Q&A: Too much crying from an almost-4-year-old?

Caro writes:

"Ihave a question about crying. My daughter (4 in May) is a sensitive and really expressive kid. My concern is that her reactions to things like fingernail cutting, hair brushing, and very minor bumps and scrapes, as well as small non-physical disappointments, are often over the top. She cries and cries and cries, and loudly. Although she sounds quite convincingly traumatized, my sense is that this is somewhat under her control—if something interesting happens to distract her, she turns it off like a faucet and then (often) turns it right back on again when the interruption is over. For the hair brushing and nail clipping, I just do it as gently as I can while she screams. For the bumps (I’m talking about falling and hitting her knee, but not even a scrape) and disappointments, I give her some initial sympathy and snuggles, but she wants to scream and cry for ten minutes, and I mean loudly, as though she’s broken her leg, and I feel manipulated, and my ears hurt.

Lately I’ve been telling her that I’ll hug and snuggle her as much as she needs, but I can’t do it while she’s yelling in my ear, and if she wants to keep crying I leave her on the couch to calm herself down until she’s ready to ask for a hug. And more and more often I’ve been saying, “It’s ok that you feel sad/mad about x, and I want to hear you talk about it, but it isn’t ok to scream and cry about it for this long. It hurts my ears/is disrespectful to all the other people in the grocery store/lockerroom/post office/etc.”

“It’s ok to cry” is supposed to be some kind of truism, though, right? I hate the idea of telling her it’s sometimes not ok, because I don’t know that she can really grasp that the emotion is ok but that way of expressing it isn’t. And I know that what seems like a small disappointment or hurt to a grown up can seem huge to a child. In public places I feel pretty justified in kindly asking her to can it; I’m teaching her about appropriate public behavior and respect for others. But at home it’s mainly for my own convenience and emotional comfort that I’m asking her to keep the tears in, and that seems sort of wrong. And yet I’m fed up with hearing the wailing go on and on.

What are your thoughts on this?"

My thoughts are that this sounds *exactly* like my younger son, who will also be 4 in May.

I think that this crocodile tears stage is part of the horrible, very bad, no good 3 1/2-year-old stage. I wonder if kids this age just don't know how to deal with their emotions, but the crying kind of gets them into a physical rhythm that's simultaneously soothing and escalating. So they start crying to make themselves feel better, but then they actually get into a loop and have a hard time stopping.

Whatever it is, it's super-annoying. I told my son the other day that if he wanted to cry he could do it in his bedroom, but not in the living room with his brother and me because it was hurting our ears. It's just maddening, especially when you know it's not anything worth *that* much angst. No matter how comfortable and easy you are with helping your child get out his or her emotions, at a certain point it just becomes counter-productive, and 3 1/2 seems to be that age. Crying is good, true, but not if it's just this kind of habitual "I don't know any other way to process it so I'm going to kind of drone on wanly" kind of thing.

Things I've done with some success are: only allow crying in another room (he can still cry if he wants, but not where the rest of us are), distract him by asking questions about future plans (because if he really wants to tell me about being a cat named Owen he'll stop crying and tell me about it), or pretending to cry crocodile tears myself (which makes him mad at me so he stops crying and moves on to the next thing). I'm not sure that last one is an optimal parenting technique, but it doesn't seem to be hurting him, and it sometimes makes him laugh.

Is anyone else going through this? How did you strike the balance between being supportive when something was actually wrong and discouraging crying just to be annoying? Who wants to invest some seed money in my Preschooler Boarding School concept? Franchises available for purchase across the globe...

(Oh, and just because I forgot to say it: This too shall pass.)