It’s a fact. Kids cry. Often, it’s at the most inopportune times, too, like when you’re stuck on line in a crowded store. But if it seems like your kiddo cries at the drop of a hat, there might something more behind the howling that you may not be aware of. If you find that you ask yourself, “Why does my toddler cry for no reason?” there is a reason — a lot of them, actually.
So, let’s get something straight out of the way. Even if it seems like there isn’t one, your toddler is always crying for a reason. Always. It might be something silly, like they got a sticker they didn’t like at the pediatrician’s office, or their lollipop tastes weird, but when your kiddo cries, there’s usually some strong emotion attached to it. “In general, toddler crying is normal behavior and an expected part of their emotional development,” pediatrician Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP, tells Romper. “The brain is still developing, and all the neurons do not fully form until 18 to 24 months old.” Which means that, as frustrating as it might be, your crying kiddo is doing well developmentally— even if it’s driving you crazy.
But even if they’re shrieking and snot is running out of their nose, it’s important to always acknowledge your crying child. “First, you need to offer compassion to yourself, because parenting a child of any age with any psychological makeup is completely and utterly exhausting,” Dr. Stephanie Olarte, PhD, a licensed psychologist tells Romper. “Second, offer love to your crying toddler.” Dr. Olarte suggests that if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of your toddler’s meltdown, try to recall your favorite memory of them as a way to reconnect to your kiddo. That way, you can help them through their feelings (even the unpleasant ones) and help restore the calm.
Your Toddler Cries Because They’re In Pain
If it pains you to see your once-baby turn into a preschooler, you’re not the only one. In fact, growing up hurts your child — literally. “Growing pains aren’t just a myth; they affect up to 25% of children, generally between the ages of 3 and 12,” Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and best-selling author of Happiest Toddler on the Block tells Romper. “It can be confusing if your child complains of pain and the pattern is not consistent, since it’s common for the ache to move around.” So if your child is crying at night and complaining, you can take him to the pediatrician to find out if his cries are a result of growing pains.
Toddlers Cry Because Their Brain Needs A Break
Sometimes toddlers might start sniffling because of their brains. That’s right, crying can help make them feel better mentally. “Crying can often be a way for the brain to rebalance stress neurochemicals — specifically cortisol — that build up,” Donna M Volpitta, Ed.D., author of The Resilience Formula: Proactive Not Reactive Parenting, tells Romper. “This is actually a very productive process, as too much cortisol can be damaging.” After all, have you ever noticed that you feel better after a good cry? The same holds true for toddlers, too. Just give your little one time with their feelings, and offer up lots of hugs until they (and their brains) feel better.
Your Toddler Cries Because They’re Angry
Listen, no one likes being told what to do, especially a little person with big emotions. That’s why your toddler might get teary-eyed when they’re told to do something they don’t want to do, says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Your child might get upset that you set a limit that they don’t like, such as: ‘Time to turn off your video and take a bath.’” Explaining why something needs to be done can help, but most likely, your kiddo will need to learn that while it’s okay to be upset, they still have to follow directions.
Your Toddler Cries Because They’re Disappointed
Your kiddo wants chocolate chip cookies for breakfast and you serve up a big fat “No” instead. Toddlers face a whole lot of personal disappointment on the daily, so is it any wonder that they cry a lot? “As a parent, it is your job to help children know you understand it's difficult to wait for something — or not get it at all — and to give them tools to successfully navigate these feelings,” Kate Fraiser, M.Ed, a parenting coach tells Romper. “If you don't make the conscious effort to help your children process these hard situations now (rather than giving in to them to avoid their tears), everyone is going to suffer for it later.”
Your Toddler Cries Because They’re Sad
Maybe you and your partner parted ways. Or maybe your family is planning a cross-country move, and leaving friends and family behind. Your toddler might be feeling stressed out and sad, which can cause them to be more weepy than normal. “Since young children often don't have the ability to process information rationally, these overwhelming feelings can result in tears,” says Fraiser. When you see your child getting worked up, take a deep breath, move to your child’s eye level, and then set the limit, she says. “You can say something like, ‘I can see you are feeling really upset. I am going to keep you safe and help you through this hard time. You are not alone. You can handle this.’”
Your Toddler Cries Because They’re Hungry Or Tired (Or Both)
Hey, can you blame them? Are you at your best when you’re hangry? So imagine a little kid who can’t control when (or what) they eat. “Some kids get cranky when, just like adults, their blood sugar is low,” Dr. Walfish explains. “Perhaps, too much time went by between meals and they’re lacking a healthy and balanced protein intake.” Serve up a healthy snack until mealtime is ready, and be more mindful of how much time passes between meals.
Your Toddler Cries Because They’re Frustrated
“When things don’t go according to their expectations, toddlers express displeasure by crying,” says Dr. Alexander. “This crying may be amplified by hitting, biting, banging the head, and other typical tantrum behaviors.” Since toddlers don’t always have the ability to realize that they’re not acting appropriately, you should give them space so that they can allow their emotions to come out. “Giving them space and time to release their frustration is often the best way to end the episode quickly,” she says.
Your Toddler Cries Because They Can’t Express Themselves
Sure, it seems like your toddler is talking a mile a minute, but they’re still not able to fully express themselves. “Limited speech skills are a very common reason that toddlers resort to crying,” says Dr. Alexander. “Only one or two words are expected by the first birthday, and the total number of words remains less than seven until 18 months-old.” And while by the age of two, most toddlers can say two-word phrases, according to Dr. Alexander, the ability to communicate in full sentences and conversations does not develop until age three. It’s because of their limited verbal abilities that toddlers tend to cry a lot. What can you do to help your toddler? “A supportive hug and encouraging the use of words often help to diffuse these situations,” she says.
Your Toddler Cries Because They Get Attention
For the most part, toddlers are totally self-centered, and as such, they have big expectations. When they want the spotlight to shine on them, (and not, say, on a new baby sister or brother), you can expect them to cue the waterworks. “Crying is a way for toddlers to attract the attention of others,” says Dr. Alexander. “They often cannot understand that time with parents or caregivers must be shared with siblings and others.” To help your toddler with the transition, you can offer pile on the praise for good behavior so that they learn that crying won’t get them the attention that they want.
Your Toddler Cries Because There’s A Bigger Problem They Need Help With
Of course, a crying episode might be more than something like not getting to stay up late and watch Bluey. “If they occur after a fall or injury, it may be a sign of a serious problem that warrants medical attention,” says Dr. Alexander. “And if speech skills have not progressed as expected, excessive crying may signify speech delay, a hearing problem, or autism.” When to seek help: “When crying impairs the ability to make friends or do well in preschool, it may indicate a more serious behavior problem,” says Dr. Alexander. In that case, your healthcare provider or a psychologist can help sort it all out.
Even though it can be exasperating, crying is just a sign that your child is developing as they should be. And as frustrating as it can be to tackle a tantrum, do your best to help your little one, and hopefully, the tears will soon end — for both of you.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP, pediatrician
Dr. Stephanie Olarte, PhD, a licensed psychologist
Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and best-selling author of Happiest Toddler on the Block
Donna M Volpitta, Ed.D., author of The Resilience Formula: Proactive Not Reactive Parenting
Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent
Kate Fraiser, M.Ed, a parenting coach