too impulsively and more based on our emotional state than the actual behavior that was exhibited.

With this, I have warned that the true sign of punishment “working” is the overall reduction of the behavior in the future AND the absence of any side effects.  The range of side effects of punishers are too many to list here, and, unfortunately, are often not realized until much later after the punishers have been used.   Be careful.


Specifically, for this conversation, I am talking mostly about when parents punish in some context of the child being “disrespectful,” “oppositional,” or “downright rude.”  It might be language, it might be interesting noises, or talking back to you.  Recently, our son realized that if you put a little more ummph into the word “NO,” that it takes on a new meaning.  This is the type of stuff I am talking about here.

I have to do something!

So many parents continue to inappropriately punish kids because the feel “something has to be done” or “I can’t just let him get away with that!” “She canNOT talk to me like that!”

Sad really.  What this communicates to me is,

“I have a feeling this is not the right thing to do, but I had to do something to let him know that was NOT OK.”  

Usually that “something” ranges from a harsh voice, a talk about “you cannot talk to me like that, I am your MOTHER” (usually accompanied by the old finger pointed towards their nose), removal of privileges or a swift one on the rear end.  But, we often know it isn’t the right thing to do.

Many times, doing “nothing” is the best “something”

There are many times when parents look at me like I have 3 eyes when I tell them, “don’t do a thing” when they ask, “what should I do when he does that?” My point is the conflict that follows usually does two things: reinforces the “disrespect” by piling a bunch of attention on it and creates more opportunities for the parent and child to continue to be “disrespectful” to each other.

Oh, yeah…there is a third thing:

Your kid will likely grow more argumentative and your relationship will suck.  I knew there was a third thing.

 Stop it…it takes 2 people to argue.  If you stop, the argument automatically stops.  


If your kid follows you when you are trying to walk away, you know your “doing nothing” is the right “something” to do.  You are taking away the attention and the conflict and your kid is trying to re-establish it.  Tell him you will talk when he has been calm for a while and move on.  Go read a book, watch Dr. Phil, check your Facebook.  You probably need to chill too.

“So, you just want me to take that?”

Nope, I want you to stop feeding the beast.  Doing nothing in these moments is actually doing something…not attending to the ridiculousness.

If this truly is a problem in your home, you will need to set up a way to respond to the behavior without responding to the kid.  I will explain that next time.  Until then, be mindful of the harm your “punishers” might be causing…  

…and catch up on some reading too: 

Putting the power on your side: a lesson in how to respond in advance to these behaviors.

Make up your mind about access to privileges: a lesson about access to privileges

This is your last warning!


WARNINGS are not a consequence for misbehavior…I’m warning you!

There are times when a simple warning or cautious reminder is appropriate as a response to a minor undesirable or even a moderate misbehavior:  

“Hey, remember you need to keep your hands to yourself or I will ask you to put your toys away.”

 ”I’m just reminding you if you throw your fork, you will not get your dessert”

In this way, warnings can be effective as reminders of consequences to follow continued misbehavior. 

However, warnings themselves are not consequences. 

The power of a warning comes from its association (i.e. experience your kid has) with the delivery of another specific consequence following the warning. Whether it is the loss of a toy, removal from a fun activity, or some other consequence you have already determined (hopefully), the effect of your warnings will be a direct result of how predictive the warning is of the consequence.  

What does that mean?  

It simply means if you want your warnings to be effective as a “hey, don’t do that again” tool following some misbehavior, your kid needs to have experience with the fact that the consequence is the next thing coming down the line.  The only way they will learn this is through experience.

Follow these guidelines:

1.  Warnings should occur one time before delivering the actual consequence. This helps with the connection. “Stop or I will say to stop again,” comes to mind.  We have talked before about the whole “I’m counting to 5” nonsense, so this should not be news. Therefore, if you make a warning, you better be ready to follow through.  If you are not, figure something else to do instead.

2.  Please, do not make your warnings in question form, “do you want me to take those trains away?” Stop it.  You sound ridiculous.  What do you expect them to say?

3.  All warnings should be stated in an unemotional tone of voice simply as a reminder of the consequence. 

4.  Finally, but maybe most importantly, warnings are more effective when paired with positive consequences that can be earned for changing the behavior to a positive one. For example,

“Remember, if you keep your hands to yourself, you can play with your Little Ms Martini Barbie, but if you hit your friends, we will have to put them away.” 

(I made the Barbie thing up, sorry).  

Use every chance you can to praise and bring attention to the behavior you want so you will not have to rely on the warning or negative consequence. That is much harder.

PLEASE do not warn your kid about a consequence you have no intention of delivering.  That is a veiled threat…and will create more misbehavior than it solves.  

Don’t say I never warned you.

No reaction might be the best reaction of all…


Treat one time events for what they are…one time events.  Reactive parenting often creates more opportunities to be reactive (i.e., more bad behavior).

I recently read a book, Anything You Want, by Derek Sivers (a guy who turned a little hobby of selling music online to a business generating $100 million in sales and ultimately a $22 million payday for Sivers).  He made a point about not punishing a group at large (customers) due to the bad behavior of one person or a weird one time event.  For emphasis, he mentioned two examples of when over-the-top changes were made as ridiculous reactions to a single event: his elementary school banned grape juice at the school after a single spill (and later banned orange juice for the same reason) and the need to take our shoes off at the airport due to the infamous “shoe bombing.”   These stories and his point made me think of how that relates to parents in so many ways (of course)…

Has there ever been a time when you “banned the grape juice” at your house.  It might not have been grape juice that spilled, but might have been something that your kid misused or even an activity that went wrong and you effectively “banned” it?  Have you taken your children to a special place and things just did not go right and you pledged “never go there again?”  Have you ever treated a child to something special and it blew up in your face and you vowed to avoid using that treat again because it “didn’t work?”  Have you ever gotten a note home from the teacher about a “new behavior” and excessively worried about it and made reactive changes because of it?

I believe this happens and it is important to realize it when it does so you can avoid the pitfalls associated with these types of reactive decisions.

The lesson here is a general one, but a thinker sort of lesson: avoid over-reacting to any one particular behavior or circumstance within which a behavior occurred. This includes when your kid hits another kid at school, bites the neighbor, throws a huge hissy-fit at the shoe store, or says something like, “I hate you,” “I hate school” or drops the F-bomb. 

These are all common things that kids do and there is rarely a need to over think these things and worry about making changes due to one of these things happening. 

I am not saying they need to be ignored, but I am saying there is generally nothing to worry about.  Be aware: let her teachers know you are concerned, let his coach know you have talked to him about kicking the ball instead of the other kids, let the neighbor know that her cat will be safe in the future, and then move on. Lock it away in your parent brain, be prepared the next time similar situations present themselves, talk to your kids about it at the times when the situations are likely to occur again (the closer to the event as possible, the better) and use it as a teaching experience.  No need to expend too much energy on these events or try to heavily punish them “so it will never happen again.”  

The good news about behavior is that there are very few things that are learned after one experience (taste aversion is one…I bet you can think of something you had a single bad experience with and have not touched since).  This should give you some relief when it comes to making the decision NOT to make a decision about something until later.  

Give yourself the the benefit of time and thought before making decisions to “take away the Nintendo” for a month or to “never go out for ice cream again!”  Give yourself the advantage of “sound body and mind” when making these decisions rather than the reactive and emotional decisions we can sometimes make. 

Sometimes you will find that making no decision is the best decision of them all.

Ignore the behavior…not the kid!


Sometimes the best thing you can do to get rid of or change a behavior is to simply ignore it.  However, this can be a fairly daunting task sometimes.  But, here is the good news:

You can ignore a behavior, but not ignore the kid and it still be an effective way to get rid of some junky behavior

Lets start here:

Lets say your little one is acting like a clown making weird noises you know she is clearly making to get your attention (if you don’t know…she probably is).  This has been going on too long, so you say, “NO! Stop those noises.  That is RUDE!” and she laughs…

WHOOPS: You just paid attention to the behavior and probably have made it more likely to happen again.

So next time comes around when she is making those noises and you think ignoring it will be the right thing to do.  You hang in there for a while, but it gets worse.  It gets louder.  Now she is actually dancing right in front of you as you try to pay attention to anything else but her.  You can’t take it anymore.  You give up and say “Sit DOWN and STOP IT!”  She either laughs and runs away or gets upset and whimpers as she sits.  Neither is what you really wanted.

Here is where many parents get in the black hole of ignoring and where a lot of parents feel like ignoring is not a powerful or effective tool.

Paying attention to the child, but ignoring the behavior?  Here is how…

Pay attention to her without paying attention to the behavior.  Don’t say anything about the behavior, act as if it was not occurring at all…ignore it, but don’t ignore her. Try a little misdirection:  Lets try this again:

DANCING QUEEN: (Dancing in front of you with fingers pulling her mouth to her ears while making noises that remind you of a siren at the fire station)

YOU: “I love your shoes, what color are those?” or “Did you see what dad put on the front porch?” or “Tell me what you did with your best friend yesterday?” or “Can you grab me your magazine right there by the TV?”

If she replies, keep talking.  Engage with her.  You are now teaching her you will pay attention to her, but not directly to the behavior.  You have the best of both worlds: you have attended to her so she will not escalate her craziness to get your attention and you have ignored a behavior you don’t really want her to use to access your attention.  Things are good.

If she does not reply, ask other questions, things she will be like to talk about.  This is not a demand, but a way to get her to engage with you so you can attend to her appropriate behavior rather than simply ignoring the junk

If she continues to chirp like a bird or sing the “beans are good for your heart” song, just let her know you want to talk to her about her new gymnastics routine when she is ready.  Then do what you can to get out of her visual area and continue ignoring.

Just remember…ignore the behavior, not the kid.

A glass of red wine in the third trimester


I have heard from some OBGYNs and several “mommies-to-be” that it is OK for women in the third trimester of pregnancy to have a glass of red wine.  I have no idea if there is anything medically relevant to this, but I think the expression was,

“if it helps you to unwind and relax, a glass of wine will not have any effects on the baby.” 

O.K. Im not an OBGYN, I am not recommending this, but here is why I think there is something similar to be said about parenting:

What helps you, helps them…usually, and within reason

We have talked before about this several times from several different directions.  We make terrible decisions when we are reacting emotionally and when we are stressed by work, family issues or a variety of other things that put us on the edge.  We, as parents, are quicker to react to things, use punitive strategies, take kids to timeout when we ourselves actually need the timeout.  We make things more than they are.  We make things harder on the kids, which makes them less likely to behave well, which continues the cycle.

Now, Im not recommending alcohol consumption as a parenting tool

What I am saying is, “what helps you, can often help them as well.” 

If you need a break, take it.  If you can switch off with your spouse, switch.  If you can wake up early and be one coffee in before waking the kids, move that alarm time back and have a talk with Mr. Coffee.  

Be preventive in the care of yourself so you are better prepared to care for others.

This works in the other direction as well.  What is good for them will often be good for you.  Present situations when they are most likely to behave successfully, then you can back off and recharge.  If the kids are getting really rowdy in the house, take them outside.  If the little one is getting into the Christmas tree and the older one is, one by one, taking the ornaments and hiding them throughout the house, play a game with them.  If the playroom is getting destroyed, go in with them and instead of saying “CLEAN UP,” simply say, “where does this go?” as you hold up Mr Potatohead’s shoes. 

If you need to remove one of the kids to another area of the home, don’t drag them; lift them up and playfully carry them around like an airplane.  Make moving to another area fun: take GIANT steps, baby steps, hop, jump, skip.  Before you know it, you are in the other room and you didn’t have to threaten or drag them away from the fun.  You just created NEW fun.

Think of yourself and where you are emotionally and ask yourself if you need a re-charge or a pause button…don’t make your kids pay for it or their behavior will give you more to be frustrated about.




Your kid is in a fit…you have had enough, but some behavior guy on the internet has told you to ignore those things, so you are.  Five minutes go by, 10 minutes go by and your blood pressure is making your ears hot to the touch.  That’s enough!  Here’s where it gets ugly.  You go over to your kid (hopefully yours, or the neighbors might need to supervise you a bit more) and in a raised voice yell, “STOP CRYING!  YOU HAVE BEEN CRYING FOR 15 MINUTES, THAT’S ENOUGH!!”  

How many times has that kid turned around to you, calmed immediately and in a delicate tone said,

“You know what mommy?  You are right.  I have cried enough.  I really appreciate that.” 

Rarely, if ever.  The reality is this usually occurs not because the tantrum has changed so much as your ability to continue ignoring has thinned.  We’ve all been there and done it.  BUT WAIT…

Sometimes we need to pay attention to and respond to the duration of the behavior.  For example, you might be OK with your 4 year old whining it out in her room for a while, but after 30 minutes of screaming goes by, you might need to address that.  BUT, make sure you do so in an unemotional and redirective manner.  For example,

“Hey, it’s been 30 minutes.  Lets get it together so we can do what we need to do then we can move on.  Let me know when you are ready to move on and we will.” 

Another strategy that seems to work is to take exaggerated breaths with them.  This works not just because of the Zen moment of “taking a deep breath,” but I think more because it gives you a way to respond to the child without talking…it kinda works if you are frustrated too.  If she calms…great.  If not, back away and try again in 5 minutes. 

Don’t try to solve the problem, PLEASE.  That is not what I’m talking about.

If you can’t do this unemotionally, don’t do it.  If you can, it teaches resiliency in that you are not solving the problem by attending to their junky behavior, but that you are willing to move on without getting stuck in the abyss of common childhood tantrums.