Toddler Cries All the Time

My little princess has always been a great baby/toddler, but highly sensitive and emotional. In the past few months, she's been crying at just about everything. She cries if you say hello to cheerfully when she wakes up, she cries when she sees her grandparents and cousins, she cries if someone gets too close, she cries if you give her what she wants and if you don't. She always wants me and will say "I just want to hug you". I, of course, always give her hugs and try not to let her emotionality get to me, but her constant tears can be frustrating, especially when I'm trying to do something fun that I think she would enjoy.

For example, she loves dressing up like a princess, so I took her to a princess tea party with a friend and her daughter. We were the only two families there, so it wasn't like she was in a crowded situation. She cried at everything and wouldn't participate in anything.

She also says "I just want to go to bed" and will lie in bed with her binky FOREVER if she's "upset" about something. Is she depressed?? I recently had another child, so I know that adds some stress to her life, but she was like this long before he arrived.

She's also very picky and won't eat anything other than yogurt and peanut butter. I know that eating is a control thing, so I don't fight her and I simply don't offer unhealthy food. But, she won't feed herself the yogurt, I have to feed it to her. I recently tried to get her to feed herself and that became a huge issue. Now she says that yogurt makes her sad!! I don't want to be insensitive, how can I help her to overcome all these tears? Let me add that she didn't EVER cry as a baby... is this just her playing catch up?

Most of us have such a hard time when our little ones are unhappy. When they cry in response to so many things, it breaks our hearts -- and frustrates us! It's also puzzling. Why, when you love her so much, is she so unhappy?

Tears in response to transitions and new things -- which means most of what a toddler experiences, and seems to be what you are describing -- signal that the child feels overwhelmed and unable to rise to the occasion. That's a concern, not only because your daughter is unhappy, but because toddlers have so many developmental tasks to tackle. If they don't feel up to it, and just retire to their beds, that gets in the way of their development and sets up a pattern of hiding from life.

Your daughter may be expressing fear -- as in fear of new situations. In that case, she needs help with her fear (more on that below. ) She may be expressing grief and mourning, as the "retiring to bed" suggests, and that would be a natural response to having a new sibling. In that case, she needs help with her grief and to have your relationship with her strengthened. (More on that below.)

Or she may just be overwhelmed by life, so she cries at everything. That would suggest that maybe she has a physical issue that makes her feel bad physically, so that she just can't handle anything. We all know that when we have a physical issue, life becomes overwhelming. Has she had a complete physical? Is there any suggestion of a physical allergy? I know this may sound crazy, but sometimes kids have food allergies/responses that cause irritability, low frustration tolerance, over-reactions to stimuli, depressive symptoms, and frequent crying. As a psychologist, I always think first of emotions, but the body as well as the mind can be a source of emotion, and I have seen "miracle cures" in some children who have tried the Feingold diet. If you haven't heard of it, please check it out. Since all she is eating is yogurt and peanut butter, this probably is not applicable, but you do want to be sure that your peanut butter doesn't have additives (as conventional brands do) and that she doesn't have a peanut allergy. The bacteria in our guts do influence mood. I'm no expert, but since probiotics are thought to be a positive influence on mood, I would assume that high quality organic yogurt would be good, even in large quantities. On the other hand, even yogurt may be able to trigger dairy allergies. As I say, I'm no expert, but this does seem important for you to rule out.

You say that you've welcomed a new baby into your family. I've never heard of a two year old who didn't have a lot of big, tangled up feelings in response to the arrival of a new sibling, so that would be a good explanation for her constant tears. However, you say that she begin this long before her sibling was born. On the other hand, you add that she never cried as a baby, although she's always been sensitive and emotionally expressive. So something changed -- either in her, or in her life -- that started this behavior. Can you remember when it started? If you can, we might have a clue that would be very helpful.

Since she's only two and a half, and has a new sibling, then you have been either pregnant or tending a new baby for most of the last year of her life, and I'm assuming this behavior began sometime during that time. Toddlers this age can be a handful, especially for a pregnant mom. You don't mention discipline, but if you have been using any guidance other than empathic limits, this could be a contributing factor for a sensitive toddler. (For more info on appropriate discipline and empathic limits.) You also don't mention any health issues or family stress, but of course little ones pick up on our emotions and express them.

But regardless of what's causing your daughter's unhappiness, let's talk about how you can help her with it. Let's start with the premise that all humans have emotions in response to our perceptions, and that once we have the opportunity to "feel" those feelings, the emotions dissipate and vanish. We all need a "witness" at times to help us explore big feelings. As we get older, we can even change our perceptions and thus change our emotions ("Maybe my parents choosing to have another baby doesn't mean they were replacing me because I wasn't good enough, after all!") but little ones don't have the reflective capacity for that yet.

So little ones have lots of big emotions that overwhelm them. They store them up until they have a safe place to let them out, which usually means the arms of a loving parent. Nature has provided toddlers, who are no longer "in arms" as much, with a fail-safe way to express these emotions -- tantrums. But when the toddler either doesn't feel safe (for instance, if she is at school), or doesn't have an accepting witness (maybe the parent is not comfortable with her anger, or sadness, or fear), or is very sensitive (and thus has even more big feelings than most toddlers), sometimes she stuffs those feelings instead of expressing them. Unfortunately, feelings that are stuffed don't just go away. They force their way to the surface in the form of tears or angry behavior.

So we can assume that your daughter has a reservoir of big feelings stored up. These emotions pressure her and keep her from engaging with life. They spill out in the form of tears whenever she feels overwhelmed. She needs your help to brave those feelings and cry her way through them. How do you do that?

At the next opportunity when your daughter begins to cry and you have another adult to whom you can hand the baby, welcome her tears. See this as an opportunity for her to unload that heavy baggage that's weighing her down. Hold her and say "Oh, Sweetie, I see your big tears, you have such big feelings....That's ok...Everybody needs to cry sometimes....I am right here....I will keep you safe....I will hold you....You can cry as much as you want....You are doing such a good job with your big feelings...."

Hopefully, your daughter will respond by crying even harder. Don't let that scare you. Breathe, breathe, remind yourself that you are being a witness for your little girl and you don't have to solve a thing. Don't take her tears personally. You are her partner in the hard work she is doing; let her take the lead. It's fine to say "I see how sad you are" but don't analyze her ("Maybe you are sad about the new baby") because that will make her feel less safe. However, don't be surprised if she begins making comments after this and showing you the source of her feelings. Just empathize with such comments, showing she is allowed to have those feelings and you understand them (even if you don't agree with her.)

If what your daughter has been "stuffing" is fear, then when she cries her fear will come up. When little ones express fear, they often flail around, tremble, sweat, and cry without tears. They often want to push against us. So if your daughter begins such behavior, welcome it and keep your hand on her if possible to help her feel your solid presence. Remind her in your soothing voice that you are there and will keep her safe. You may have to go through several sessions like this (and they can last for half and hour or an hour), but after she gets some of her fear out, you will find her a changed girl, much more able to greet life with courage.

I want to add that play is a great way of helping children with feelings. Anything that helps your daughter giggle is releasing the same anxieties that she otherwise releases with tears. So play physical games with her that make her laugh and make her feel powerful -- have pillow fights that she wins, chase her and fall down, cling to her so that she gets to be the powerful one and move away from you. There are many more ideas on this website at http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/connection/play-child-emotional-intelligence

I would recommend that you set aside half an hour a day for Special Time with your daughter. Call it by her name -- the most special name there is. Tell her that it's special time and you want to play a special game with her, and then initiate a physical game designed to strengthen your connection with her, and/or increase her confidence. You will find that as the days go by, her trust in you will increase. That means she'll be more ready for some big cries to let out those big feelings. She may well get triggered and begin to cry in protest as you wrap up a rough-housing game during Special Time, so always give yourself some extra time at the end of it for an emotional melt-down.

You mention that yogurt now makes her sad because you refused to feed it to her. When there is a new baby in the family, toddlers often revert to wanting to be babied and ask to be fed. There is no reason to refuse her. You are not "spoiling" her, but meeting a legitimate need. If you feel that she has become rigid about this and never feeds herself, let her play out her big feelings about who gets their need for nurturance met around your house by playing games around it, for instance, by making her feed you. Keep it VERY light and silly. You are going for giggles, not tears. After some play like this, she may insist on feeding herself!

I would add that most of us as parents have issues about our child's dependency needs. We got the message as children ourselves to stuff those needs, and we unconsciously give that message to our own children. I would suggest that you find someone you trust to whom you can express all your feelings about your daughter and this issue. Your husband, your sister, your best friend... someone who will not judge and will not solve. You just need a place to vent your own feelings with a trusted witness. After this, you will find yourself more able to respond with compassion to your daughter's tears, which will help her not to get reactively locked into them.

You will also find yourself more creative in handling her reactions. For instance, you mention that she cries when she greets her grandparents and cousins. Not only can you prep her, but you can make a game of the greeting that helps her feel confident in the situation, so she does greet them but on her own terms. Here is a wonderful article by Patty Wiplfer of Hand in Hand Parenting that describes ideas for this situation:

Can I Have a Hug? Helping Children with Hello and Goodbye

I realize this all sounds like a lot of work. I don't know why your daughter would have stored up all these feelings, but I do know that it is not a natural state for a two year old. For us as parents to give our children the support to work though something like this, we need support ourselves. That means trusted confidants with whom we can process our own emotions. I also want to make sure you know about my daily inspiration newsletters, designed to support parents in the hard work of parenting. They're available as a public service at no charge; you can get them here:

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With your love and acceptance, you will see your daughter begin to move out of this phase, and become braver about life. Best of luck, and let me know how it goes! -- Dr. Laura

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